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Héber scores, NYCFC lose to Toronto FC

Blown call, Thiago Martins own-goal, defensive mistakes sink New York City 2-1

MLS: New York City FC at Toronto FC
Referee Drew Fischer giveth, and taketh away: He later admitted he should have awarded a penalty to NYCFC.
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC can’t catch a break.

Finally rested after an exhausting travel schedule that saw NYCFC log more than 17,000 fight miles and play games in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and the West Coast, New York City traveled to Ontario to face a Toronto FC squad that was completely rebuilt in the offseason and that was coming off some questionable performances.

NYCFC started strong—while the squad still weren’t playing to the standards of last year, the team looked sharper than they had in recent losses to Philadelphia Union at home and Comunicaciones FC in Guatemala City. It wasn’t enough. A blown call, an own goal, and defensive mistakes were enough to hand Toronto the win—and give NYCFC their worst start to a season in club history.

Game Stats

NYCFC: 15 shots, 8 on goal, 57.2% possession, 592 passes, 82.6% pass accuracy

Philadelphia Union: 8 shots, 3 on goal, 42.8% possession, 446 passes, 77.6% pass accuracy

The good

Not only did Héber score his first goal since September 1, 2020, it was a beaut: A low header from close range that easily beat Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono, it was a quality goal that should give the NYCFC faithful hope that the striker will once again conjure some of the danger he brought to the team’s attack before being sidelined by injury for more than a year. We’ll take a few more of those, please.

Writing in these pages last week, Calvin Daniel noted that manager Ronny Delia “has been subbing on Héber to play a dual-striker tandem with Castellanos” hoping to jump-start an attack that has been mostly flat in MLS games. Delia did exactly that when he brought on Héber at halftime. Daniel wrote that Deila is “looking for an offensive spark to either win, or tie the game back up,” and while Héber’s header was merely a 92nd-minute consolation goal, it was one of the few positive moments for an NYCFC team that has yet to impress in league games.

Go ahead, savor the entire run of play: The calm pass from Gedion Zelalem to Thiago Martins, the easy ball to Alfredo Morales, the lofted cross into the top of the box, the expertly-placed header by Héber into the back of the net.

The bad

Complaining about poor refereeing is an exercise in futility, and about as effective as calling 311 to get an ice cream truck to stop playing the Mister Softee jingle while parked. That and $2.75 will get you a ride on the subway.

But it’s hard to let go of what happened at the start of the game. Fist Canadian referee Drew Fischer gave a penalty to NYCFC in the eighth minute, then he took it away. The sequence of blunders that led the referee to overturn his own call and retract a yellow card shown to Toronto’s Kosi Thompson was so egregious that the Professional Referee Organization issued an official statement acknowledging that Fischer was wrong: There is no doubt that NYCFC should have been awarded a penalty.

First, Talles Magno was fouled: Thompson ran into him, clipping his feet with his knee and sending him to the grass. Second, the play never should have been reviewed by VAR referee Carol Anne Chenard: Not only was there no “clear and obvious error,” the original call was correct. Third, the VAR review didn’t include an angle that plainly shows the foul. Fourth, Fischer shouldn’t have overturned his own call when the poor VAR footage didn’t conclusively demonstrate that the original foul was wrong.

This Chernobyl-like series of failed decisions robbed NYCFC of a chance to take an early lead, allowed Thompson to play without a caution, and shifted momentum to Toronto. You can argue that it didn’t directly cost NYCFC the game, but the referee’s mistake did an excellent job of derailing what had been a strong start.

It brings to mind another blown call last year involving these same two clubs: Goalkeeper Bono punted the ball into the back of the head of Jesús Medina, the deflection went into the goal, and referee David Gantar incorrectly nullified the goal. PRO issued a statement that the goal should have stood, and had Gantar made the correct decision, NYCFC would have won the game 2-1. Whoopsies.

The ugly

The truth is, this game shouldn’t have hinged on a blown call in the 8th minute and a Héber header in storage time. NYCFC played better than it had in recent weeks, but for all the talent this club has cultivated in recent years the team that took the field was fragile and flawed.

It wasn’t just the defense, which has yet to integrate center-back Martins, and which was forced to use a second-choice Chris Gloster at left-back and a repurposed Nicolás Acevedo at right-back. Martins figured into both of Toronto’s goals, first letting Jesús Jimenez wrong-foot him in the 31st minute, then heading a cross into his own net in the 43rd minute. But those mistakes were the result of poor communication and organization that allowed Toronto to exploit obvious weaknesses along the channels. Only Alexander Callens put in a champion-level performance.

And it wasn’t just the midfield, which fell into the old habit of possession without purpose. A lineup with Talles Magno, Keaton Parks, Santiago Rodríguez, Maxi Moralez, and Alfredo Morales should strike fear in the other team, but the midfield’s passing sequences often end with a poorly-placed ball that was a little too impatient and a little too ambitious: All Toronto had to do was wait for NYCFC to give away the ball.

It was also the attack, which looked like it had run out of ideas. Run up the flanks, cross into the box, try (and fail) to get off a shot, then do it again, and again. Rinse and repeat.

At several points in the game, three NYCFC attackers would stand in a line just onside the defenders, waiting for a cross. They looked like birds on a fence: There was no movement, no late runner, no creation of space. NYCFC managed 15 shots, but a good number of those came from the unlikely trio of Callens, Parks, and Morales—they managed just five goals between them last year. They were taking shots because they were trying to do something, anything, to get the team back into the game.

Let’s celebrate the good, and Héber’s exquisite goal: May it be the first of many. Let’s let go of the bad. Referees gonna referee.

Most importantly, let’s be strong enough to face the ugly. NYCFC didn’t lose the game because of the blown call, they lost because the team haven’t been able to capitalize on the phenomenal talent of players like Taty Castellanos and Talles Magno, and they haven’t bunkered down to help players like Gloster. If New York City are to win, they need to make better use of their strengths, and be smarter about minimizing their weaknesses.