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 deeply biased opinion.
It’s tempting to declare that New York City FC hit rock bottom multiple times during this historically poor 10-match run. The last-gasp loss on a corner kick in Orlando? Their humbling “home” loss at Red Bull Arena against DC United, the team at the very bottom of the MLS table? Perhaps recency bias has you thinking this weekend’s putrid performance against the expansion side in Charlotte, in which the Pigeons squandered 40-plus minutes of a man advantage en route to another scoreless loss, was the worst of it.
Lately, following NYCFC has been an exercise in masochism. The end of this season has come to resemble a prolonged circling of a drain. The “dead team walking” vibes are strong, and perhaps the most concerning aspect of it all is that we may not have, in fact, reached rock bottom.
Two critical matches on the Yankee Soccer Stadium pitch loom, and they represent a season-defining test for this floundering group of one-time champions. Given how badly it’s gone for the Boys in Blue since late July, playing the reigning Liga MX champions for a trophy and then hosting the final Hudson River Derby of the season a few days later presents a deeply dangerous minefield to navigate.
How did a season that started with a CONCACAF Champions League semi-final run followed by an 11-match unbeaten streak go this wrong? You are likely familiar with the oft-talked-about factors that have contributed to NYCFC’s precipitous slide. First, the manager left, then the team’s talisman and biggest goal threat left, and then an injury crisis descended.
Those are three huge disruptions, and they shouldn’t be discounted. But there have also been plenty of other issues glaringly on display during NYCFC’s desert-level dry spell. The persistence of these issues is what has me concerned that the worst could still be to come in the week ahead. So let’s run through the big points of concern that have emerged while NYCFC has been busy turning into a more depressing version of their 2015 selves.
Designated Players are not delivering
Taty Castellanos wasn’t signed as a Designated Player yet produced at the level of a multi-million-dollar salary earner. Since his departure, NYCFC’s three rostered DPs have done little to nothing to offset the Castellanos loss.
Taty’s absence has done no favors to Talles Magno, who looks lost without his old attacking partner and has been rendered a non-factor in far too many of his recent appearances. He seemed on the verge of a true breakout playing left wing earlier this season, but attempting to shift to striker hasn’t worked. Playing wing alongside his compatriot Héber also hasn’t been fruitful, and any hopes that Talles Magno would make a significant leap and ease the pain of Taty’s loss have been dashed.
Thiago Martins seemed to settle in following a rocky start to his NYCFC tenure, but injuries along the backline (including to Thiago Martins himself) have seen his tendency to make costly mistakes creep back in. Dedicating DP-level money to a center-back is rare in MLS and the (at times historically bad) recent performances of Thiago Martins have only made it seem like a more questionable decision.
Maxi Moralez still occupies a DP slot yet no longer appears capable of being a match-in-match-out 90-minute player. He remains an excellent passer, an enduring skill that still helps him rank 12th in all of MLS for goals added, per the model of American Soccer Analysis. But his inevitable slowing down as he enters his mid-30s is a problematic development, because NYCFC still desperately need him to reach the performance levels of his prime if they have any hope of scoring goals with any regularity.
Attacking futility abounds
Talles Magno isn’t alone with his attacking struggles. His fellow countrymen Héber and Thiago have been two of the club’s biggest playing-time beneficiaries in the wake of Taty Castellanos’s exit, yet they’ve both wasted countless opportunities.
H9 had a wide-open path to reclaiming the starting striker role, and right around Taty’s departure, he’d begun to instill at least some hope he might be capable of recapturing his goal-scoring form of 2019. Yet since Castellanos left, Héber has been a disappointment, frequently bringing promising attacking sequences to a screeching halt and squandering numerous chances in front of goal.
For his part, Thiago started in six of the team’s 10 post-Taty matches, and has been bounced around positionally to center forward and wingback by interim head coach Nick Cushing. But even when he’s lined up on his preferred wing Thiago has not offered much, and his most recent performance on the road in Charlotte may have been his worst showing since his meltdown in Harrison in the US Open Cup.
Young depth not contributing
On the transfer front, NYCFC have easily had more outgoings than incomings since they won MLS Cup. As a result, young players were forced up the club’s depth chart, and the tumultuous and injury-plagued summer portion of the season has severely tested the readiness of the youngest members of the first team. Players like Nicolás Acevedo, Justin Haak, Andres Jasson, and Tayvon Gray have been leaned on heavily, yet have all struggled to consistently deliver performances that are good enough for a team hoping to occupy the upper parts of the league table and make a run in the MLS Cup playoffs. David Lee rolled the dice by eschewing new signings at most of the positions occupied by the aforementioned group of youngsters, and the midfielders, in particular, have fallen way short of the mark when asked to step in for absent stalwarts like James Sands, Alfredo Morales, and Keaton Parks.
Leadership vacuum persists
Cushing was dealt a tough hand from the get-go. He was made an interim leader to replace a seasoned manager who just delivered the club’s first trophy, while also knowing that the club’s far-and-away best player was on the verge of walking out the door. But as the losses mounted, he hasn't done much of anything to instill confidence that better days lie ahead.
His team lacks identity, and frequently shoots itself in the foot. While this NYCFC are reaching new lows on the field, Cushing hollowly preaches about all the positives the players have to offer. He bizarrely chose to immaturely lash out at one of the few people who regularly cover the team, and seems completely incapable of figuring out whatever is driving the disconnect between the positives he sees in training and the mess the whole world sees when his team plays competitive matches.
Cushing has tried different things tactically, and has deviated from NYCFC’s normal formations to suit the players he has available, but nothing has stuck and no breakthroughs appear on the horizon. Cushing simply isn’t the man to get the club over the worst slump they have been in since they were fielding the likes of Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Ned Grabavoy.
With the spotlights in place for Campeones Cup and the Hudson River Derby, we’re approaching a figurative do-or-die moment for the 2022 version of NYCFC. From the manager to the high-priced Designated Players to the seasoned MLS veterans, all the way down to the forced-into-action youngsters, there’s a desperate need for something to change for the better.
If not, we could be on the verge of watching rock bottom finally and definitively be reached as this once-promising season is completely tanked.