Right now, New York City FC’s defense is the story.
When NYCFC started their current unbeaten run on April 17, it was the fire-breathing attack that grabbed the headlines: There was the historic 6-0 demolishing of Sporting Kansas City, the close shave of a 5-4 win over Toronto FC, and the 3-0 dismantling of San Jose Earthquakes. Those combined 14 goals in three games made it seem like NYCFC forwards were scoring for fun.
Since then, the attack has scored just five goals in four games, and NYCFC’s best-in-MLS run of form has been built on an aggressive, organized, muscular defense that logged four clean sheets in a row, allowing just a single shot on target in the last three games—and that lonely attempt took place in the 90th minute of yesterday’s game against Chicago Fire. If you can't shoot you can’t score, and the NYCFC defense is making it hard for other teams to get off a shot.
On the other end of the field, a New York City attack that was without Taty Castellanos did their job, but only just. Héber converted a penalty for the game’s one goal, papering over the missed chances and poor choices that kept the match unnecessarily close, and turned what should have been a comfortable win into a nervy contest that had the announced crowd counting of 18,823 counting the seconds until the final whistle was blown.
Still, it was a well-earned result that put NYCFC in second place in the Eastern Conference with 23 points after 12 games—New York City trails Philadelphia Union by one point with one game in hand. The view looks good from up here.
NYCFC: 15 shots, 5 on goal, 61.8% possession, 493 passes, 81.3% accuracy
Chicago: 10 shots, 1 on goal, 38.2% possession, 293 passes, 70.3% accuracy
Starsky and Hutch
The center-back partnership is arguably the most important relationship on the field. It’s also the most intimate. The two defenders work in tandem every minute of the game, and the best center-back pairings have the easy familiarity of partners in a vintage cop show: They're Starsky and Hutch, prowling the streets of Bay City in their gassed-up Gran Torino, eating lunch side-by-side in the front seats then gunning the engine and throwing the burgers out the window when dispatch puts a call out on the radio.
You don’t become Starsky and Hutch overnight: We knew it would take time for the chemistry to develop between center-backs Alexander Callens, the Peru international who joined NYCFC in 2017, and Thiago Martins, the J1 League star who was signed in February. Still, some of the defensive lapses we saw at the beginning of the MLS season and in the CONCACAF Champions League made us doubt the wisdom of replacing the aging but battle-tested Maxime Chanot with Martins, a Designated Player who draws the highest salary on the team.
Callens always puts in a powerful performance. Easily the most consistently excellent player on the team, you see why he's a starter for a Peruvian national team that’s one win away from going to the 2022 FIFA World Cup Finals. Martins was another matter. He could be jumpy, or get caught out of position. But his performances have improved with every game, and as he adjusts to the league you can see how Callens and Martins could become the best center-back pairing in MLS.
Yesterday, the defense neutralized Chicago’s Xherdan Shaqiri, effectively nullifying an attack that had the one-sentence game plan to run everything through the No 10. Chicago scored three goals against New Jersey Red Bulls last Wednesday, and they had their moments against NYCFC, but Callens and Martins did enough to disrupt the flow of play to help preserve the clean sheet.
The last time NYCFC allowed a goal was April 24, five weeks ago.
A post-Taty attack
The Chicago that scored three against New Jersey also allowed three goals last Wednesday — and two goals against Cincinnati FC the game before that, and four goals against Atlanta United FC the game before that, and two goals to New Jersey again before that, and three goals to Minnesota United the game before that. It makes NYCFC’s single goal seem a little small.
The penalty awarded to NYCFC that Héber converted in the 23rd minute was enough to win the game, but it shouldn’t have been so close. It wasn't a full-strength attack. Héber played striker in place of Castellanos, who was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, and Thiago started in place of Talles Magno, who was on the bench after putting in a hard shift in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over DC United. But Maxi Moralez, Gabriel Pereira, and Santiago Rodríguez were all on the field: NYCFC had six legit goal-scorers in the starting lineup, and none scored a goal from open play.
In fact, NYCFC have never scored a goal from open play this season when Castellanos was out of the lineup. New York City were held scoreless by Sporting Kansas City at Citi Field on May 7 and managed just three shots on goal when the striker was out with an injury.
That’s not a good look.
Castellanos does more than score goals, he harasses the opposing defense and creates opportunities for the rest of the NYCFC attack. His ridiculously high work rate breaks down defenders, and it sets the pace for his teammates: New York City play harder when Taty is on the field.
Héber is a different breed of striker. Sneaky and stealthy, he’s an opportunist and a poacher, and while he remains a fan favorite, the nature of his play raises questions. While Taty is all kinetic energy, making runs that pull apart the defense, Héber was often static in the box, lined up with the defenders and waiting for an opportunity to present itself. It could be that he will grow into the striker role just as Martins is doing as a center-back, but in this recent run of form, NYCFC have scored 18 goals and taken 15 of 15 points when Casteallnos has led the attack. New York City have scored one goal and taken four of six points behind Héber.
Let’s put that aside for now. We crunched some more numbers, and they look good — especially when you consider NYCFC’s sow start to the season.
- Wins: NYCFC have seven wins in 12 games played; last year, NYCFC had 14 wins total in 34 games played
- Clean sheets: Sean Johnson leads MLS with seven clean sheets; he had nine in all of last season
- Goals allowed: NYCFC have allowed only 10 goals in 12 games, good for second-best (Philadelphia have allowed nine goals in 13 games)
- Goals scored: NYCFC have scored 24 goals, which ties them for third place with a game in hand (LAFC has 27, Austin FC has 26)
- Goal differential: NYCFC have a goal differential of +14, the best in MLS
- Supporters’ Shield: NYCFC are in fourth place with a game in hand, behind LAFC, Austin, and Philadelphia
- Points per game: NYCFC are in second place with 1.92, behind LAFC with 2.0
- Home Record: NYCFC have the best home record in MLS, with six wins, one draw, and one loss
One more thing
There was strong hall monitor energy coming from referee Fotis Bazakos, who had more than a few petty moments on the field. While he didn’t blow any major calls, and he correctly gave NYCFC a penalty after consulting VAR, he handed out a few fouls and yellow cards for what seemed like thought crimes — it felt like it wasn't enough to accept a call that goes against you, you also have to agree with it and thank the ref.
To be honest, we were a little worried about the fitness level of Bazakos. It was unseasonably hot, and the temperature on the field rose above 90˚ at the start of the match — the 42-year-old had more of a Fourth Official physique, somebody who spends some time working his way through the delicious concessions at Citi Field, than somebody who started doing yoga late in life.
Take care of yourself, Bazakos.
NYCFC, Héber 23’ (P)
Referee: Fotis Bazakos
Assistant Referee: Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho, Lyes Arfa
Fourth Official: Greg Dopka
VAR Referees: Drew Fischer
Assistant VAR Referee: Jeff Muschik