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Nick Cushing wins the Quickfire Challenge

The interim head coach pieced together NYCFC’S biggest wins of the year using only the ingredients he found in the locker room

New York City FC v New York Red Bulls
Congratulations, you made it to the next round.
Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

A little less than 15 minutes into Sunday’s Eastern Conference Semifinal against CF Montréal, New York City FC interim head coach Nick Cushing was given a Quickfire Challenge: His team had already jumped to a one-goal lead, but an injury to center back Maxime Chanot meant he had to abandon the back three system that is the foundation of the run of form that has New York City dominating the Eastern Conference.

Cushing looked at the lineup card and made a peculiar choice: He brought in Keaton Parks. Seemingly the idea was to task Keaton with absorbing the Montréal attack and move the ball through the middle, then reposition the wingbacks to play more defensive roles. Cushing had defenders Malte Amundsen and Samuel Owusu on the bench, and he could have asked either of them to fill in for Chanot and hope the three-back would hold, but he decided that Keaton was what the team needed. It almost didn’t work. Montréal launched attack after attack, and it was only because of the goalkeeping heroics of Sean Johnson that NYCFC stayed in the game — and were fortunate to score an elegant goal against the run of play to end the half.

Cushing made another surprise move. After Justin Haak was brought in for Maxi Moralez the game thrummed along at a tense but less erratic pace, and the mood on the field seemed to settle. While NYCFC didn’t control the match by any stretch of the imagination, they dominated the final scoreline by three goals to one, and once again Cushing’s tactical decisions delivered a winning result for New York City that defied the oddsmakers who picked Montréal to win and the pundits who second-guess every move the interim head coach makes.

Thinking like a chef

By now, it should be what you expect from Cushing. He has achieved his greatest successes when approaching this NYCFC squad less like a certain national team head coach who expects his players to fit into a rigid system that slots square pegs into square holes, and more like a contestant on Top Chef who goes over their larder to see what looks good. Both call for a visionary, a person who knows where they want to go and how to get there, but one is more attuned to the particular talents and limitations of who or what sits before them.

In other words, Cushing has figured out how to make a delicious lineup using only the ingredients he can find in the locker room. NYCFC is now a squad with three starting center backs after signing Thiago Martins to a Designated Player contract? Develop a back three system. The 21-year-old Haak is looking good while getting minutes in the third division? Give him his first MLS start against FC Dallas on the road, and watch him shut down one of the best attacks in the league. NYCFC II signed an attacker defender attacker from Princeton University? Slot him in at wingback against the Liga MX champions, let the three center backs control the defense, and let him run up the left flank.

A dash of this, a pinch of that, and NYCFC are on a six-game winning streak in all competitions, with 14 goals scored and just three goals allowed.

The fewest signings in club history

Because of the byzantine roster rules in MLS, all head coaches in this league face something of a Top Chef challenge: Every one of them has to make do with the squad they have. But few, if any, face the restrictions placed on Cushing, who was promoted from assistant to interim head coach in June to replace Ronny Deila.

Shortly after getting the position, top scorer Taty Castellanos departed during the summer window, as expected. But to the surprise of many, no new signings were made.

The club sat out the summer transfer window only once before, and that was during the 2020 pandemic. Even in 2015, a brand-new NYCFC added five players during the season despite building a squad from scratch before league play started.

NYCFC Player Signings by Year

Year Players Added Key Signings
Year Players Added Key Signings
2015 5 Angleiño, Andoni Iraola, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo,
2016 11 Frédéric Brillant, Maxime Chanot, Jack Harrison, Rónald Matarrita
2017 11 Sean Johnson, Alex Callens, Maxi Moralez, Alex Ring, Yangel Herrrera
2018 12 Taty Castellanos, Jesús Medina, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Anton Tinnerholm,
2019 10 Héber, Alexandru Mitriță, Keaton Parks
2020 4 Nicolás Acevedo, Gudi Tórarinsson
2021 10 Malte Amundsen, Alfredo Morales, Santiago Rodríguez, Talles Magno, Thiago
2022 4 Thiago Martins, Gabriel Pereira

In 2022, NYCFC added just four players total to the Senior team. That includes left winger Matías Pellegrini, who was claimed from wavers shortly after the window closed. Usually, NYCFC brings in 10 to 12 new players over the course of the season — the only other time the club made just four signings was during the truncated and economically catastrophic 2020 season. This transfer window wasn't just quiet, it was aberrant.

The next challenge

Why the history lesson? Because it helps us better appreciate what Cushing has accomplished since taking over in June. Not only was he a mid-season replacement for a popular and successful manager, he was expected to keep the team performing at a high level despite losing their top scorer and getting no replacements during an abnormally inactive transfer window.

It’s hard to imagine Deila leading NYCFC to the 2021 MLS Cup without Malte Amundsen, Alfredo Morales, Santiago Rodríguez, Talles Magno, and Thiago, all of whom joined the team last year and played important roles in the postseason.

But that is exactly what is being asked of Cushing. Thiago Martins is essential to the back three system, and Gabriel Pereira has become one of the most instrumental players on the squad, but adding those two key players in 2022 doesn't measure up to the transactions made las year, never mind the signings made in 2017, when the core of the team was restructured around Sean Johnson, Maxi Moralez, Alex Ring, and Callens.

Still, Cushing has bought NYCFC to the Eastern Conference Finals for just the second time in club history. When New York City face Philadelphia Union this Sunday in a grudge rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, they will play a team that has made two key additions in attackers Mikael Uhre and Julián Carranza. Both are Designated Players, and both are significant upgrades over the forwards they replaced — there’s a reason why Philadelphia scored 72 goals this year, and finished with a goal differential of 46.

All signs point to Philadelphia taking the field with a full-strength Starting XI. How will Cushing respond? We’ll have to wait until the lineup card is released about an hour before kickoff. Injuries are an issue in the squad right now, and NYCFC won’t show their hand until the last possible moment.

Cushing might need to make some unexpected choices once again. To go by what we've seen, the coach is up to the challenge.