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Sluggish, predictable NYCFC lose to Philadelphia Union, fall out of first place

Anton Tinnerholm returns to action as Nick Cushing remains winless since becoming interim head coach

MLS: New York City FC at Philadelphia Union
It was that kind of day.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results”

For the third time in as many games, New York City FC’s free-flowing style of play was brought to its knees by an opponent that ceded possession, clogged the box, committed fouls, and found a way to score. It should come as a surprise that Philadelphia Union followed this game plan on their way to win 2-1 at home in Subaru Park: It’s what they do, and it’s why they now sit on top of the Eastern Conference with only one loss in 16 games played so far this season.

It should also come as no surprise that NYCFC failed to make the necessary adjustments to overcome the sort of negative soccer they faced yesterday in Chester, PA. Last week, a deeply mediocre Colorado Rapids playing without their top scorer managed to steal a draw at Yankee Stadium; on Wednesday, a much tougher New Jersey Red Bulls pulled apart NYCFC 3-0. New York City’s attack might be the most exciting and elegant in MLS but the rest of the league have figured out how to throw off their rhythm, and NYCFC haven’t yet figured out how to recover their poise.

First, Colorado ended NYCFC’s six-game shutout streak. Now Philadelphia ended New York City’s nine-game undefeated streak, and became the first team to beat them since April 2. NYCFC are still one of the better teams in MLS, with the third-best points per game in the league after LAFC and Philadelphia, but if the club are going to stay at the top of the table their tactics must evolve and the quality of their play must improve.

Game Stats

NYCFC: 10 shots, 5 on goal, 58.6% possession, 475 passes, 81.9% accuracy, 12 fouls

Philadelphia: 12 shots, 6 on goal, 41.4% possession, 334 passes, 68.3% accuracy, 21 fouls

Slow, predictable

The fire-breathing attack that carried New York City through April and May is a shell of their former selves now that summer is here: NYCFC’s runs at the goal are sluggish, predictable, and easy to diffuse. There were times yesterday when it seemed that NYCFC weren't playing a competitive game as much as blocking out a play on the training field, slowly trotting into position without demonstrating any real intention of doing anything with the ball should it land at their feet.

Talles Magno was the exception. The midfielder often tracked back to NYCFC’s penalty box to retrieve the ball, then carry it up the field to try to get it to Taty Castellanos, who was always surrounded by at least four Philadelphia defenders. The math on the field was confusing. Somehow the Union always had number back in the box ready to defend, and always managed a three-on-three run at Sean Johnson.

More to the point, the Union attack was quick and unpredictable. While Philadelphia’s 35-year-old Alejandro Bedoya was running the length of the field and providing quality service into the box, 24-year-old Malte Amundsen would pass the ball up NYCFC’s left flank and simply stop moving. Amundsen came in as a second-half sub, and was an improvement over starter Chris Gloster, and the lack of involvement from the wingbacks made NYCFC’s attack easy to track, and easy to defend.

Don’t let NYCFC’s final xG fool you: Around .8 of that 1.27 came from the penalty kick that Castellanos converted in the 89th minute. NYCFC’s xG was less than .5 up until then.

This lack of creativity and danger isn’t new. NYCFC was held scoreless by New Jersey, and scored against hapless Colorado only because of the individual brilliance of Maxi Moralez, who provided the assist, and Talles Magno, who demonstrated world-class quality. The club’s lone goal against Minnesota was an Alexander Callens header off a set-piece, and the team’s one goal against a disorganized Chicago Fire was a Héber penalty.

Hack the attack

Being a referee is a thankless job. The role is essential to the game – no refs, no soccer – but you’re ignored when you do your job well and savagely criticized when you make a mistake. For the most part, referees sincerely don't want their calls to determine the game: They want the play to unfold with as little interference as possible. Only that tendency can be manipulated and turned into an advantage when one team fouls early and fouls often but with the kind of minor infractions that don’t get called right away, but they neutralize the flow of play and get under the skin of the opponent.

We saw that yesterday, when Philadelphia’s incessant fouling at the start of the match wasn't enough to be whistled but did just enough to throw NYCFC off their game. We also saw that on Wednesday against the Red Bulls, and last Sunday against Colorado. To be certain, the ref sees them as well, but he lets the fouls go because he doesn't want to be the ref who stops the game every few seconds — he doesn't want to be the ref who kills soccer.

Instead, he’s the ref who rewards the negative team. That changes around 20 minutes into the game, when the ref starts calling fouls once he sees that he’s in danger of losing control of the game — he doesn’t want to be the ref who kills soccer. But the mental and physical damage has been done by then: All those knocks, and clipped heels, and shirt-pulls take their toll.

Philadelphia’s 21 called fouls were far and away the most committed by any team this weekend; Colorado’s 21 fouls were easily the most by any team the weekend before. For their part, New Jersey committed 23 fouls on NYCFC in the US Open Cup. These numbers stand out considering that most MLS teams commit between eight and 15 fouls per game.

The question remains: What will NYCFC do about it? The club can’t change refereeing culture, though it would be smart to flag these concerns to PRO Referees. The fact is, other teams see a tactical advantage to fouling NYCFC, and will continue to do it. It’s up to New York City to formulate a response.

About that red card

Philadelphia trainer Paul Rushing was shown a red card in the 79th minute for shoving Nicolás Acevedo and other NYCFC players after he ran onto the field to attend to Union forward Julian Carranza. Strange times on the banks of the Delaware.

Rushing fist-bumped fans as he left the field, and has since become a minor cult hero for taking a stand. Nonsense: The fans liked it because he acted like a fan, but he’s not a fan, he’s a professional who agreed to a code of conduct and who failed to control himself. His job is to take care of the physical and medical needs of his players, not act like the heavy in a small-market entourage.

Men can get so emotional.

Philadelphia, Mikael Uhre 9’
NYCFC, Taty Castellanos 89’ (P)
Philadelphia, Cory Burke 90+6’

NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez, dissent, yellow card 13’
NYCFC, Alexander Callens, “other reason,” yellow card 79’
NYCFC, Taty Castellanos, “other reason,” yellow card 80’
Philadelphia, Julián Carranza, foul, yellow card 81’
NYCFC, Maxi Moralez, dissent, yellow card 87’

Attendance: 18,598

Referee: Armando Villarreal
Assistant Referees: Matthew Nelson, Jose Da Silva
Fourth Official: Guido Gonzales Jr.
VAR Referee: Jorge Gonzalez
Assistant VAR Referee: Michael Kampmeinert