The outrageous 4-4 draw between New York City FC and FC Cincinnati had a lot going on. Aside from the barrage of goals and late dramatics involving VAR and point-blank saves, the match also saw homegrown NYCFC midfielder Justin Haak log his first MLS minutes since 2019.
It came as something of a surprise to see the 20-year-old be interim manager Nick Cushing’s choice to replace Maxime Chanot, who hobbled off with a lower leg injury suffered on Cincinnati’s opening goal.
But times are currently tough in the middle of the field for NYCFC. Thiago Martins is still in the midst of his weeks-long recovery from an ankle injury, Santiago Rodríguez was missing due to a yellow card suspension, and the club announced just hours before kickoff that Keaton Parks was dealing with another blood clot.
So Cushing called on Haak, eschewing the like-for-like option of subbing on center-back Vuk Latinovic in favor of moving Alfredo Morales out of the midfield and into the role of makeshift CB.
It was not the smoothest of starts, as shortly after Haak’s introduction, Brenner quickly bagged his first two goals of the night to make it 3-0 Cincinnati. Haak would also earn a yellow card for a late lunge in the 31st minute, and in general, the early returns were not promising. Haak seemed out of sync with his teammates and a step behind the pace of play.
To the young midfielder’s credit, though, Haak settled in and was steady if unspectacular for the remainder of the topsy-turvy match. He was calm on the ball and ultimately completed 93% of his passes (27/29), providing decent support to Maxi Moralez in possession while chipping in defensively with a few key clearances late on.
It was a performance to build on, and with a number of injury concerns in the middle of the pitch and no replacements brought in for comparable midfield types like James Sands or Tony Rocha, this looks to be Haak’s best and biggest opportunity to make a mark with NYCFC’s first team.
Injuries have opened the door the widest for Haak. NYCFC has something of a crisis at center back if Chanot needs to miss any extended time after slamming his leg into a goal post. Alexander Callens is the last regular starter standing, and if Cushing prefers to pair him with Alfredo Morales over alternatives (Vuk Latinovich? Tayvon Gray? Other NYCFC II Youngster?), that clears a spot in the double-pivot in midfield that Haak can aim to occupy.
The central midfield depth chart used to be a lot deeper, but it continues to get whittled away. With this performance, Haak pushes himself into competition with Nicolás Acevedo for more minutes in NYCFC’s new post-Parks world, with opportunities also dependent on where players like Morales and Rodríguez line up.
This sniff of a first-team breakthrough has been a long time coming for Haak, who went on loan to Hartford in the USL in two straight seasons to get some professional minutes where he could. The arrival of MLS Next PRO and NYCFC II has seemed to aid in his development, as he’s turned in some great performances at that level while still remaining with the NYCFC first team for training and as a bench option on match days.
Ultimately, NYCFC’s best midfield likely still doesn’t include Haak, but the MLS season is long, and relying on 35-year-olds like Maxi Moralez week in and week out is not always possible. Unless David Lee plans to bring in another player to compete for central midfield minutes, it seems like Haak will get more opportunities through the summer.
Even if his 66 minutes against Cincinnati may have been a one-off necessitated by injury and suspension, it seems clear that Haak has climbed up Nick Cushing’s Trust Ladder, surpassing fellow central mid Gedion Zelalem on Wednesday at least. Thus far none of Haak’s 2022 performances with the first team have hurt his case for minutes, but the degree of difficulty will only increase as he gets more involved in MLS action.
Haak has followed a very different path than the two homegrown players who preceded him in signing with NYCFC, but even if it’s taken longer than James Sands and Joe Scally, he now at least has a path to meaningful minutes with his senior team.