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Defensive blunders cost NYCFC, again

Three long balls over the top, three goals for Philadelphia Union: NYCFC's defensive blunders cost them the game.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In a rematch of the 2022 MLS Playoff Eastern Conference Finals, the Philadelphia Union once again dispatched New York City FC by three goals to one as Nick Cushing’s side continued their winless skid. A goal from NYCFC winger Gabriel Pereira had the hosts cruising into halftime before two poorly-defended long balls resulted in a brace for Union striker Julian Carranza during first-half stoppage time. Daniel Gazdag would add a third for the visitors from the penalty spot just eight minutes into the second half, knocking the hosts out of contention.

Sloppy defending continues to hinder NYCFC

Speaking of that brace: Carranza scored his two goals within two of the allotted four minutes of first-half stoppage time. Both goals were started by well-executed long balls from the Union defense — long balls that New York City defenders were unable to handle. Poor defensive positioning from fullback Tavon Gray allowed the Union’s No 9 to control the ball and swing his momentum towards the goal, where keeper Luis Barraza stood no chance of saving the powerful effort. 

It’s after a goal like that one when, as a defender, you gather yourself, assess what happened, and work to make sure that opportunity isn’t presented again. Yet, not two minutes later, another long ball was sent in from the Union’s half, this time controlled by Michael Uhre, who was allowed to dribble into the box before being swarmed by Blue shirts. But NYCFC’s overcommitment opened up a hole for Carranza, who was able to receive and fire the ball home. 

Both goals were the result of a defensive unit not properly closing down their opponent, a trend that has been noticeable throughout the season. NYCFC has conceded 19 goals so far this season, which ties them for fourth-most in the Eastern Conference. Given the current state of attacking options at Nick Cushing’s disposal, the squad can’t afford to concede poor goals.

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Though Philadelphia’s third goal came courtesy of a Gazdag penalty, the lead-up to the foul followed in the same vein of the previous two, namely a long ball over the top which the NYCFC defense failed to properly defend. In this instance, Thiago Martins was left all alone in defense, tracking back as the Union broke away on the counter. The presence of Carranza, who was looking for a hat trick, was enough to force Martins into a clumsy challenge, thus giving away the penalty.

Fool me once shame on you, fool me three times…

Given that all three goals conceded by NYCFC we’re nearly identical in their build-up, questions need to be asked as to why the defense was so easily caught out. The lapses in concentration while attempting to defend the long balls point to a lack of preparation, as the NYCFC defenders seemed to be mispositioned or conflicted on their roles during all three passages of play.

During the build-up of the Union’s third goal, Philadelphia was able to launch a blistering counterattack by simply sending the ball upfield, where Martins was the only blue shirt able to track back to combat Carranza. Considering how Philadelphia scored two quick-fire goals in first-half stoppage time using long balls, fans will be remiss in wondering why the back line was pushed so far up, knowing full well the risk the visitors posed through that tactic.

While fans and media members alike can speculate on exactly why the NYCFC defense has performed so sloppily thus far in this campaign, it’s evident that the continuous barrage of goals and poor form is getting to the players. As the old saying goes, “You are only as strong as your weakest link,” and suffice it to say that both confidence and morale are at a serious low in the squad. As players fail to trust one another, it severely impacts their chemistry on the pitch, leading to defensive capitulations like what was on display Saturday night. That said, it’s the job of the head coach to help strengthen these bonds and steady the ship, a job, however, that Cushing has struggled to do so far.

Veterans aren’t stepping up

When a squad is low on confidence, it’s expected that they may be prone to more mistakes than usual. It’s a side-effect of overcompensating on attack, or getting too far into your head. However, for a squad that was the champions of the MLS just two years ago, there have been no signs that this form is on its way out. 

Before Saturday night’s game, NYCFC was unbeaten at Citi Field in regular-season play, with their last loss at the stadium coming in 2019 during the MLS Playoffs. Records like that usually carry with them a sense of confidence and strength, one that could reignite the flame within this squad. A more resolute team would have clawed back a draw to keep the record alive.

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That didn’t happen, and NYCFC are now winless in their last six games, having lost five and drawn one.

While youngsters like Richy Ledezma and Gabriel Segal continue to get minutes in front of goal and grow accustomed to the pace and physicality of MLS, other more experienced players like Talles Magno and James Sands still have yet to make significant impacts. Even though the squad remains within striking distance of the MLS Playoff positions, the decline in quality this season has been worrisome, to say the least. 

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