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How a back three liberates NYCFC’s attack

Nick Cushing found this squad’s best Starting XI by switching to a 3-4-3

Three, that's the magic number.
photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

New York City FC’s resurgence in form over the last few weeks has started from the back — mainly the return to health of both Alexander Callens and Thiago Martins, but also because the team has adopted the back three system.

Ever since Patrick Vieira took the reins of the club and implemented the City Football Group style of play, NYCFC have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with attacking fullbacks and a defensive midfielder that slots between the center-backs in possession. Vieira’s successor Domé Torrent preached tactical flexibility. He was constantly switching up formations and first found his success implementing a 3-4-3 or 5-2-3 formation (depending on where you view the positioning of the fullbacks) in early 2019.

It can be argued that the success of the 3-4-3 provided the structure for that successful 2019 season that saw NYCFC clinch the number one seed before losing to Toronto FC at Citi Field in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Tactically, the difference between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3 is simply that one of the deeper midfielders in the triangle of the 4-2-3-1 drops down to become a third center-back, which in turn gives the fullbacks license to push higher up the pitch. James Sands was key to both Dome Torrent and Ronny Deila’s systems as he seamlessly slotted between Callens and Maxime Chanot, and then easily stepped back into the midfield. So far, Alfredo Morales and Nicolas Acevedo haven’t been able to match the ability Sands had to play that role.

Recently, interim head coach Nick Cushing has been looking to implement a back three, hoping for a similar resurgence in form that Torrent had by utilizing the formation.

In the 1-1 draw versus FC Cincinnati, Cushing played a back three with Callens, Thiago Martins, and Chanot for the first time, and with Tayvon Gray and Malte Amundsen as the fullbacks. The team looked better than it had in previous games, but a draw at home due to an own goal wasn’t the best result.

The following game, the back three was utilized when NYCFC lost to Charlotte FC. Although that result was probably due more to Gray and Vuk Latinovich starting in the center.

The back three finally worked in the 2-0 victory over Atlas FC in the Campeones Cup. Callens, Chanot, and Thiago Martins all started again, but this time Kevin O’Toole was at left wingback instead of Amundsen. Initially, O’Toole’s start seemed to be the result of Cushing rotating the squad, however, the wingback’s ability to get into the attack and add another threat to the left gave the team something it had been missing when Amundsen was on the field. While the return of Callens and Thiago Martins to the lineup is a big reason why NYCFC won that game and lifted silverware, O’Toole’s importance cannot be overlooked.

Cushing might have gotten the team on the right track at just the right moment, and with the return of Anton Tinnerholm, Keaton Parks, and hopefully Alfredo Morales, NYCFC could be at full strength heading into the playoffs.

If Cushing has a full roster, will he stick with a back three? Or will he return to the 4-2-3-1?

I’d bet on a back three. The formation thrives on attacking fullbacks — O’Toole has proven himself, and a healthy Tinnerholm fits perfectly into the role. If Callens, Chanot, and Thiago Martins continue to play as a cohesive unit, NYCFC will enter the playoffs in the strongest position they’ve been in since Taty Castellanos left in June.