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Tactics and Grit: NYCFC defeat FC Dallas in punishing Texas heat

Héber gets a goal, Justin Haak gets the start, and Nick Cushing’s lineup sets up New York City to earn tough 1-0 road win

It was a hot night in Frisco.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy NYCFC.com

New York City FC striker Héber might have scored the only goal of last night’s game against FC Dallas, but this was interim head coach Nick Cushing’s win.

NYCFC have been one of the most dominant teams in MLS this season, but they entered this match as underdogs: Not only were they playing an aggressive Dallas in the blistering 100-degree heat of Frisco, TX, the depleted squad was without five of their best players. Striker Taty Castellanos was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, while center-back Alexander Callens, playmaker Maxi Moralez, midfielder Keaton Parks, and right-back Anton Tinnerholm were out with injuries.

Cushing approached the game with a when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade attitude, and made the most of the qualities of the regular starters and young Homegrown players who were available. NYCFC’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation was scrapped in favor of a 3-5-2, attacking midfielder Thiago was turned into a wingback, and 20-year-old Justin Haak was given the first Senior Team start of his career. NYCFC’s plan was to keep the ball, find a way to score, weather the heat, and run out the clock.

It worked. The often-wasteful NYCFC attack took just one shot on goal and it went in; the defense posted their first clean sheet since May; and the midfield did enough to frustrate a Dallas squad that dominated the second half but just couldn’t find the back of the net.

The win was equal parts tactics and grit, and it was an immensely satisfying result for NYCFC fans who went into the game merely hoping their team could salvage a draw. We’re six MLS league games into Cushing’s tenure, and we’re starting to see what the interim head coach is capable of getting out of this team.

Game Stats

NYCFC: 4 shots, 1 shot on goal, 50.6% possession, 507 passes, 85% pass accuracy, 11 fouls

FC Dallas: 12 shots, 1 shot on goal, 49.4% possession, 459 passes, 86.7% pass accuracy, 13 fouls

Cool and clinical in the Texas heat

Everybody loves Héber. The affable Brazilian striker is popular in the dressing room and with fans, and his return to the starting lineup after recovering from a torn ACL has been one of the feel-good stories this year. Unfortunately, his performances weren’t always up to the standards of an NYCFC team that sit at the top of MLS: He often looked out of synch with the attack, a little slow and a little off the mark.

That changed in recent weeks, and the dangerous Héber we remember from 2019 is starting to return. He scored three goals in his last three games, and each one has been a beauty. First, there were the two goals he scored in the wild 4-4 draw in Cincinnati, both scored in first-half stoppage time. Then there was the goal last night: Calm, cool, clinical.

It started when Tayvon Gray fed the ball to Santiago Rodríguez, who in turn lashed an inch-perfect pass across the mouth of the goal to find Héber ready to tap it in. It was a flawless sequence, and Héber made it look easy because he timed his run to put him in the right place at the right moment:

The Héber that looked disconnected from the rest of the squad in earlier games is now a Héber that is in synch with his team, and who doesn’t waste the chances he is given. NYCFC had one shot on goal, and created only one big chance according to FotMob: Not only did New York City outperform their xG, they were uncharacteristically opportunistic and squeezed everything they could out of this one run of play. Good thing Héber was on the end of it.

The best defense is defense

New York City posted their first clean sheet since the 1-0 away win over Minnesota United on May 28, and while armchair pundits will tell you that shutouts aren’t the best measure of a goalkeeper’s performance, they sure can be useful when your team is trying to get a result. At the risk of sounding pedantic, the math is simple. Get a clean sheet and you’re guaranteed one point, manage to score and you get three.

While Héber’s goal and Rodríguez’s assist won the game, it was the defensive performance that guaranteed the result. The odds were stacked against a New York City back line that was without Callens, and that had to keep focused in the sweltering heat: Difficult conditions lead to mistakes, and mistakes lead to goals.

More than that, the defense was playing with three in the back, a formation the team haven’t used in league play this year. At the postgame press conference, Cushing said that they practiced the system this week in training, and which meant they had only one full day to block it out on the field.

The system bent but it didn’t break: Dallas created plenty of chances but couldn’t find the back of the net. At times they simply lacked quality in front of the goal — Dallas were playing in the same heat as NYCFC (unlike over the weekend, when New England Revolution were playing on a much hotter, sunnier field than NYCFC), and they had a hard time keeping composed when it counted. At other times, the NYCFC defense made heroic challenges and goalkeeper Sean Johnson proved once again why he’s one of the best in MLS.

It’s becoming clear that the value of center-back Thiago Martins isn't just in his individual play, but in how he directs the defense and keeps them organized even in the face of a pacey and aggressive attack like that of Dallas. He gets the NYCFC defense to lock shields:

#CushingIn

When Cushing was named interim head coach, he inherited a team that was on a scintillating run of form but that was showing cracks to those who dared to look closely. Here at Hudson River Blue, we felt that the 1-0 win over Chicago Fire on May 22 was uncomfortably close and the following 1-0 victory over Minnesota on May 28 was lucky: New York City were edging past teams they should have dominated. Sometimes NYCFC couldn't even manage that one goal, such as the 0-0 draw at home against Sporting Kansas City on May 7, when they held 73.9% possession but couldn't find the back of the net.

Cushing acknowledged as much in recent press conferences, bringing a level of candor that was missing under former head coach Ronny Deila: Where Deila tended to dismiss any outside criticisms of his team’s performances, Cushing recognizes that there are lapses and discusses how they can be addressed and fixed.

In his own low-key way, Cushing is implementing fundamental changes in how the team is run. Where Deila likely would have kept with his preferred 4-3-2-1, Cushing looked at the player availability and prepared his team to line up in a 3-4-3. While Deila often held back on making substitutes and chose to stick with his starting lineup even after their on-field performance had dropped off, Cushing made tactical changes in the 67th and 73rd minutes, then made another change in the 90th minute after it was announced that seven minutes of stoppage time had been added to the clock.

Is it going too far to say that this Cushing win most likely would have been a Deila loss? Perhaps. The fact is that Cushing adapted to the conditions and set up NYCFC to win. The fact is that it’s the players, and not the head coach, who decide the result. Still, this New York City squad over-performed while Dallas under-performed, but that wasn't because of flukey plays, or luck, or officiating, or the sun. It was because of Cushing’s tactical acumen and the grit that NYCFC displayed on the field.

The 6-0 win over Real Salt Lake at home on April 17 might be New York City’s most glamorous win this season, but this hard-fought 1-0 is arguably the team’s most important. Last night the character of the club was tested, and the quality and determination of the team came through.

Goals:
NYCFC, Héber 29’

Discipline:
NYCFC, Maxime Chanot, foul, yellow card 8’
FC Dallas, Tsiki Ntsabeleng, dissent, yellow card 50’
NYCFC, Sean Johnson, time wasting, yellow card 90+4’
FC Dallas, Franco Jara, foul, yellow card 90+6’

Attendance: 13,656

Referee: Victor Rivas
Assistant Referees: Jeffrey Greeson, Ryan Graves
Fourth Official: Joe Dickerson
VAR Referee: Jose Carlos Rivero
Assistant VAR Referee: Claudiu Badea