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NYCFC beat Atlanta United, record first win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

New York City end the 2022 MLS season with three wins and a No 3 seed, but injuries in Atlanta game raise concerns

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC
Gabriel Pereira used his head when he chipped the keeper.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

First, the good news.

New York City FC’s continued their winning ways, scoring twice against Atlanta United to notch their first win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in club history. The win not only ends the 2022 MLS regular season on a bright note, it keeps NYCFC in third place in the Eastern Conference — and on the other side of the bracket from conference-leading Philadelphia Union. NYCF finish the year with 16 wins and 57 points, a nice improvement over last year’s 14 wins and 51 points. Somebody buy interim head coach Nick Cushing a Heineken.

Now for the less-than-good news: Tayvon Gray, Talles Magno, and Alfredo Morales all left the game with injuries. New York City’s injury report is a pretty accurate indicator of how the team will perform — when the squad is healthy the results are good, but when injuries pile up the team loses games they otherwise should win.

There's no official word yet on the extent of the injuries, but Cushing didn't seem overly worried in the post-game press conference. Instead, he focused on the positives: Scoring goals on the road, grinding out a one-goal win in a hostile stadium, game management. Fair enough. We’ll also celebrate those achievements, and hope that Gray, Talles Magno, and Morales return to full training with the rest of the squad.

Game Stats

NYCFC: 15 shots, 4 on goal, 45.5% possession, 449 passes, 82.4% accuracy, 13 fouls

Atlanta: 12 shots, 4 on goal, 55.5% possession, 534 passes, 85.8% accuracy, 10 fouls

It’s settled: A back three is best

It’s no coincidence that NYCFC’s return to form started when Cushing used a lineup with Alex Callens, Maxime Chanot, and Thiago Martins in the back. The battle-tested center-backs are formidable defenders and calm in possession, and as Noah Kassell Yung explained in these pages earlier this week, the back three liberates NYCFC’s attack.

Cushing used this back three in four consecutive games, and in four consecutive games NYCFC scored early, added a second goal, and held on to win. When you know, you know.

As if we needed further proof, Cushing changed the formation in the 65th minute when he took off Callens (who was shown a yellow card in the 10th minute). The team reverted to a more traditional 4-3-2-1, and almost gave away the game. Atlanta scored within two minutes of the change, and dominated the ball for the final 25 minutes of the match. Yes, NYCFC’s game management legged out the win, but it didn’t need to be this close.

The back three not only shores up the defense, it frees wingbacks Kevin O’Toole on the left and Tayvon Gray (or Anton Tinnerholm) on the right to participate fully in the attack. As regular Hudson River Blue contributor James Nalton wrote in the Outfield, it allows O’Toole to be more wing and Gray to be more back.

Sometimes your offense is your best defense: NYCFC get into trouble when they’re not on the attack and forcing the other team to regroup in their half. After Callens, Keaton Parks, and Nicolás Acevedo were subbed off, NYCFC took a more defensive posture — and let Atlanta get back into the game. Lesson learned.

Another key win for Cushing

NYCFC’s dip in form must have been rough on Cushing. He was given the keys to the car just when the timing belt gave out: Not only did Taty Castellanos leave for Girona FC, the front office didn’t find a replacement for the team’s leading goalscorer for the past three seasons. Even more frustrating, the team was depleted by injuries while playing almost all of their games either on the road or in the unfriendly confines of Red Bull Arena.

There was a #CushingOut movement, which was to be expected. (And maybe even embraced as a good omen — the #RonnyOut movement last year turned out to be the prologue to NYCFC winning the 2021 MLS Cup.) But that ignored the strong performances and hard-fought results that the team posted under Cushing. He seems to be a manager that likes facing down a challenge, and figuring out how to win games that NYCFC are favored to lose.

There was the 0-1 win over an in-from FC Dallas in the punishing Texas heat when Cushing gave Justin Haak his first MLS start, and NYCFC held Jesús Ferreira scoreless. That was followed four days later by a 0-1 win over New Jersey Red Bulls in Harrison — not only was it a tactical masterclass, it was New York City’s first win over New Jersey at Red Bull Arena since 2017.

The scoreless away draw in July with CF Montréal now feels like more of an accomplishment than it did back when the Canadian team was still establishing itself as an Eastern Conference powerhouse. We’ll give it to him.

But Cushing’s biggest wins are the club's four most recent games. First, there was the 2-0 triumph over Atlas FC in the Campeones Cup. NYCFC didn't feel up to the task in the days leading up to the game, but the form that they displayed on the field was magisterial: Early goal, three in the back, cohesive play. Atlas never had a chance. Three days later, NYCFC won the grudge match against New Jersey to sweep the 2022 Hudson River Derby league games for the first time — now it’s crystal-clear that New York City is blue. The following week, NYCFC defeated a dogged Orlando City 2-1 at Red Bull Arena for the first “home” win in Harrison this year.

And now there’s today’s close but decisive triumph over Atlanta courtesy of an early chip over the keeper by Gabriel Pereira, and an elegant volley from Héber off a corner kick in the 60th minute. Cushing led NYCFC to their first-ever win at the Benz, succeeding in a difficult venue that has gotten the better of Patrick Vieira, Domé Torrent, and Ronny Deila.

You get the sense that Cushing is at his best when confronted with extreme adversity, and a cunning opponent. Those are good qualities for a head coach to have going into the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Thank you, Ian Joy and Joe Tolleson

On a sad note, this was the last NYCFC game that Ian Joy and Joe Tolleson will call for YES, the network and app we love to hate but that brought us two of the best announcers in the business.

Joy and Tolleson have been more than the voices of NYCFC since day one, they are the id and the ego of New York City’s fans. We have come to savor Joy’s hyped-up enthusiasm for the team we all love, and his lacerating analysis when they don't measure up to their potential. We also have come to appreciate Tolleson’s mellifluous play-by-play, and his sneaky sense of humor.

They obviously enjoy the company of each other, which makes the games that much more fun to watch. There's nothing like when the chemistry in the announcing booth matches the chemistry on the field, and the whole city feels like it notched a big win.

We love you, and we’ll miss you.

Goals:

NYCFC, Gabriel Pereira 9’

NYCFC, Héber 60’

Atlanta: Andrew Gutman 67’

Discipline:

NYCFC, Alex Callens, foul, yellow card, 10’

Atlanta, Luiz Araújo, foul, yellow card, 40+6’

Atlanta, Thiago Almada, foul, 64’

NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez, foul, 72’

NYCFC, Sean Johnson, time wasting, 83’

NYCFC, Thiago, foul, 85’

Attendance: 43,312

Referee: Chris Penso

Assistant Referees: Gianni Facchini, Walter Heatherly

Fourth Official: Matthew Conger

VAR Referee: Sorin Stoica

Assistant VAR Referee: Rene Parra