Let's start with the head-butt.
Rather, let's start with the run of play that led up to the endline tussle between New York City FC forward Thiago and New Jersey Red Bulls defender John Tolkin.
Thiago’s flanking run into the box almost presented a dangerous opportunity for NYCFC: He danced around Tom Edwards on the left, who responded with a two-handed shove and chopped at his heels, but when Thiago went to collect the ball just inside the line defender Sean Nealis gave him a hard body check. Thiago – and the rest of the New York City attack –had been hacked and fouled by the Red Bulls for over 60 minutes, and when defender Tolkin crossed the field to bait Thiago with some standard-issue trash-talking, the 21-year-old Brazilian lost his cool and made a head-butting lunge directly in front of referee Matthew Thompson.
The red card came out instantly, and at that moment New York City, already down 1-0 at Red Bull Arena, handed the game to New Jersey. The Red Bulls went on to win 3-0, and will advance to the semifinal of the US Open Cup.
The red card was deserved: Lunging into a head-butt while the ref is inches away and looking straight at you was an astonishingly unprofessional lapse of judgment. But you could make the argument that Thiago never should have been at the endline, that Thompson’s non-calls let New Jersey get away with fouls others would have disciplined, that NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing waited too long to substitute frustrated starters who were losing their composure — Thiago’s replacement, Talles Magno, was standing on the sideline and waiting to be waved on the field.
Thiago’s sending off was less about his individual actions than it was a result of how the Red Bulls played NYCFC — and how New York City didn’t make the adjustments they needed to win a game they could have sealed up in the first half.
NYCFC: 9 shots, 3 on goal, 65.3% possession, 441 passes, 78% accuracy, 16 fouls
Red Bulls: 9 shots, 5 on goal, 34.7% possession, 237 passes, 57% accuracy, 23 fouls
Cede possession, clog the box
MLS teams have figured out how to play NYCFC. Yes, the Pigeons are still on a nine-game unbeaten streak in league matches, but there has been a steady decline in their performances, and the most recent games are far less convincing than the wins posted in April and early May. In the 1-0 win over Chicago Fire at Citi Field, the 1-0 away win against Minnesota United, and the 1-1 draw against Colorado Rapids in the Bronx, NYCFC managed just three goals against three weak opponents. True, that run of games is good for seven points on the table, but they also reveal the flaws in New York City’s game plan.
All three teams ceded possession, and let NYCFC dominate the run of play. And all three teams clogged up the box, bunkering down to congest the channels and clearing the crosses that make it through. That kind of soccer isn’t pretty, but it gives less technical teams a fighting chance against the free-flowing attack of NYCFC. In every one of those games, NYCFC ran out of ideas: You could see Taty Castellanos or Talles Magno standing at the top of the box like they were waiting in line, letting Malte Amundsen or Tayvon Gray run up the flanks, cross the ball, then recover and do it again. Rinse and repeat.
NYCFC edged Chicago on a penalty kick, and beat Minnesota on a header from a corner: New York City easily won the possession game but barely managed to find goals. That came to haunt them when they played Colorado, which took the lead after scoring with their single shot on goal: A more clinical and decisive NYCFC would have been up 3-0 at the half, not fighting for an equalizer.
True, Talles Magno scored a goal that was so elegant, and of such quality, that it gives us hope for this year and beyond. But Colorado were in a terrible run of form, and were missing their best goal scorer. That game on Sunday wasn't a well-fought draw that extended NYCFC’s unbeaten streak, it was dropped points at home against a mediocre team. It was a warning bell.
Rinse and repeat: Last night New Jersey ceded possession, holding the ball for just 34.7% of the game, and clogged the box, frustrating New York City. When a mid-table side does that in Yankee Soccer Stadium, it ends in a draw. When a team such as Red Bulls do that at home, they win.
Fouls and flops
Another thing NYCFC’s opponents have in common: They foul early and often, agitating New York City players, and they go down easily, so they get the calls. In the Colorado game, NYCFC players were flagged for fouls when they were simply outplaying their opponents — if a Rapids player lost his footing, the play was stopped and he was even the ball. It was like watching an intramural game where the ref wants to make things even, so nobody feels bad.
The fouls were more cunning last night. Thompson, the head referee, had never called an MLS game – he was literally out of his league – and the Red Bulls took full advantage of his lack of top-flight experience. Early on in the game, Taty Castellanos was given a two-handed shove from behind inside the penalty box, but he stayed on his feet, tried to regain control of the ball, and didn’t get the call. A few minutes later, Keaton Parks cleanly stripped the ball away from New Jersey’s Luquinhas, who yelled, and rolled, and held his leg. Parks was shown a yellow card. You can see it here:
While neither play determined the result of the game, those and countless other moments established a pattern, and the refereeing gave cover to Red Bulls players who were allowed to frustrate and agitate an NYCFC squad that couldn’t create quality chances, and that couldn’t catch a break with the officials until it was too late.
When Thiago lost his cool, he was correctly shown a red card for what he did. But maybe he wouldn't have lost his cool had the ref done a better job of controlling the game — and had NYCFC had a better plan of attack when facing a Red Bull squad who knew exactly how to play them.
They cracked the code: Now what?
Let’s go with the idea that this game didn’t really matter — it’s just a cup game, and while it hurts to lose to the Red Bulls the fact is that NYCFC are in first place in the Eastern Conference, with one point more than New Jersey and two games in hand.
But NYCFC are about to enter their most challenging run of games since the start of the season. New York City will play Philadelphia Union away on Sunday, an insurgent Cincinnati FC away next Wednesday, Atlanta United at home, New England Revolution at home, FC Dallas away on short rest, and Red Bulls away on short rest. That’s six games against six tough opponents over the course of three weeks.
Earlier this season, New York City lost to Philadelphia at Yankee Stadium 2-0. Philadelphia ceded possession, letting NYCFC control the ball an astonishing 73.2% of the time, and clogged up the box. The Union were remarkably opportunistic. Despite barely controlling the ball they managed to launch 13 shots, four of which were on target — and two of those went in. If you want to figure out how to beat NYCFC, rewatch that match.
Chances are that Philadelphia manager Jim Curtin will follow that same game plan once again. In part, it’s because it ain’t broke, so why fix it? The Union traveled to Portland and beat the Timbers 2-0 with 35% possession, and came oh-so-close to grabbing an away win against LAFC with 33% possession, but had to settle for a 2-2 draw. But mostly, it’s because he can’t get much more out of his players: Philadelphia win games by attrition.
The question is, what will Cushing do these next six games? Will he stay the course and play the free-flowing attacking football that won New York City the MLS Cup last year and brought them to first place in the Eastern Conference this season? Or will he face the diminishing returns of these past few games, and construct a more practical approach to playing teams that have figured out New York City? As the saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”
Sometimes NYCFC can seem aloof and dogmatic, and play how they play no matter who is on the schedule: The opposing teams are supposed to adjust to New York City, not the other way around. Maybe it’s time for a realpolitik answer. Last year, NYCFC opened the playoffs with a convincing 2-0 win over Atlanta United in which the Pigeons shelved their regular game plan. They ceded possession and attacked in transition: The Pigeons neutralized Ezequiel Barco, frustrated Josef Martínez, and outplayed George Bello and Miles Robinson.
The tactical flexibility worked: That New York City crafted a response to Atlanta, and went on to win it all. We’ll see what this New York City will do.
Red Bulls, Lewis Morgan 52’
Red Bulls, Luquinhas 70’
Red Bulls, Omir Fernandez 90+1’
NYCFC, Thiago red card 62’
NYCFC, Maxi Morlaez red card 90+6’
New Jersey, Tom Edwards red card 90+6’
Referee: Matthew Thompson
Assistant Referees: Ben Pilgrim, Tyler Wyrostek
Fourth Official: Luis Arroyo