The CONCACAF club championship is historically nightmarish for American teams, particularly since it was reborn as the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008. In 60 years, an American team has only won twice: DC United in 1998, then the LA Galaxy two years later.
Since 2006, Mexican teams have won every single year. Occasionally, an MLS team makes it to the semifinals; four times, an MLS team has vied for the continental title, only to inevitably fall short. This year is different. In the quarterfinals, MLS teams held the advantage in all four matchups: The prospect of an all-MLS semifinal was tantalizingly close.
CF Montreal and New England Revolution eventually lost to Mexico’s Cruz Azul and UNAM Pumas, but the Seattle Sounders got past Club León, and despite a shambolic performance in the second leg, New York City FC outlasted Comunicaciones FC.
This was the backdrop to last night’s matchup between New York City FC and Seattle, the first time two MLS teams have met in the semifinals of this competition. The Pigeons, truthfully, haven’t been good since edging past their Guatemalan hosts in the CCL. They lost three straight games: The game against Comunicaciones, and two games in MLS.
Could they right themselves against a tempered, veteran Sounders team?
Seattle is in excellent form: On a five-game unbeaten streak, playing at home in front of thousands of fans, they had every reason to expect that they’d win last night. But CCL is a daft competition—strange things happen here. Early on, the Pigeons flew, taking the game to the Sounders. New York City was looking for a crucial away goal, but their efforts were for naught.
NYCFC: 9 shots, 5 on goal, 45% possession, 393 passes, 85% pass accuracy
Seattle Sounders: 12 shots, 6 on goal, 55% possession, 479 passes, 86% pass accuracy
From the 10th minute onward, Seattle was ascendant. It wasn’t that New York City were playing badly—Seattle were just that much better. The pressure built. In the 16th minute, it paid off. First, Alex Roldan with a one-touch pass to his brother Cristian Roldan, then a one-touch pass from Roldan to Jordan Morris, and a one-touch pass to Albert Rusnak, who delivered a one-touch goal.
Just like that, Seattle led 1-0. Eleven minutes later, New York City equalized on a goal by Thiago that took advantage of a defensive breakdown by the Sounders. There it was, that crucial away goal.
But Seattle were undeterred, and still in control. In the 35th minute, Jordan Morris made a shaky New York City backline pay, and gave Seattle a 2-1 lead.
From there, Seattle were in the driver’s seat. The Pigeons had chances, and Seattle’s defense invariably snuffed them. But as long as NYCFC could keep it at 2-1, losing last night wouldn't matter as much thanks to the away goal rule—a rule that saved them in Guatemala.
They could not hold the scoreline thanks to an extremely questionable VAR decision coming in the 68th minute. Raul Ruidiaz, the Sounders’ excellent striker, made a run into the box and clashed with a Pigeons defender, then sold the hell of his incidental contact. The referee, Luis Santander, initially waved off the incident, but then the VAR official, Fernando Guerrero Ramirez, called his attention to it.
Herein lies the problem with this kind of video review. Invariably, incidental contact that wouldn’t rise to the level of a foul in the run of play becomes amplified when you slow it down and repeatedly look at it in isolation. Officials, being human, will grant the penalty kick
Which is what happened. Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro took the penalty, and buried it. Seattle now had a two-goal cushion at 3-1. Despite New York City’s best efforts, they could not notch another goal. Seattle’s defense was sufficiently sturdy that despite the occasional foray forward, you never got the sense that they’d surrender a second goal. In fact, the Sounders were dominant enough in the last ten minutes of the match that scoring a fourth or a fifth goal was eminently possible.
Fortunately for New York City’s hopes in this competition, the scoreline stood. The Pigeons have a full week to rest and plan how they’ll handle Seattle in the return leg. They will play the Sounders at Red Bull Arena at 9 pm ET next Tuesday, April 13.
Now, here are five thoughts for the five boroughs:
Thiago Martins is nowhere near DP level right now
New York City signed Brazilian center-back Thiago Martins from fellow City Football Group club Yokohama F. Marinos to replace an aging Maxime Chanot. It isn’t working out: Martins has been somewhere between adequate and abysmal in every match he’s played. Granted, there’s a certain level of adjustment that comes with playing in MLS, a league that’s extremely different from Japan’s J League or Brazil’s Serie A, where Martins has spent most of his career.
But adjustment doesn’t explain why he lost Albert Rusnák on the first goal last night, or Jordan Morris on the second. His “foul” on Ruidiaz resulted in the game’s third goal for Seattle. Martins looked lost out there. At one point in the first half, fellow center-back Alex Callens was audibly berating him on the broadcast.
Manager Ronny Deila is now faced with an unpleasant choice: Does he bench Martins in favor of Chanot in order to solidify the backline? Or does he stick with Martins, hoping against all evidence that this will all work itself out? Benching him, while it may have short-term benefits, has the additional peril of destroying whatever is left of Martins’s confidence right now.
New York City are still in this
Yes, they were thoroughly outclassed last night. Yes, Seattle are the strong favorites to win next Tuesday. But Thiago’s goal means that a 2-0 win will see the Pigeons through to their first continental final, where they’ll face the winner of Cruz Azul-UNAM Pumas over two legs. If NYCFC get an early goal, suddenly things get very interesting.
Does losing 3-1 last night sting? Yes. Is it catastrophic? No. Martins aside, New York City played fine. It wasn’t their best performance by any means, but if they’d played badly, the scoreline would’ve looked more like 6-1 or 7-1. A 3-1 scoreline is a fair reflection of how well Seattle played, and also of how well New York City stayed in this game.
The Pigeons need to work the ball into the box
At times, it seemed like the offensive plan began and ended with lifting crosses into the box and hoping that striker Taty Castellanos – or really anyone, didn't matter who – could get to it and do something productive. In other words, the game plan was “throw it into the mixer!”
That’s not going to work against a disciplined team like the Seattle Sounders. An alternate approach could feature the ageless Maxi Moralez conducting the offense in midfield, and potentially bringing New York City’s one-time talismanic striker Héber off the bench to unlock the Sounders’ defense. The former would address the Pigeon’s shaky, at-times disconnected midfield; the latter would give NYCFC another scoring option besides Castellanos or Thiago.
New York City have to keep a clean sheet
Again, easier said than done. They haven’t logged a shutout so since March 5, when they drew Vancouver 0-0 in their second MLS game. Since then, New York City have given up 13 goals over the last month. They’ve also scored 11 goals in that span: We know the Pigeons can score, but the question is whether they can keep the other guys from scoring.
A huge part of this comes down to the shaky defense, particularly the backline. Deila has a week to figure out whether Thiago Martins can make it work, or whether it’s time to bring back Chanot. Given the stakes, I would bench Martins, but I’m not the one privy to whatever data tells Deila that it’s worth keeping him as a starter. I do know that given the interplay I saw last night between Callens and Martins, I would bench him. It seems that Callens simply doesn’t trust Martins to do a good job, and the two of them lack playing cohesion right now.
Seattle are the favorites to win next week
Deila said in his post-game remarks that NYCFC “controlled 80-90%” of the game. That’s not what the stats show.
Seattle played a comprehensively dominating game. Again: New York City FC did not play badly. Seattle was just that good. There’s nothing wrong with noting that fact! New York City did what they had to do in scoring an away goal, and giving themselves a shot at winning the two-leg matchup at “home” next week.
Real talk: Over the last seven or so years, the Seattle Sounders have become the dynastic team in MLS, supplanting the LA Galaxy in that position. They’re probably the best-run club in the league, they’re deeply experienced and skilled, and all of that was on evidence tonight. An estimated crowd of 31,000 watched Seattle throttle and control an extremely talented New York City team.
Do I think New York City can win next week? Yes, of course. This team is highly talented. Seattle’s defense was wobbly at various points last night, enough so that the Pigeons could’ve nicked another away goal. They could certainly surrender one or two goals next week.
The challenge is that Seattle’s front six is playing at an elite level right now, and NYCFC’s defense is not. Given all that New York City don’t need to score once or twice, they’ll probably have to score three or four times. I simply don’t see them doing that, not against this Seattle team.
I would love to be wrong. I’m probably not. Then again, as one of the great theorists of the game once said: Der Ball ist rund, und das Spiel dauert 90 Minuten. Alles andere ist reine Theorie.
The ball is round, and the game is 90 minutes long. Everything else is pure theory.