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NYCFC desperately lacks attacking focal point, leadership

The holes left by Ronny Deila and Taty Castellanos are not close to being filled.

Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

Welcome to the latest edition of Hot Take, in which a Hudson River Blue contributor takes a highly subjective stand on a topic and gives you their honest, biased opinion.

New York City FC have faced seismic changes this season, yet they once seemed poised to weather all the upheaval. They steadied themselves after a winless streak following Ronny Deila’s departure and appeared to settle into life under interim head coach Nick Cushing by going seven matches unbeaten and keeping four straight clean sheets.

Now, however, the pendulum has swung in a deeply concerning direction. Three straight ugly losses have featured boatloads of opponent goals and costly, confounding, self-inflicted mistakes that raise serious questions about the trajectory of the 2022 season.

I think the crisis NYCFC now finds itself in traces back to the club’s inability to fill the two biggest voids that were created by the midseason departures Deila and Castellanos. The team is lacking leadership, and doesn’t have anything close to an attacking focal point — and they’ve been done no favors by sporting director David Lee, who chose to stand pat during the summer transfer window despite lots of evidence pointing in the direction of needing new signings.

The veteran players on the roster and the interim head coach have not been able to replicate the cohesion, organization, and collective mental resiliency that seemed to emerge during the latter stages of Deila’s tenure. Up and down the roster, players who you would expect to step up have instead wilted disastrously at times, and to date there’s been no evidence of a corrective intervention from the new manager or any of the team leaders. Compounding matters is the fact that none of the remaining attacking players have been able to grab the reins and effectively lead the line in Taty’s absence.

All of these shortcomings have combined to give us four straight ugly performances, and it seems clear that much will need to change if the reigning MLS Cup champions are to salvage anything from this 2022 season.

Missing: Leadership and accountability

Maxi Moralez’s performance during the 3-1 loss to Inter Miami at DRV PNK Stadium feels like a microcosm of the problems plaguing the team’s remaining veteran core. His actions in the lead-up to Miami’s equalizing goal were disastrous, handing over the ball with no resistance while deep in his defensive third and switching off from play to appeal for a stoppage that never came following a collision between Malte Amundsen and Miami’s DeAndre Yedlin. With no whistles blown, Miami played on and ultimately caught NYCFC out for their second goal, while Maxi remained at a walking pace and decided to direct his anger at a celebrating Jean Mota.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Later Moralez got into a spat with teammate Santiago Rodríguez that required the two to be separated. Regardless of the normalcy of on-field disagreements between teammates in the heat of competition, it was a terrible look for the club’s longest-tenured player, someone who you’d expect to diffuse a situation with his teammate and supposed friend rather than let it escalate to the point of nearly coming to blows.

Maxi isn’t the only team leader who of late has been responsible for some head-scratching moments. Club captain Sean Johnson gifted Columbus a second goal in NYCFC’s eventual 3-2 road loss, making a glaring mental mistake when trying to play the ball out of the back and perfectly setting Luis Diaz up to feed eventual goal scorer and noted NYCFC boogeyman Lucas Zelarayan.

A week later, Alfredo Morales did his best to recreate SeanJohn’s unforced error, miserably failing at playing a pass back to his keeper and instead perfectly teeing up another notorious NYCFC killer, Alejandro Pozuelo, for what would be the match-winning goal. In the most recent loss to Charlotte, Designated Player defender Thiago Martins struggled mightily while in possession and almost replicated the “generosity” of Johnson and Morales. Just after halftime, Martins made the unwise decision to dribble straight into a triangle of Charlotte players, then played a pass in the direction of nobody in sky blue that was gratefully collected by CLT’s Kerwin Vargas, whose shot was ultimately denied by a great Sean Johnson save.

Nick Cushing has said that much of the team’s recent struggles trace back to individual errors, but just acknowledging that and pledging to fix it rings hollow when the same types of errors continue to happen over and over again. Cushing’s overall managerial approach appears to be all about accentuating the positive/eliminating the negative/latching on to the affirmative, but these kinds of recurring mistakes stand out as an issue that needs more of a collective reckoning, rather than just taking the Positive Mental Attitude approach.

Also missing: A new leader of the line

Héber has started at striker in three of the first four post-Taty Castellanos matches, and it has not gone well for the team’s eldest Brazilian. He logged 244 minutes of action since Taty’s departure but managed just seven shots and only two on target — with five of those shots, and both of the ones on-target, coming in the confounding loss to Charlotte. Héber’s performances directly preceding Taty’s departure inspired hope that he’d be ready to step in at striker and recapture his 2019 goal-scoring form, but that has not come close to happening, and it’s becoming harder to believe that he’ll ever get back to being a reliable goal threat.

Along with H9’s struggles, none of the club’s extremely promising young attackers are consistently making their mark in the early post-Taty days. Santiago Rodríguez now seems nailed on as Cushing’s first choice at the No 10, yet has been largely ineffective and invisible during this poor run, particularly in the losses to Miami and Charlotte. The young Brazilian trio of Talles Magno, Thiago and Gabriel Pereira have all had their moments, yet still seem unable to find the kind of consistency needed to win matches week in and week out.

David Lee’s transfer approach has not helped

Depth, or a lack thereof, has also been a key culprit in NYCFC’s slide. The self-inflicted defensive errors really picked up steam around the time that stalwart defender Alexander Callens limped off in Columbus with his MCL injury. He now appears set to be joined by Alfredo Morales on the injury list after he suffered a painful looking lower body injury against Charlotte. Along with Keaton Parks, that now makes it three injured surefire starters who would normally be expected to dictate things in the middle of the pitch. All teams deal with injuries, but not all teams sit idly by while their depth chart whittles away and their manager outwardly says they could use a new midfielder.

This was the approach taken by sporting director David Lee, who ultimately decided the time wasn’t right to fortify his midfield. Perhaps the team didn’t have the flexibility under the salary cap to add another player midseason, or perhaps the right players just weren’t there for the taking. But Lee’s inactivity has led to some ill-fitting lineups, with Maxi Moralez now regularly deployed as a defensive midfielder and young Justin Haak becoming one of the first men off the bench when Cushing is looking to make a change.

Maxi still has the quality to make game-breaking passes, but his legs appear to be on their way out and he’s not exactly the most stout defender and protector of NYCFC’s back line (see: his effort to track back on Charlotte’s go-ahead goal). Haak hasn’t been bad per se, but he also hasn’t done much to make a case for himself as a starter in the No 6 role who can break up attacks and contribute to keeping clean sheets.

Lee’s decision to not add any fullbacks to the roster also continues to be costly. Against Charlotte, the club’s two left backs were both directly culpable for goals, as Malte Amundsen was easily beaten for pace on the opener and Chris Gloster gave away a boneheaded penalty to seal the points for the visitors. Both Tayvon Gray and Anton Tinnerholm have been in and out of the lineup with injuries all year, which has led to more forced cameos at right back for defensive midfielder Nicolas Acevedo and winger Andres Jasson.

Then, of course, there is the hole at striker, a hole made even more glaring by just how poorly Héber has performed since inheriting the starting gig. Signing a player that would come close to replicating the production of Castellanos is much easier said than done, and was probably never going to happen this summer. But that reality doesn’t eliminate the bigger problem, which is a severe lack of options up top. Cushing has been desperate enough to try to slot speedy winger Thiago in as his striker, which shows just how shallow the pool is at the top of the attack.

If NYCFC are going to break out of this particularly ugly stretch, they’re going to need a whole lot more from their experienced core. If seasoned players like Maxi Moralez, Héber, Thiago Martins, and Sean Johnson can’t course correct and clean up some of the issues they’ve faced lately, it could make for an ugly end to what started out as a promising season. It’s also up to Cushing, who is in the midst of a months-long job interview, to actually show some man management skill and move beyond positive affirmations to get his players molded back into a functioning, winning team.