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Nick Cushing: It’s not enough to make the playoffs

In this exclusive interview with the NYCFC head coach, we discuss the team’s identity, high expectations, what possession gives you, changing shapes, what went wrong in Nashville, and grabbing a beer with fans after a game

The gaffer’s expectations are high this year
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

Hudson River Blue spoke with New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing for an exclusive interview at the Etihad City Football Academy training facility in Rockland County, NY where members of the Senior Team were preparing for Saturday’s game against Chicago Fire.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Hudson River Blue: You often talk about the identity of the team and how you want the team to play. How would you describe it?

Nick Cushing: Ultimately, we have to control the game with the ball. That’s with and without and possession — the shape that our team has allows us to be ready to attack and ready to defend at any moment.

That was the challenge we had in the Nashville game. If we don’t have the structure and shape right, we’ll defend too many counter-attacks, in the Nashville game we defended too many counter-attacks and that turns into a lot of set plays, and those teams play off that.

Possession will allow us to manipulate the opponent to open spaces and then get our offensive players into the game. A lot of teams are going to try to press us high, and if we find the extra player and find the space we’ll create more opportunities.

Ultimately, if we have 65% of the ball we only have to defend for the remaining part of the game, and if we can press high for parts of that then we don’t have to defend our goal. We didn’t do enough of that in the Nashville game.

Our team is set up to play a compact game in possession. If the game is open and the game gets end-to-end and up-and-down, other teams are better than us at that.

Other teams have more physical players, and you see the physical presence of Bunbery and Zimmerman, those types of players, you see the Red Bulls and St Louis, they’re set up to control the physical part of the game, and we’re set up to control the technical part of the game.

HRB: Is that because of the personnel you have, the players available to you? Or is it because of your approach and philosophy?

NC: I think it’s all-encompassing. We want to play a game that’s attractive for the fans to watch. We want to play a game where we have the ball, and we control the game with the ball so that our teams entertain. Ultimately, when we play the majority of the game in the opposition’s half, when we’re creating chances and we’re playing in and around the goal, getting the ball and moving it quickly, the intensity of the game comes from the ball speed. Whereas those other teams are trying to control the game with physical ability. They’re throwing the ball, and they’re playing off second balls, and they’re playing off transitions.

The system and the recruitment of the players has to go hand-in-glove. We can’t play a technical game without technical players.

It’s the same for the other teams. They play a physical game with physical players, but you don’t see as much technique, and you don’t see so much of what we perceive as attractive football.

HRB: This year you had a full preseason. You also have a very young team. How did you use those two months to develop these young players?

NC: The preseason starts with real clarity on how you want to play the game, and we have real consistency and clarity from start to finish on how we want to play the game. But we understand that with a new team, with younger players, with a new coach, it;’s going to take time. But I also understand that we don’t have time.

I don’t have time, because I really am driven to win. The fans want us to play attractive football and win football games, and the players want to win. It’s about hard work. We do a lot of work in the video room, we do a lot of work on the training pitch. We always work in tactical phases, and those tactical phases are the real clarity of how we want to play. Whether we’re in low-buildup moments, whether we’re playing against teams that want to control space in their half, whether we’re creating and finishing. If we press the team and we get on the front foot, if we press high, we’ll regain the ball quicker, and if we’re organized in possession we’ll minimize the amount of counter-attacking we’ll face.

Ultimately that will dictate if we’re successful or if we fail. If we continue to give away a lot of transitions and a lot of counter-attacks then we’ll give goal chances or set plays. That’s what you saw in the Nashville game.

HRB: Last year you changed the shape of the team towards the end of the season to great effect. Will you change the shape of the team this year depending on who is available, or who the opponent will be? Or will you have a set shape like Ronny Deila, who always went to battle with the same 4-2-3-1?

NC: We will always change. For me, tactical flexibility is the art of a consistently winning team. But the aim is you have to develop the concept of how you want to play, and if the players have real clarity around the concept of how we want to play the game then tactically the system will fit.

You saw in the Nashville game we changed the 3-4-3. We didn’t play a fixed 3-4-3 in the sense that we shifted our right-back inside and then we overloaded the middle of the pitch. In our 3-4-3 we should have controlled the game, but we didn’t gain that ability. A 3-4-3 overloads 4-4-2 completely in every area of the pitch, the problem we had in the Nashville game is we didn’t then attack space, and one of our concepts is we have to play between teams to then go and attack spaces because you’re tracked to then create space.

In the second half, we definitely dominated the ball, we got between them, but then we didn’t attack the spaces. We ended up as a team in the second half with 70% of the ball but with no goal chances, or no clear goal chances. We won’t win football games doing that.

HRB: Speaking to that, last year you told us that you wanted to create the expectation that NYCFC should win most of the games they play. It’s not enough to make the playoffs, that the team should be high up the table, even win the division. That’s hard to do in a rebuilding year like this one. How are you resetting the expectations for this year?

NC: My expectations are exactly the same. I expect to win the majority of the football games that we play. I understand that the perception of expectation has to be lowered in the sense that we’re a younger team, or a new team, but for me, it’s no different. We have to have an understanding that we need to learn quickly and we need to develop quickly because we don’t have that foundation of experience to lean on. We don’t have that bedrock of guys like Alex Callens, Maxi Moralez, Anton Tinnerholm, and Sean Johnson. But at the same time, what we do have is youth, we have enthusiasm, we have hunger, we have ability. We also have guys like Alfredo Morales, James Sands, Maxime Chanot, and we have to lean on their leadership and their experience on how you win within MLS.

But my expectation is the same. My expectation is we make progress from last year. We finished fourth in 2021, we finished third in 2022. I have a huge desire to finish higher. I said at our CITC Homecoming that if you play nine MLS playoff games and you play seven of them away, you won’t win MLS Cup consistently. It’s impossible in this league. We have to have a hunger to play as many playoff games as we can in New York.

If we can get a Conference Final in New York, we will win that football game. It’s a difficult game, but you saw the Miami game at Citi Field – the crowd, the atmosphere, the way the fans drive our team – that, for me, has to be the aim and the goal for us. If we consistently play Playoff Games away we can’t expect to win MLS Cups because it’s so difficult to go to Philadelphia, to go to New England, to go these places.

So, my expectation is the same.

HRB: Last year, you went out after the Hudson River Derby win over Red Bulls and had a beer in a bar with some fans. In the pictures we saw online, you looked completely comfortable and happy, almost as if that’s what you want to do after every game. Will we see you around at a bar after a game this year?

NC: Yes.

Listen, I’m incredibly comfortable with our fans and our media because my expectations are the same as yours. You have a huge passion to follow the team, and you want the team to be a winning team — we want this team to entertain. And the passion for New York, I share that.

I also accept that when our team doesn’t win football games there are reasons why, and we have to go and find out why. I understand the criticism when it’s not good enough, and I understand the praise when we win games like Red Bulls, or, Atlas, or Miami’s playoff game. I’m a realist. I don’t get too high when we win. When we win it’s not perfection and when we lose it’s not a catastrophe.

Look, I really admire the fans who follow our football team, and I really admire the passion and support we get.