The UEFA Champions League did away with the away goals rule this year: A goal is worth one goal no matter where it’s scored. Europeans have always been socially progressive.
The away goals rule is still in place in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League, which comes as a relief for New York City FC. After a second-half collapse last night in Guatemala City that allowed Comunicaciones FC to win the game 4-2, and draw even at 5-5 on aggregate after last week’s match, NYCFC advance on away goals: According to to the CONCACAF codex, New York City’s two goals in Guatemala City are worth more than the one Comunicaciones scored in East Hartford, CT.
In other words, last night NYCFC lost, drew, and won.
It wasn't an easy game to watch. New York City enjoyed more possession but never really controlled the run of play—the goals by Taty Castellanos and Talles Magno that put the team in the Semifinals were pulled out of a hat. Comunicaciones were the more dangerous team, thoroughly outplaying New York City and exposing the weaknesses in a squad exhausted by a brutal travel schedule.
Still, NYCFC advance to the CCL Semifinals for the first time in club history, and will face either Club León or the Seattle Sounders for a two-game tie in early April. But if the team hopes to advance further they need to address the mental lapses that allowed Comunicaciones to come within inches of staging what would have been a well-earned comeback win.
That’s not how you park the bus
Setting out to protect NYCFC’s 3-1 after the first leg last week, manager Ronny Deila lined up the team in a defensive-minded 5-3-1 formation with three center-backs was anchored by Thiago Martins, NYCFC’s newest Designated Player. He was flanked by Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot, arguably the best defensive pairing in MLS last year. What could go wrong?
NYCFC’s plan was to wall off the back and keep Comunicaciones from scoring, maybe snatch an away goal for insurance. Comunicaciones’ plan was to throw everything it had at that wall and exhaust it, break it down, force mistakes. One of those two plans worked.
Comunicaciones dominated the run of play in the first half, but you couldn’t tell by the scoreline. In the 31st-minute Castellanos bent a gorgeous, curling direct kick around the wall and just inside the goalpost that gave NYCFC the lead. Deila’s plan was working.
But it was the 45th-minute goal by Rafael Lezcano that would set the tone for the rest of the game. First, there was a sloppy midfield giveaway by NYCFC, then a poor challenge by Martins that allowed Lezcano to pick his shot and beat Sean Johnson in goal. It wasn’t the giveaway as much as the recovery: Martins charged at the ball like it was a Sunday rec league game, then tried to defy physics by kicking it through Lezcano’s shins. It didn’t go well.
Martins has likely been taught that you play the man, not the ball. And that you always position yourself between the opponent and the goal. And that you never let the other team score just before halftime. Martins forgot all of those fundamental lessons, and he looked less like a DP than a U9 player who had candy for lunch.
At the start of the second half it still seemed like Deila’s plan was working. A Talles Magno header against the run of play gave NYCFC the lead, and should have sealed the two-game tie for New York City with a 5-2 aggregate score.
Deila made four substitutions in the 60th minute, which seemed a prudent move at the time: NYCFC plays Philadelphia Union on Saturday, and the team needs squad rotation to make it through these games. Malte Amundsen, Castellanos, Alfredo Morales, and Maxi Moralez came off, Chris Gloster, Héber, Keaton Parks, and Thiago came on.
Comunicaciones responded with two key substitutions, bringing on striker Lynner García and attacking midfielder Oscar Santis. Those substitutions set the trajectory for the rest of the game: NYCFC toned down their attack without really bolstering the defense, while Comunicaciones doubled down on trying to score goals.
It paid off for Comunicaciones on the 69th minute set-piece, when Nicolás Samayoa knocked in a rebound and evened the game. NYCFC might be the best team in MLS at defending set-pieces but the relentless Comunicaciones attack was breaking down New York City and forcing the defense to make mistakes. It happened again three minutes later: Another Comunicaciones set-piece, another mental lapse by the NYCFC defense. A García tap-in gave Los Cremas a 3-2 lead and put the Guatemalan side within two goals of advancing.
The worst was yet to come. In the 88th minute, 36-year-old midfielder José Contreras nailed a low shot from distance that turned the entire NYCFC defense into training ground mannequins and left Johnson planted in the middle of the goal looking like he didn’t know the ball was in play. García’s shot not only gave Comunicaciones a 4-2 lead, it was the low point of an abject half for NYCFC, and it likely cost Johnson the opportunity to start for the USMNT when they play Mexico at the Azteca next week.
The silver lining? It didn't get any worse for NYCFC. The team managed to hold on for the rest of the game, and pull off an escape act they shouldn’t have been forced to make.
There’s a word for that
There must be a word in German for a loss that’s a draw that’s a win that feels like a loss.
There must also be a word to express the simultaneous feelings of disappointment, relief, doubt, hope, and confusion that NYCFC supporters experienced last night, a cascade of emotions that carry over into today.
Did Comunicaciones expose the foundational flaws with this 2022 NYCFC team? Los Creamas comprehensively outplayed New York City last night, and the mental lapses they provoked are deeply concerning. If NYCFC can't protect a 4-1 lead on aggregate, do they deserve to be considered contenders for silverware this year?
There’s another way to look at the game: NYCFC made a heroic stand while facing the hardest travel schedule of any team in the CCL or MLS: One game in Costa Rica, one game in Guatemala, three games on the West Coast, one “home” game 120 miles outside of New York City in Connecticut. NYCFC has played just one home game at Yankee Stadium this year. It was NYCFC’s seventh competitive match in four weeks, and the fourth one played on short rest.
By comparison, the Seattle Sounders played four out of six competitive matches in the rainy comfort of Lumen Field, and won’t travel to the East until July. New England won the first round of the CCL by forfeit, and played three out of four competitive games at Gillette Stadium.
Should NYCFC fans be worried? Or should they take comfort that their team held on last night?
After all, New York City was bent but not broken. Ok, the team was seriously bent, like completely, unrecognizably bent out of shape, but they’re advancing to the CCL Semifinals: NYCFC got the job done.