A high-scoring draw is an unusual result by any footballing standard, but the 4-4 scoreline from the match between New York City FC and FC Cincinnati doesn’t even begin to tell the story of what happened last night at TQL Stadium in downtown Cincinnati.
Sloppy defending, exquisite goalscoring, a missed penalty, one goal scored by a scissor kick, another by a back-heel, a yellow card for celebrating a goal overturned by VAR, a hat-trick, blood: Both teams looked ridiculous at times and sublime at others. Cincinnati sprinted to a 3-0 lead only for the half to end all tied up after NYCFC scored three goals within seven minutes. New York City fans were crying in their beers one minute, shouting from their fire escapes the next as they were whipped around by an emotional rollercoaster that compressed a season’s worth of feelings into 90 minutes plus stoppage time.
Even if NYCFC didn't get the win, this game serves to remind us why MLS is so much fun.
NYCFC: 13 shots, 7 on goal, 55% possession, 490 passes, 84.1% accuracy, 9 fouls
FC Cincinnati: 15 shots, 9 on goal, 45% possession, 396 passes, 79.5% accuracy, 14 fouls
Is Héber back?
In theory, New York City’s attack is the most lethal in MLS, a lineup packed with proven goalscorers: Taty Castellanos and Talles Magno spearhead a front line that could include Héber, Thiago, Gabriel Pereira, Santiago Rodríguez, and Maxi Moralez depending on who is available. In practice, those players run hot and cold. Castellanos has been streaky, and Talles Magno is only beginning to find the back of the net. Thiago can put in player-of-the-match performances, or he can phone it in. Gabriel Pereira sometimes feels out of step with the rest of the squad. Rodríguez can look inexperienced, and Moralez can show his age.
For the most part, Héber hasn't been much of a factor in New York City’s attack. He scored a consolation goal against Toronto FC back in April, and he converted the game-winning penalty against Chicago Fire in May, but he was a little slow and a little out of synch. To put it more bluntly, he looked like a shadow of his former self since returning from injury — until last night. His two goals against Cincinnati were vintage Héber, as crisp and emphatic as anything he bagged in 2019.
The striker started last night in place of Castellanos (who, according to the club, remained in New York because of a mild illness), and to the surprise of many an armchair pundit he came through for the club. His first goal was a cool and professional strike in the second minute of first-half stoppage time: Moralez slips it through from the top of the box, and Héber makes the run. The finish is simple, and on-target, and out of the reach of 21-year-old Cincinnati keeper Roman Celentano.
H9 PUTS US BACK IN TOUCH pic.twitter.com/7IlwQFrivn— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) June 30, 2022
Héber scored his second goal just five minutes later, deep into stoppage time. Once again Maxi provided the assist, this time a curling free-kick that should be taught at the NYCFC Academy. Once again the goal is decisive, a powerful header that Celentano could only wave at as it passed him by. And once again, Héber was clinical, demonstrating a trait often missing from an NYCFC squad who are prone to waste the chances they create.
Is Héber back? We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks. But the pure quality of his goals, scored in the dying minutes of the first half against a Cincinnati that had relentlessly embarrassed NYCFC just minutes earlier, is a promising sign.
Good job, Ref
Referee Ismir Pekmic deserves to be praised for his work. It was a wild and energetic game that could have descended into chaos, but the fact that nobody is talking about the officiating indicates that it was professional and fair.
In large part, that’s because Pekmic called fouls as they happened. He whistled six fouls in the first ten minutes of the game, three against each team, and that set the tone for the rest of the game: Players knew they weren’t going to get away with anything. In the end the game saw 14 fouls called for Cincinnati and nine for New York City, with none of the ugly dust-ups we've seen in recent matches. In fact, the single most violent moment took place in the goal celebration after Luis Acosta scored a goal in the 15th minute — a Cincinnati teammate slammed into his face, lacerating the skin beneath his eye.
Compare that to the match against Colorado Rapids on June 19, when referee Marcos de Oliveira whistled only three fouls in the first ten minutes, essentially giving Colorado the green light to hack at NYCFC players they couldn’t defend. That game ended with 36 fouls, 21 by Colorado, and that number easily could/should be higher — Colorado got away with murder. Or the game against Philadelphia Union on Sunday, when referee Armando Villarreal called just three fouls in the first ten minutes, and the Union played a negative, cynical game in which they also earned 21 fouls. Philadelphia tested Villarreal, and he didn’t pass.
Cincinnati was far less physical than either of those teams, but by calling minor fouls and establishing that the rulebook mattered, Pekmic allowed for the game to unfold according to the strange, unexpected plans the gods of soccer had in mind.
Just as important, it bolstered his credibility. This was a match in which two Cincinnati goals were called back, and which NYCFC scored deep into stoppage time. Nobody questioned those pivotal decisions because Pekmic established his control and efficacy in the first few minutes of the game. Well done.
From the front to the back
New York City traveled to Ohio with a depleted squad. Not only was Castellanos not with the team, Anton Tinnerholm stayed home to spend time with his newborn daughter. Rodríguez was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, and center-back Thiago Martins continues to be sidelined with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
Then, shortly before the game started, NYCFC announced that Keaton Parks underwent surgery to remove a blood clot. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Parks, who was married last week, suffered from this condition: The midfielder was sidelined last November after blood clot surgery, and missed the MLS Cup playoffs. It was devastating news.
It would get worse.
In a futile attempt to keep the ball of out the net, center-back Maxime Chanot slid into the goal post, seemingly knocking his shin with so much force that the skin burst. He hobbled off the field, and interim head coach Nick Cushing shifted defensive midfielder Alfredo Morales into the defense and sub Justin Haak into the midfield. An already vulnerable defense had to be patched together with twine and rubber bands.
It showed. Cincinnati was rampant, scoring elegant goals and forcing Sean Johnson to make equally stunning saves. Without Johnson in goal, Cincinnati could have easily scored three more times.
At the other end of the field, NYCFC playmaker Maxi Moralez was regal, pulling the strings and providing three assists. He was arguably the best player on the pitch, but he also failed to convert from the spot, possibly costing his team the win.
Talles Magno continues to demonstrate why he’s the future of the club. As Hudson River Blue explained earlier this week, he's one of the most elite dribblers in MLS, but his finishing and passing need some work. Last night he scored an exquisite back-heel goal off a deflection for his fourth of the season, and his second in three games.
Talles hits back before the break with his fourth of the season pic.twitter.com/2FRmkMWPS6— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) June 30, 2022
Just seven minutes into the second half, Gabriel Periera scored a golazo from the top of the box, a curling left-footed shot that was past the keeper before he had the chance to lunge for it. ¡Hay Chihuahua Santa Maria! indeed.
That goal gave NYCFC a lead that wouldn’t stand. But this play and others give the club something to build on after three flat performances in which the opposition did just enough to destabilize a New York City that seemed to have lost their direction. NYCFC have yet to win a game under Cushing, but last night they played one of their most entertaining matches of the year, and for fifteen scintillating minutes they once again looked like the best team in MLS.
Cincinnati, Luciano Acosta 15’
Cincinnati, Brenner 24’
Cincinnati, Brenner 30’
NYCFC, Talles Magno 45’
NYCFC, Héber 45+2’
NYCFC, Héber 45+7’
NYCFC, Gabriel Periera 52’
Cincinnati, Brenner 70’
NYCFC, Justin Haak, foul, yellow card 31’
NYCFC, Alexander Callens, dissent, yellow card 31’
Cincinnati, Obinna Nwobodo, foul, yellow card 57’
Cincinnati, Allan Cruz, foul, yellow card 62’
Cincinnati, Brenner, excessive celebration, yellow card 90’
Referee: Ismir Pekmic
Assistant Referees: Andrew Bigelow, Charles Morgante
Fourth Official: Allen Chapman
VAR Referee: Kevin Stott
Assistant VAR Referee: Chantal Boudreau