New York City FC defeated Santos de Guápiles 2-0 last night in the first leg of the Round of 16 matchups of the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League. The game took place in San José, Costa Rica; the second leg will be held next Wednesday, February 23, at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles.
It was NYCFC’s first game since the team won the MLS Cup Final on December 11, 2021—and it showed. The NYCFC squad looked rusty and often rudderless, while a Santos team that was missing three key starters had hard time putting a shot on target.
Taty Castellanos scored both of NYCFC’s goals, converting a penalty off the fingertips of the Santos goalkeeper in the 5th minute, and lashing home a deflected ball in the 30th minute. Castellanos now has an eight-game scoring streak that dates back to October 23, 2021.
Even if NYCFC enjoyed 60% of the possession and are credited with a pass accuracy of 87%, those statistics and the scoreline flatter a team that were never fully in control of a game they should have dominated. Still, NYCFC will go into the second leg with a comfortable two-goal advantage.
Soft in the middle
Let's not mince words: NYCFC’s defensive midfield did not look good. Nicolas Acevedo and Gedion Zelalem never seemed settled under the relentless press of Santos, and were prone to giving away cheap balls or misplaying passes that were difficult for their teammates to control. Zelalem started in the place of Alfredo Morales (who is out with COVID), and Acevedo started in place of Keaton Parks (who was on the bench), but neither made a strong case today to become a fixture in coming game day lineups.
The attacking midfield performed slightly better. Maxi Moralez continued to demonstrate why he’s one of the best playmakers in MLS, but Santiago Rodríguez didn’t display the brilliance he exhibited in the postseason. The straight red card Rodríguez was shown in the 68th-minute might have been harsh, but a 10-man NYCFC looked more cohesive and purposeful once Acevedo and Zelalem were replaced by Parks and the recently-signed Thiago Martins.
Parks in particular made an instant impact: While Acevedo and Zelalem chased the game, letting Santos stay in it despite missing two of their best goal scorers, Parks controlled the pace of the play with his positioning and passing. It made you realize how much NYCFC will miss the calm authority and vision of James Sands, who now plays for Rangers FC in Glasgow.
A little more to the right
While the midfield shortcomings could be chalked up to injuries and early-season jitters, the problems with the attack are more fundamental. Last year, Castellanos won the Golden Boot by roaming the left side of the box and making runs into the middle—and by getting support from Jesús Medina on the right. Now that Medina left NYCFC for CSKA Moscow, Talles Magno was given the start—and took his favored position on the left. Not only did Castellanos not get much support from the right, he was pushed into a more central position, and even made runs along the right sideline.
In other words, Talles Magno is forcing Castellanos to play out of position.
This is Talles Magno’s heat map from last night’s game:
And this is Castellanos’s heat map:
By comparison, this is Castellanos vs Philadelphia Union on the last day of the 2021 season, when he scored a tying goal despite NYCFC being reduced to 10 men:
True, Castellanos scored two goals last night despite being nudged out of his sweet spot. But the scoreline papers over an imbalanced attack: The rightward shift Castellanos made to accommodate Talles Magno could be exploited by a team stronger than Santos, and the most lethal striker in the league might be neutralized by a well-organized defense.
A win is a win
NYCFC won in spite of these and other issues, continuing an unbeaten streak that stretches all the way back to October 20, 2021—that’s 119 days and counting. Both Castellanos and Moralez look to be in-form, and while the defensive line and Sean Johnson seemed a little rusty it won’t take much for them to get back into their grooves.
So what if NYCFC’s forward runs felt flukey at times, and the team couldn’t string together many coherent attacks against a weak opponent? A win is a win, and it’s better to build on a disorganized victory than a well-fought defeat.