A goalless draw might not be the performance the fans of a winning club like New York City FC dream of watching on a Saturday night, but it was a well-earned result given the setting and the players who were available. Interim head coach Nick Cushing’s side did themselves proud by playing to a 0-0 draw against an in-form CF Montréal at Stade Saputo with a hollowed-out midfield.
The defense put in a strong performance, frustrating the Montréal attack and keeping NYCFC in the game. But the offense was almost completely silenced, managing just one shot and none on target in a new low for the club — and that includes the terrible performances in the first-pancake-off-the-griddle season of 2015. You can argue that this sluggish start to the post-Taty era is less a question of filling the No 9 role as it is figuring out a midfield that was missing Alfred Morales (yellow card suspension) and continues to be without the injured Keaton Parks: The Pigeons couldn’t pass the ball out of their own half, never mind piece together an attack.
The glass-half-empty crowd will look at that single off-target shot on goal and feel very worried about next week’s away game at Columbus Crew, and the following match against Inter Miami that will be played in the swampy Florida heat: It ain’t getting any easier. But the half-full crowd will point to the defense and an NYCFC back line that simply doesn’t make any mistakes: This is the team’s fourth clean sheet in a row and the 12th this season out of 22 games played.
You can’t win if you don’t score, but if you don’t let them score you can’t lose.
NYCFC: 1 shot, 0 on goal, 41.2% possession, 371 passes, 80.3% accuracy, 6 fouls
Montréal: 13 shots, 1 on goal, 58.8% possession, 517 passes, 86.3% accuracy, 14 fouls
Thin in the midfield
Earlier this week, Cushing said that NYCFC don’t need to add a new striker, but rather a new midfielder. The performance tonight was proof of that. NYCFC’s midfield was anemic, and put up little resistance to a Montréal midfield bossed by Djordje Mihailovic and Victor Wanyama. NYCFC’s already weakened lineup suffered a further blow when Maxi Moralez had to leave in the 40th minute with what looked like a calf injury. The rest of the game wasn't pretty. Santiago Rodríguez didn’t look sharp, and while Justin Haak comported himself well for only his second MLS start in his career, he doesn’t yet have he experience to grab control of a game.
Really, there was no chance of NYCFC getting a win with this midfield unless they pulled off a set piece or managed to score a flukey goal against the run of play. They were playing for a draw from the opening whistle.
This is an issue months in the making. Last year, the club traded away Alex Ring but added Morales and Rodriguez, both of whom were instrumental to the team’s run to the title. This year, NYCFC loaned James Sands to Rangers FC and likely lost Parks until after September, and have added no players. Haak’s promotion from NYCFC II to the Senior Squad is a good move, but the club has to do more to replace what has been lost.
To put it in more direct terms, the quality of NYCFC’s midfield have fallen off dramatically. Unless sporting director David Lee brings in a new player, we should expect more games like this one.
The identity of NYCFC is simple: Keep the ball and play attacking soccer that is progressive and attractive. But the team’s position at the top of the Eastern Conference table – NYCFC is one point behind first-place Philadelphia Union with a game in hand – owes as much to the defense’s ability to choke off the opposition’s attack as it does to the goalscoring fireworks that are set off on the other end of the field.
The center-back partnership between Thiago Martins and Alexander Callens has quietly become the best in MLS, and hums along with the low-vibration power of a luxury car: You only know how fast you’re going when you look out the window.
Thiago Martins was named the Man of the Match, and he deserved it. He and Callens absorbed the relentless press of Montréal – just as they did against the surprisingly aggressive attack of Inter Miami last week, and the New Jersey Red Bulls and FC Dallas the week before that – and kept the team in the game. NYCFC might have managed only one shot total, but Montréal had only one shot on goal.
New York City have allowed only 21 goals this season, the second-lowest in MLS (only Philadelphia have allowed fewer), and the 12 clean sheets are tops in the league. While that stat is usually credited to goalkeepers, those goose eggs are a testament to the entire defensive line.
One of the long-standing agonies of supporting NYCFC is sitting down to a game and hoping, praying, begging that the team will play to their potential. For all of last year, it was a given that New York City was the better side — the question was whether they could deliver on the field.
Those days are over — for now. NYCFC were also the underdogs against the Red Bulls, and Dallas. New York City won both of those matchups, beating the odds and grabbing two important away wins.
NYCFC beat the odds again earlier tonight even if they didn’t win the game: Montréal entered the game as favorites, with an essentially full-strength squad playing in front of a rollicking Quebecois crowd. New York City’s xG was an abysmal .05, but Montréal’s was 1.29: NYCFC played to their (much lower) potential, while it was Montréal that underperformed.
That’s cold comfort for fans who want their team to win every game, but you can build on a performance like this one. The defensive foundation is solid, now it’s up to Lee and the front office to give NYCFC supporters the midfield they deserve.
Montréal, Alistair Johnston, foul, yellow card, 35’
Montréal, Joel Waterman. dissent, yellow card, 53’
Referee: Ramy Touchan
Assistant Referees: Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho, Andrew Bigelow
Fourth Official: Silviu Petrescu
VAR Referee: Jon Freemon
Assistant VAR Referee: Jose Da Silva