Earlier today, New York City FC defeated Toronto FC by the score of 5-4 at Citi Field in a game that put New York City’s prolific attack on display—and raised concerns about a dysfunctional defense depleted by injury.
With center backs Thiago Martins and Maxime Chanot unavailable, manager Ronny Deila partnered Alexander Callens with holding midfielder Alfredo Morales to wobbly results. Toronto’s new signing Jesús Jiménez scored twice in the first half, bringing back traumatic memories of the last time the two teams faced off at Citi Field and NYCFC lost the 2019 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal thanks to a 90’ penalty. But history didn’t repeat itself: NYCFC responded on this bright, chilly afternoon with five beautifully-worked goals created by an attack that was all but unstoppable for 40 dazzling minutes.
New York City needed every one of them. After Deila made some substations that seem ill-advised in hindsight but seemed reasonable at the time, Toronto got back into the game and took advantage of NYCFC’s vulnerable defense. Toronto scored twice in the final five minutes of regulation time, but it wasn’t enough. New York City survived, and earned the win.
NYCFC: 22 shots, 11 on goal, 57.7% possession, 540 passes, 84.6% pass accuracy
Toronto FC: 8 shots, 5 on goal, 42.3% possession, 399 passes, 76.4% pass accuracy
Let’s talk about Alfredo
Sometimes the narrative for a soccer team like NYCFC changes so quickly it can give you whiplash.
A couple of weeks ago, center back Thiago Martins was seen as a bust: The first defensive Designated Player in club history, he was thought to be an upgrade on the stolid but aging Maxime Chanot, but some high-profile defensive gaffes made many question if he deserves to be in the Starting XI. His performances in NYCFC’s heroic game against Seattle Sounders and 6-0 romp over Real Salt Lake made Martins more palatable to the NYCFC faithful—and an injury to Chanot made him indispensable. Unfortunately, an injury made him unavailable today.
Delia chose to start holding midfielder Alfredo Morales to replace Martins over backup center-back Vuk Latinovich, a 24-year-old who was signed to the First Team in 2021 but whose shaky performances haven't earned him the manager's trust. Morales was a choice who presented risks and benefits. Risks: Morales doesn’t have the physicality or intuitive positioning of a center-back. Benefits: He’s a seasoned veteran who’s comfortable with the ball and unafraid of opposing players.
For the first 30 minutes, Morales was more risky than beneficial: Prone to dropping back and keeping Toronto onside, Morales needed Callens to keep him in position and Parks to drop back and help defend. While Morales didn’t commit any howlers, he forced his teammates to help cover him.
For the next 50 minutes, Morales was a defender with benefits: His intelligent movement off the ball and confident dribbles with it helped NYCFC unleash their attack, and score five quality goals.
But then the final 10 minutes came, and Morales was all risk. It wasn’t entirely his fault: In the 80th minute, Deila brought on Chris Gloster for Malte Amundsen on the left, forcing Morales to cover for a defender who has yet to impress this year. But Morales earned a yellow card in the 83rd minute, then another in the 89th minute when he was beaten by 21-year-old Jordan Perruzza and took him down with a tug. Toronto scored off the free kick in the 90th minute, and NYCFC had to play out four nervy minutes of stoppage time with ten players.
Toronto scored two, maybe three goals it shouldn’t have to judge by the run of play, and by calculations issued by the xG number bot. Delia's decision to play Morales worked out, but only just.
Taty & Thiago & Talles & Santi
For 45 minutes, NYCFC played the prettiest soccer in MLS this year.
The passing sequences generated by Keaton Parks and Nicolás Acevedo and threaded through to Thiago, Santi Rodríguez, and Taty Castellanos were breathtaking: Fast, flowing, intricate.
Toronto had no response. NYCFC scored five goals in that period, and could have scored more if a couple of more shots had been on target, or if a few first touches had been better taken. It’s not hard to think that a New York City side that were more clinical could have broken the club scoring record, but then this NYCFC team are less about clinical finishing than bursts of operatic brilliance. Why make a square pass when you can nutmeg a defender and move the ball into open space?
Castellanos scored, and is tied for second place in the Golden Boot race with five goals. Thiago scored a beaut, and is tied for third place with four goals in just 333 minutes, which works out to a blistering 83.25 minutes per goal. (Sorry to sound churlish, but it would be wrong not to mention that Toronto’s Jiménez is tied for first place with six.)
Rodríguez scored his second of 2022—he had four goals in all of last year. Keaton Parks scored his first of the season, taking another step towards fully recovering from the injury that sidelined him during the 2021 playoffs.
But the goal of the day belongs to 20-year-old Gabriel Pereira, a left-footed attacker who plays on the right and who was signed to the club just last month from Corinthians. Pereira was fed the ball by Talles Magno, worked the ball into the box, then calmly slotted a low shot through the legs of defender Chris Mavinga and past the diving Alex Bono. Not a bad first goal for his new club:
Talles Magno didn’t score, and while his on-field chemistry with the team is improving he continues to feel slightly out of step with the rest of the attack. Athletic, energetic, and technical, Talles Magno will fight to keep possession and move the ball up the field, but he will sometimes take one touch too many, or try to do it all himself instead of working with the rest of the squad. The potential is certainly there, but it mostly remains potential for now.
Only so deep
More than anything, this game let us see the value of having a bench as deep as that of NYCFC—and it let us see that the depth ends right about here.
NYCFC are so good that they can lose two center backs to injury, and be without their talismanic playmaker, and still beat an in-form Toronto that defeated first-place Philadelphia Union just last week. But the clock gets as much credit for the win as Pereira’s goal: The announced crowd of 17,626 was counting down the seconds – and cheering on every NYCFC clearance – until the final whistle sounded.
New York City's CONCACAF Champions League hangover might be gone, but the team need key players to return to the lineup if the club is going to make up for the ground lost at the start of the season.
Toronto: Jesús Jiménez 13’
Toronto: Jesús Jiménez 27’
NYCFC, Taty Castellanos 38’
NYCFC, Thiago Andrade 49’
NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez 54’
NYCFC, Keaton Parks 58’
NYCFC, Gabriel Pereira 75’
Toronto, Deandre Kerr 86’
Toronto, Michael Bradley 90’