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Cruise control

NYCFC blank Columbus 2-0 in the Bronx for third clean sheet in a row

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC
Somebody turned the steam vents up to 11.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, New York City FC cruised to a comfortable, professional win, beating Columbus Crew 2-0 on a rainy afternoon in the Bronx. It was New York City’s third clean sheet in a row in league play, and the fifth for the club in ten matches this season.

New York City are now on a five-game unbeaten streak in MLS since crashing out of the CONCACAF Champions League to Seattle Sounders, scoring 16 goals and allowing just four.

Manager Ronny Delia lined up the team the same 4-2-3-1 formation he has used for every MLS game this year – go with what you know – but with some notable changes in personnel. Maxi Moralez took over the No 6 role from Alfredo Morales and functioned like a deep-lying playmaker, while Santiago Rodríguez took the No 10 role and pulled the strings in the attack. Midfielder Nicolás Acevedo played right-back in place of an absent Tayvon Gray, bringing his technical abilities to the defensive line.

It worked. NYCFC looked comfortable all over the pitch, and Columbus didn’t manage a single shot on goal.

Game Stats

NYCFC: 21 shots, 6 on goal, 53.4% possession, 484 passes, 83.9% pass accuracy
Columbus Crew: 9 shots, 0 on goal, 46.6% possession, 419 passes, 80.4% pass accuracy

Maxi in the back

The decision to play Moralez in the No 6 role seemed as much a pragmatic decision as a creative one. Moralez started as the No 10 in the first five games this season, but after suffering a rib injury in training Rodriguez took over that position — and NYCFC went on a tear. Acevedo has been the No 6 for the past three games, but he was tasked to step into Gray’s role in the defense. So far, so pragmatic.

The creativity comes into play with the decision to bench the highly-performing Morales, who started in the No 6 position five times this year, in favor of Moralez, who is considered one of the best attacking midfielders in the history of MLS. It was an inspired decision. Moralez’s cool decision-making on the ball calmed a defense that has looked jumpy in recent games.

“He is the smartest football player on that pitch,” Deila said in the postgame press conference. “He can play every position except goalkeeper. I think he’s a bit too small for that. He organizes the team, he can run, and on the ball he is really good. That was the positive of playing him in that role. When he plays 10 he comes down to get the ball so he is already in that position. The biggest thing is if he can do the defensive work and he is smart in his positioning and I think he did really well.”

Still, Moralez contributed to the attack, and made what is surely the MLS Assist of the Week when he saw that Columbus was playing an irresponsibly high line, and released Taty Castellanos with a gorgeous ball over the top. It’s a remarkable run of play. Keaton Parks dispossess Columbus, and the ball rolls to Moralez’s feet. He walks to it, looks up, and makes a perfect pass that Castellanos finishes like he’s already playing in Europe:

Will we see Moralez play the No 6 again? Probably. It worked against Columbus, who don’t have much of an attack; it could work against DC United on Wednesday, and Chicago on Sunday — wouldn’t we all like to see Maxi face off against Xherdan Shaqiri? When NYCFC play a more offensively-capable team we might see Morales back in the Starting XI

Talles and Taty

The Talles and Taty tandem is finally starting to click.

It might seem imbecilic to criticize what is arguably the most potent attack in MLS, but for all of the goals that NYCFC do score there are plenty of missed opportunities, wasted shots, long passages when the team seem to run out of ideas. NYCFC have five clean sheets, but New York City has also gone scoreless in four games.

Early on in the season, part of the problem seemed to come from Talles Magno playing on the left, which shifted Castellanos to a more central role. Castellanos became the best striker in MLS by roaming on the left and making incisive runs into the box, but now he was asked to play slightly out of position, and it showed.

The two are performing better as a strike partnership, but there are still improvements to be made. Both Talles Magno and Castellanos work hard, terrorizing defenses with their physicality and relentless drives, but Talles Magno can have a sloppy first touch that gives the other team an opening to dispossess him or disrupt his play. By contrast, the first touch of Castellanos can be pure poetry. Let’s watch his goal again but from a different angle:

Still, Talles Magno is good and getting better — you can see why many think he’s the future. And if the future isn’t here yet, that’s cool. It’s coming soon.

The goal he scored in the ninth minute is mesmerizing: Talles Magno conjures it out of thin air, dissecting four Columbus defenders and crossing up the goalkeeper. All those players in yellow kicking out with their feet and turning one way and the other, and nobody manages even to touch the ball:

A game in hand

After a rough start to the season, New York City now sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, three points behind first-place CF Montréal with a game in hand. NYCFC are second in goals scored in the Eastern Conference, with 21 (Montréal have 22), and second in fewest goals allowed, with 10 (New Jersey Red Bulls have nine). The view from here is good.

Most importantly, this five-game undefeated streak isn’t streaky. New York City are consistently playing the kind of attractive, progressive, possessive soccer that’s in the club’s DNA — NYCFC are controlling games they should control, and finding a way to get a result when things get tough. NYCFC have been in the driver’s seat for the last five weeks.

There are still questions to be answered — the defense can be shaky, and the attack need to figure out how to break apart the kind of bunkered-down defenses used by Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia Union — but the team aren’t just improving, they're becoming more adaptive. Deila might always line NYCC up in a 4-3-2-1, but within that structure we’re starting to see a the kind of versatility that wins games.

Goals:

NYCFC, Talles Magno 9’
NYCFC, Taty Castellanos 57’

Attendance: 18,813

Referee: Marcos de Oliveira
Assistant Referee: Jose Da Silva, Tyler Wyrostek
Fourth Official: Luis Arroyo
VAR Referees: Sorin Stoica
Assistant VAR Referee: Michael Kampmeinert