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HRB Roundtable: Reactions to NYCFC losing the Eastern Conference Finals

Hudson River Blue’s panel of experts discuss the disappointing loss to Philadelphia Union, what what wrong, what went right, and if Nick Cushing is our guy

He did what he could.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

Welcome to the latest edition of the Hudson River Blue Roundtable, in which John Baney, Andrew Leigh, Anthony McKenna, and Rafael Noboa y Rivera reflect on New York City FC’s 3-1 loss to Philadelphia Union in the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals.

First, let’s get your emotional response. How are you feeling?

Raf Noboa y Rivera: Actually, OK. Does losing suck? Sure. But it’s not like City lost to a team they should’ve beaten. They made the conference final, played reasonably well, and had a shot to win. You can’t really ask for much more than that.

Andrew Leigh: Disappointed at how it ended in Chester, but overall impressed that the team weathered so many different adversities faced in 2022 and made it back to a Conference Final. Would prefer to be looking ahead to another MLS Cup, but I’m not overly shocked that this version of NYCFC lost to a very strong Philadelphia team.

John Baney: Frustrated with yesterday, but proud of the team and the season as a whole.

Anthony McKenna: Mostly just sad. The anger and frustration from past seasons isn’t there. Just sad that the season is over and we couldn’t shut up Philly fans for good. Being able to fall back on a championship from last year helps a ton.

Philadelphia are undefeated at Subaru Park this year, and swept NYCFC in the regular season. Do you think NYCFC could have won the game yesterday?

JB: Yes. I think we defeated ourselves far more than Philly defeated us.

AM: Absolutely. NYCFC were up 1-0 and only conceded the first goal after falling asleep because of a substitution during a set piece. I feel like they threw it away.

AL: Could have, yes, but this was a severely weakened version of NYCFC playing as big road underdogs against the conference’s most consistently dominant team. Even after Maxi Moralez scored the opener, it was clear the Union would respond — and NYCFC’s total lack of a response to the adversity they faced from the Carranza equalizer onwards sealed the Pigeons’ fate.

RNYR: Yes. One of my favorite sayings about the sport is that “the ball is round and the game is 90 minutes long. Everything else is pure theory.” Yesterday’s game is evidence of it. The Pigeons went toe-to-toe with the Union in the first half, with the benefits of a couple of breaks. They took the game to Philly in the second half, and could’ve won the game: Beating Philadelphia would’ve been an upset, but not a shocking one.

Nick Cushing said the game was lost in two moments. One, when André Blake saved the point-blank header from Alex Callens. Two, when a disorganized NYCFC let the Union score on a quick restart. Does that sound right?

AM: Yes. The Blake save on Callens’s header completely turned the game around. It gave the crowd life and made them believe again.

RNYR: Yes. The Blake save was the moment I thought NYCFC was probably not going to win. The restart goal sealed it.

AL: I think a save like Blake made on Callens you expect to some extent, he’s done it plenty of times before against NYCFC and the rest of MLS. The second part of the losing equation was less expected and has to fall on Cushing’s shoulders. The timing of his Pereira-for-Parks substitution seemed questionable, and the fact that the team was totally unprepared and disorganized for a quick restart right after making the change only makes it look worse in hindsight.

JB: I agree that we lost the match in two moments, but I think those two moments were the two quick-fire Union goals rather than the Callens chance. Yes, it’s a totally different game if we go up 2-0, but the sloppy defense we displayed in the second half was always going to cost us against such a good team.

What could have NYCFC done differently?

AL: My first instinct is to say, “Have their injured players magically be healthy.” Relying on Héber and Justin Haak rather than being able to turn to Talles Magno and Maxime Chanot, or even Tayvon Gray or Alfredo Morales, put the team at a major disadvantage. A more practical solution could have been solving for Chanot’s absence not by shoehorning Haak in at CB, but by ditching the 3-4-3 and bringing back a 4-2-3-1 setup with an Acevedo-Parks double pivot. But of late the team had been so much better playing with three at the back, so I can’t fault Cushing for sticking with what had been working.

AM: The obvious one is to not make a sub during a defensive set piece. Being more focused and connected in defense in the second half.

JB: We needed to stay switched on for 90 minutes, and we just couldn’t do that for whatever reason on Sunday. I think a fully-fit Chanot and Gray would’ve made a huge difference for us.

RNYR: Not much. I think, given Chanot’s absence, Cushing set the team up about as well as he could’ve. You could tell that Haak was struggling just a bit, probably because he didn’t have the same kind of playing rhythm that Chanot had with the rest of the back line. I think if Chanot’s there, the disorganization that led to the Union’s backbreaking goal isn’t taking place. But if we’re being honest, that was…a pretty basic goal to give up. That’s less on the players and more on the coaching, which should plan for that in training.

What did NYCFC do well?

RNYR: I think City did a solid job of getting Philadelphia out of their offensive rhythm, and creating on the counter. If they were going to win, that was going to be how they’d pull it off. They almost did! So it was a good game plan for playing in a hostile environment, and they did well in executing it.

JB: I thought we stuck to the game plan really well for the most part. We made things really difficult for them in the first half, and took our big chance at the start of the second half. I’ve grown into a big fan of the Cushing 3-4-3, and I think for large portions of this game Philly had no answer to it despite our notable absences.

AL: All season long but particularly late in the year, overcoming adversity and setbacks was a team strength. The Deila-Castellanos losses could easily have sunk the season, but they figured out ways to get back to winning with those that remained. They ultimately didn’t have enough talent available to make a Cup repeat a reality, but it’s impressive they got as close as they did.

AM: They showed fight and went toe-to-toe with the Union in a stadium they didn’t lose at all season. They also attacked the wings much better in the second half and got Kevin O’Toole and Anton Tinnerholm more involved.

Cushing in? Or Cushing out?

AL: In. He deserves to have the interim tag removed and be given full confidence and an injection of new talent to work with heading into next season. He made the most of a bad situation, taking over from a beloved trophy-winning manager just as the team’s best player was in the process of leaving. He got through injury crises and found ways to right the ship after some stretches of terrible play. Convincingly sweeping the Red Bulls, winning Campeones Cup, finishing third in the East, and making a run to the Conference Final–all signs of a job well done.

AM: Cushing Out, give me a fresh face. He turned it around, but I’d rather someone new.

RNYR: In. I know folks aren’t sold on Cushing, especially after the team fell apart for a long, painful period there. But I doubt City Football Group sack him, given the team staggered back to consciousness and made the conference final. Like every other coach City has had, he’ll get the benefit of a full off-season to get things ready, and he needs it, just so we can see how he does with a full, healthy team — which he didn’t really have. That matters.

JB: I’m firmly “Cushing In” at this point. I think in hindsight he did really well adapting to the many challenges thrown in his face this season, and has established his own identity that works.

One final thought to will help us get through the rest of the week?

JB: After winning six single-elimination playoff matches in a row, losing the seventh obviously hurts. But considering how impressive that run is, I think we have a lot to be proud of. We will continue to be a serious threat in the Eastern Conference.

RNYR: City beat the Red Bulls to winning a title. Never forget that: Can’t take that away.

AM: Philly only truly gets revenge on us if they beat LAFC in MLS Cup. If they don’t, then our star still reigns supreme. Only true losers would beat their chest for a conference championship after losing MLS Cup.

AL: If LAFC lift MLS Cup next weekend, all the DOOPers will have to show for their year of bellyaching about the 2021 Conference Final is this year’s Eastern Conference trophy, which is nothing more than the At Least You Tried Cup.