This wasn’t the game anybody was expecting.
The pundits predicted an entertaining and technical matchup between New York City FC and CF Montréal, two free-flowing teams that like to hold onto the ball and create chances. There would be none of the negative soccer we saw in Philadelphia Union’s ugly 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati, and none of the chaos of LAFC’s stoppage-time 3-2 win over LA Galaxy.
Instead, we saw a complete rewriting of New York City’s tactics early in the game. An injury to Maxime Chanot made NYCFC to abandon the back three system that had carried them to five straight wins, which in turn forced the players to undergo a Transformer-like change on the field and give up the possession-based football that's in the club’s DNA to become a counter-attacking team that absorbed pressure then tried to score opportunistic goals.
It worked. Montréal controlled most of the run of play and looked like the better team for much of the game, but NYCFC found the back of the net three times while the Canadian side only managed a late consolation goal.
It was a dramatic change from last Monday, when NYCFC played Champagne soccer in their 3-0 win over Inter Miami CF. Earlier today, they ground out a gritty win against a well-coached and dangerous Montréal. It turns out there’s more than one way for NYCFC to win a game.
New York City might need that tactical flexibility next week when they face Philadelphia Union in a grudge rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
NYCFC: 5 shots, 4 on goal, 36.1% possession, 318 passes, 70.8% accuracy, 13 fouls
Montréal: 18 shots, 8 on goal, 63.9% possession, 536 passes, 84.7% accuracy, 10 fouls
possession counterattack team
NYCFC got off to a blistering start, running hard at the Montréal defense to pull the center backs out of position and let attackers pour in from the flanks. Those tactics yielded a result in just the sixth minute when the normally organized Montréal defense was sliced apart by a Gabriel Pereira cross intended for Héber but that landed at the feet of a strolling Maxi Moralez who had enough time to pick his shot, take a selfie, and lash the ball through three converging defenders.
Goal 1️⃣0️⃣1️⃣ for the little genius ✨ pic.twitter.com/XKQXZZaTYY— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) October 23, 2022
The ridiculously early goal is now one of the characteristics of Cushingball: NYCFC have scored within the first 10 minutes in four of their last six games. Let’s savor the moments together. There was Alex Callen’s header in the fourth minute against Atlas FC, Callen’s header in the first minute against New Jersey Red Bulls, and Pereira’s chip in the ninth minute against Atlanta United.
As Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” he was talking about boxing (right?), but you could say something similar in soccer. Everybody has a plan for how to win a game, but no manager has a plan for going down by a goal just a few minutes into a game. NYCFC has figured out how to open a match by punching the other team in the mouth.
Another thing you don’t plan: Losing one of your center backs after 14 minutes. Chanot seemingly strained his groin while defending the always-dangerous Kei Kamara on a corner and had to leave the field. The team switched from the 3-5-2 that has worked so well in recent matches to a 4-4-2 that let Montréal’s excellent midfield control the flow of the game. NYCFC hardly saw the ball for the next 30 minutes.
g+ GameFlow: MLS Playoffs @cfmontreal v @NYCFC on October 23, 2022. #CFMTL #NYCFC #VamosNYC #MTLvNYC pic.twitter.com/UgUfRPjbW6— GameFlow (@GameFlowxPG) October 23, 2022
Montréal should have scored two or three goals were it not for the heroics of NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson. He kept New York City in the game.
JOHNSON SAVES pic.twitter.com/pMFMobuytJ— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) October 23, 2022
NYCFC are not a natural counterattacking team, but they’re fast learners. More importantly, they have the speed and technical ability to conjure moments of magic. Against the run of play, the New York City midfield launched a counterattack that was finished elegantly by Héber in first-half stoppage time. New York City could have gone to the locker room down by one or two goals. Instead, Montréal went into halftime shut out at home two goals to nothing.
Santi ➡️ Maxi ➡️ Santi ➡️ H9 ➡️ 2️⃣ #VamosNYC pic.twitter.com/dS6V3W8Ol3— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) October 23, 2022
Maxi’s goal in the sixth minute threw Montréal off their game, Héber’s goal to end the first half proved to be the winner, and Talles Magno’s deliciously cold-hearted penalty in the 61st minute put the match away. You win a soccer game when you score more often than the other team.
TALLES ICE COLD ❄️ pic.twitter.com/BBoX4X93z2— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) October 23, 2022
Those three goals would just be footnotes in a hard-fought loss were it not for the seven saves Johnson made. The NYCFC captain was at his goalkeeping finest, batting away one lethal shot after another.
According to g+ GameFlow, Montréal had an xG of 3.69 — they should have scored three or four, not one. Stats aside, anybody with a pulse could see that Montréal coulda, shoulda been in the lead were it not for Johnson. Deprived of the back three seawall that has protected him for the last five games, the shotstopper came through time and time again for New York City.
Teamwork and tactics
If the game was decided by scoring opportunistic goals, and saved by Johnson’s goalkeeping, it was won on the training ground and by Cushing’s tactical flexibility.
For all of the success the team enjoyed last year under then-head coach Ronny Deila, his insistence on sticking with a plan that obviously wasn't working could be maddening for the supporters in the stands. There’s something to be said for being confident in your system, but Delia’s rigidity arguably cost NYCFC some important results.
Cushing has repeatedly demonstrated that he knows how to make the adjustments necessary to win tough games. In an ideal world, all matchups will play out like the 2-0 crystal-clear rout of New Jersey at Yankee Stadium, or last week’s masterful 3-0 win over Inter Miami. But sometimes you’re forced to change the game plan and hope that certain players step up and over-perform while under pressure. We saw that happen early in Cushing’s tenure, when NYCFC shut out FC Dallas and shut down Jesús Ferreira in the punishing Texas heat. We saw it again a few days later when NYCFC defeated New jersey in Red Bull Arena for the first time since 2017.
We didn’t see much of it during the team’s late-summer swoon, but that’s ancient history now. NYCFC is advancing through the MLS Cup Playoffs once again, and we should be happy that the team has a head coach who is capable of getting them to play the prettiest soccer in MLS one week, then grind out a tense win the next.
NYCFC, Maxi Moralez 6’
NYCFC, Héber 45’+3’
NYCFC, Talles Magno 61’ (PK)
NYCFC, Kevin O’Toole bad foul, yellow card, 33’
NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez bad foul, yellow card, 38’
NYCFC, Alex Callens, bad foul, yellow card, 42’
Montréal, Rudy Camacho, bad foul, 53’
Montréal, Joel Waterman, bad foul, 67’
Montréal, Djordje Mihailovic, bad foul, 69’
Referee: Drew Fischer
Assistant Referees: Cory Richardson, Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho
Fourth Official: Jon Freemon
VAR Referee: Chris Penso
Assistant VAR Referee: Craig Lowry