There was joy in the Bronx last night.
New York City FC put in their best performance in recent memory, comprehensively defeating reigning Liga MX champs Atlas FC in the Campeones Cup, a one-game contest that was dismissed as an afterthought when the game was announced in May but that could now be seen as a talismanic win. NYCFC roared to a shocking 1-0 lead in just the fourth minute of the game on a set piece deflection that defender Alex Callens knocked into the net, then was put away four minutes into the start of the second half with a lovely team goal generated by Talles Magno and finished by the timeless Maxi Moralez.
The night ended with silverware for New York City, and even if the confetti guns on the field failed to fire (you had to feel for the technicians plugging and unplugging the machines, trying to reset the machines while the team lifted the cup), the win gives a boost to a team that needed a lift after a 10-game run of disappointing results.
New York City showed their quality last night, and gave their fans a taste of the kind of play that they hope will carry this team into the postseason.
NYCFC: 17 shots, 8 on goal, 51.4% possession, 391 passes, 74.4% accuracy, 25 fouls
Atlas FC: 20 shots, 7 on goal, 48.6% possession, 369 passes, 70.5% accuracy, 20 fouls
Three in the back
Interim head coach Nick Cushing has come under fire in recent weeks, and with good reason: NYCFC have taken just five points from their last 10 games, squandering leads and giving away results to undeserving teams. It might be unfair to hold the coach on the sideline accountable for the play on the field, but that’s how soccer works.
But Cushing is a tactically astute thinker who has been forced to manage an imbalanced squad that lost their top scorer when Taty Castellanos was loaned to Girona FC in la Liga, and that has been ravaged by injuries. While former head coach Ronny Deila almost always lined up NYCFC in a 4-4-2, Cushing has had to be more creative depending on who is available to play. Last night, Cushing put out a surprising 3-4-3 with Thiago Martins, Maxime Chanot, and Callens in the back, and backup goalkeeper Luis Barraza in the net. Even more shocking, he gave Kevin O’Toole his Senior Team debut by starting him at left wing-back — in one year, the 23-year-old went from playing for Princeton University, to making the NYCFC II roster, to starting against the reigning champions of Liga MX.
It worked. Barraza put in a strong performance, making seven saves and logging a clean sheet behind the defensive blockade of Thiago Martins, Chanot, and Callens: NYCFC’s two goals sealed the result, but the defense won the game. The three center-backs were regal in how they patrolled the defensive third and controlled the pace of the game, breaking up the frenetic attacks mounted by Atlas and neutralizing the runs made by forward Julián Quiñones. They set the tone for the game.
That organization allowed O’Toole to put in a strong performance. Technical and calm on the ball, O’Toole was unbothered by the physical play of Atlas, and contributed on both sides of the field. O’Toole made the case that he should be brought up the depth chart and make the bench for NYCFC’s final three games of the MLS season.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Cushing had to be pleased not only with the win, but the quality of the goals that sealed the victory. First, there was the set piece delivered by Gabriel Pereira, a looping ball in over the top that was parried by the Atlas goalkeeper but knocked in by Callens. It was a play straight from the training ground.
To be frank, the goal came as a shock. NYCFC have been so luckless these past ten games that it was hard not to feel a little skeptical of their chances at the start of this match. Both New York City and Atlas were suffering terrible runs of form, but Liga MX teams have historically held an edge over their MLS counterparts, and it felt like the large contingent of fans voicing their support for the Mexican team could lift their club to the win. Instead, an often wasteful NYCFC was opportunistic in front of the goal and forced Atlas to chase the game.
Héber got the start in the center of a front-three, but had to leave the game in the 29th minute with a slight strain. Cushing brought on Talles Magno, who continues to look a little lost when functioning as a striker, but who put in a strong performance when supporting the NYCFC attack — the man can dribble.
Talles Magno might develop into an elite finisher someday, but he looked most comfortable when he drifted to the left and fell back to pick up the ball and create passing sequences with Maxi Moralez and Santi Rodíguez in the midfield. NYCFC’s second goal came from exactly that run of play: Talles Magno carried the ball through the Atlas midfield on the left, played a give-and-go with Rodíguez, then switched direction by laying the ball off to Moralez on the right.
Possession with purpose: NYCFC are unstoppable when they play like this. The free-flowing attack kept Atlas pinned back for the entire game – despite what the stats above might lead you to believe, New York City dominated the run of play.
This was a result that NYCFC needed as they head into the final three games of the season and are forced to battle for a playoff spot they could have put away weeks ago. Not only does the rest break a five-game winless streak, but the nature of the victory should bolster the confidence of the team — and raise the hopes of their fans.
NYCFC, Alex Callens 4’
NYCFC, Maxi Moralez, 49’
NYCFC, Tayvon Gray, simulation, yellow card, 42’
NYCFC, Alexander Callens, time wasting, yellow card, 80’
NYCFC, Maxi Moralez, foul, yellow card, 83’
Atlas, Luis Reyes, foul, yellow card, 89’
Atlas, Hugo Nervo, foul, yellow card, 90+2’
Referee: Said Martinez
Assistant Referees: Walter López, Helpys Feliz
Fourth Official: Keylor Herrera Villalobos
VAR Referee: Tatiana Guzman
Assistant VAR Referee: Melissa Borjas