It was a tale of two halves, with New York City FC playing their best soccer of this young season in the first 45 minutes of their 3-2 win over DC United. New York City were dominant on the mottled grass of Yankee Soccer Stadium, creating chance after chance and finding the back of the net twice in what looked at the time like yet another romp in the Bronx.
But after DC United head coach Wayne Rooney inspired – or terrified? – his squad in the locker room during halftime, Christian Benteke scored within the first minute of the second half, and looked like the more dangerous team for much of the rest of the game. New York City’s Thiago scored his first goal of the year in the 88th minute, seemingly icing the game. But DC United clawed one back less than two minutes later, and what could have been NYCFC’s first high-scoring shutout of the year turned into a 3-2 nail-biter with the fans in the stands nervously watching the clock as the nine minutes of stoppage time stretch into minute after added minute before referee Mark Allatin, now the most-hated man in the Bronx, finally blew the whistle.
Still, a win is a win, and a New York City that looked incoherent and toothless in the season opener against Nashville SC are now becoming a cohesive team that are scoring with style.
NYCFC: 10 shots, 6 on goal, 47.7 possession, 387 passes, 79.1 accuracy, 13 fouls
DC United: 9 shots, 4 on goal, 52.3 possession, 418 passes, 73.9 accuracy, 13 fouls
No 9, No 9
It was just a question of time before Talles Magno scored his first goal of the season. The natural left winger might still not look completely comfortable playing as NYCFC’s No 9, but his goal finished a run of play that brought back memories of last year’s MLS Cup Playoff win over Inter Miami: A Keaton Parks pass split the defense, a Braian Cufré cross across the mouth of the goal, a Talles Magno left-footed shot behind DC United’s crossed-up goalkeeper.
One more time for @keaton_parks' defense-splitter pic.twitter.com/XmnIP1DweS— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) March 19, 2023
The offside flag was raised, but then it was correctly overturned by VAR. Talles Magno waited at the center of the field for the referee to confirm the goal before running back to the corner flag to celebrate with the “Kwame Cam” — you can see it on NYCFC’s Instagram stories for at least a few more hours. Goals are good, but content is king.
Santiago Rodriguez added a second NYCFC goal in the 37th minute – and earned a yellow card for dissent in the 53rd minute: Let Santi be Santi. When NYCFC head coach Nick Cushing brought on Thiago for Talles Magno in the 80th minute it felt like it was for squad rotation: Give Talles Magno a rest, give Thiago some minutes. But Thiago has a habit of scoring game-winners against DC United, and the goal he notched just eight minutes after coming on proved to be the difference between a gratifying three-point win and what might have been an agonizing one-point draw.
New York City are finally getting goals from their No 9(s) after an agonizing three-game run in which the position wasn’t adding much to the attack. Questions remain: Is Talles Magno really the long-term answer? Can the streaky Thiago put in more consistent performances? But it’s hard to complain about two goals from two strikers in one 90-minute game. As they said in Babe, “That’ll do.”
NYCFC’s three goals outperformed the 1.51 xG posted by GameFlow, and the 2.03 xG posted by FotMob. Even though it felt like the team could have scored three or four in the first half, the numbers indicate that the team did the most they could with the chances they created.
g+ GameFlow: MLS Regular Season @NYCFC v @dcunited on March 18, 2023. #NYCFC #DaleNewYork #VamosUnited #NYCvDCU pic.twitter.com/719MgTvBb4— GameFlow (@GameFlowxPG) March 19, 2023
But those figures aren’t all rosy. DC United’s two goals also drastically outperformed the .84 xG posted by GameFlow, and the .74 xG posted by FotMob. NYCFC might have overachieved in the attack, but they were leaky in the back.
In the post-game press conference, Cushing had special praise for center-backs Thiago Martins and Maxime Chanot: It’s not easy containing Christian Benteke, a striker who scored 86 goals in Premier League playing for Aston Villa, Liverpool, and Crystal Palace. He brings a high level of quality and experience to MLS.
But NYCFC fans should expect more from the defensive unit as a whole. As we said earlier, a win is a win, but letting an injury-depleted DC United score twice in the citadel that is Yankee Stadium – and almost earn a draw with a third goal in the dying minutes of the game – shows that this rebuilt New York City squad is still gelling at the back, and needs to improve if the team are to contend this season.
Can we talk about set-piece defending?
In May of 2022, Chris Campbell of the Outfield explained in delicious detail why NYCFC were so exceptional at defending set pieces. Campbell spoke with assistant coach Rob Vartughian, who “described the defensive setup as a hybrid system, including players within zone and others responsible for ‘blocking’ attacking players in the box.” That year, NYCFC allowed the fewest goals per corner kick, in no small part because they allowed the fewest shots per corner kick.
Things have changed. DC United’s first goal might have come from open play, but the format was something close to a set piece: Benteke’s goal looked like it went directly from Rooney’s halftime whiteboard to the field. The second goal was straight from the training ground, a corner kick that was nodded across the goal.
Steven Birnbaum scores to pull @dcunited back within one late. #VamosUnited pic.twitter.com/o9dAL9g6PL— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 19, 2023
That second goal brought back unpleasant memories of the season-opening loss to Nashville, when set pieces undid a shaky defense. There's no point in asking how NYCFC went from being the best set-piece defenders in MLS to one of the worst — personnel changes will do that. But corner kicks aren’t going anywhere, and Vartughian needs to whip this squad into shape or the team will remain vulnerable on set pieces.
We’ll say it again: A win is a win, and a slightly tense win ain’t a bad thing for a team with high expectations but that remains a work in progress.
NYCFC, Talles Magno 17’
NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez 37’
DC United, Christian Benteke, 46’
NYCFC, Thiago 88’
DC United, Steve Birnbaum 90’
DC United, Russell Canouse, foul, yellow card 8’,
DC United, Victor Pálsson, foul, yellow card 49’
NYCFC, Santiago Rodríguez, dissent, yellow card 53’
DC United, Mohanad Jeahze, foul, 58’
NYCFC, Matí Pellegrini, foul, yellow card 73’
Referee: Mark Allatin
Assistant Referees: Andrew Bigelow, Andrew Bigelow
Fourth Official: Chris Penso
VAR Referee: Sorin Stoica
Assistant VAR Referee: Jonathan Johnson
Our Starting 1️⃣1️⃣ #ForTheCity pic.twitter.com/iwPTqvRNFi— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) March 18, 2023
Our ⚫️ Starting XI! #DCU || @InovaHealth pic.twitter.com/cx2QB1PF6n— D.C. United (@dcunited) March 18, 2023