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Growing Pains: NYCFC draw Atlanta in the Bronx

Gabriel Pereria's goal salvages point against a superior Atlanta United reduced to 10 players.

Mitja looks at home in the Bronx |

Two steps forward, one step back.

If New York City FC looked the better team last week, when a high-energy attack logged a 1-1 draw against New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium, they looked outclassed last night, when the disjointed squad salvaged a 1-1 draw against an Atlanta United reduced to 10 players after a 62′ red card. While the results of these two games might be the same, the vibes couldn’t be more different.

New England were lucky to escape with a draw on the plastic grass at Gillette Stadium last week. Despite playing at home – and sitting on top of the Eastern Conference going into the game – NYCFC were the more composed and dangerous side. Last night, New York City were the ones who were fortunate to earn a point. Atlanta were the more technical team, and they used the small dimensions of the totally legal field at Yankee Soccer Stadium to their advantage by controlling the midfield and forcing NYCFC to chase the game.

Can a result be both lucky and disappointing? NYCFC didn’t deserve to win but they could have taken all three points, and the fans in the stands couldn’t help but feel a little let down by the final score.

Game Stats

NYCFC: 14 shots, 4 on goal, 51% possession, 474 passes, 86.3% accuracy, 17 fouls
Atlanta: 9 shots, 3 on goal, 49% possession, 447, 84.8% accuracy, 11 fouls

About that set piece

We’ll start by ripping off the Band-Aid and dissecting the set piece that allowed a short-handed Atlanta to score the game’s opening goal in the 70th minute. Let’s go to the tape:

OK, strictly speaking the goal didn’t come from a set piece: Atlanta’s Thiago Almada retrieved the ball from a deflected corner kick that rolled along the end line without going out of play, then lifted a cross that found the meaty Greek forehead of Giorgos Giakoumakis at the back post. To put it charitably, the NYCFC defense was caught napping. Seemingly they thought the ball would spin out of play, then they would have a chance to set up for a second corner kick. Instead, Alamada and Giakoumakis scored a training-ground goal over the head of the otherwise excellent Maxime Chanot, who remained planted to the sod.

A mental lapse like this one is never a good look, especially when it becomes a habit: Fully one-half of the eight goals NYCFC have allowed this year so far have come from set pieces. Head coach Nick Cushing addressed the vulnerability in a recent press conference, and explained that the team is still gelling as a defensive unit. Fair enough, although the veteran center-back team of Chanot and Thiago Martins know how to defend a corner kick. Is goalkeeper Luis Barraza not marshaling the defense? Are the midfielders not fulfilling their roles? You can’t help but think that Nashville SC will be looking to capitalize on set pieces when they come to town to face NYCFC this coming Saturday.

About that attack

Let’s begin at the end of the game, when NYCFC were up a player and looking to score the game-winning goal in stoppage time. Statistically, New York City were dominating the run of play, but the team’s attack was so static all Atlanta had to do was mark every player and wait it out.

It made one miss Taty Castellanos, who sowed chaos in the penalty area by making one run after another. It didn’t matter if the ball found him — his runs across the mouth of the goal kept the keeper on edge and made the central defenders uncomfortable. It also made one miss Maxi Moralez, whose tight, swirling dribbles in the midfield created space by pulling the opposition out of position.

There was no movement in NYCFC’s attack in the last 25 minutes of the game: Nobody was making runs behind the defensive line, or cutting back with the ball in front of the box. New York City’s players looked like pieces on a chess board, each standing in his assigned square. It allowed Atlanta to keep their defensive shape and run out the clock. That lack of urgency was maybe the most troubling part of New York City’s performance last night. You can forgive a team for not managing to find a goal when the other side parks the bus, but they at least have to try.

One to grow on

All that said, there are some positives to take from this match. New York City’s defense put in a solid shift, and the center-back team of Chanot and Thiago Martins is looking more solid with every game. Even more promising was Mitja Ilenič’s performance: The 18-year-old right-back was strong in defense and a creative danger in attack, and he displayed good judgment throughout the game. If this is what he looks like two months into his MLS career, we can’t wait to see what he will be doing in the fall — and next year.

After all, Ilenič is a work in progress. The same can be said of this entire NYCFC squad. While it might be true that New York City failed to grab a win that was within their grasp, the fact that the final result was even in play is a testament to how much the team has developed since February, when there was serious talk about 15-year-old Maximo Carrizo taking over the No 10 role after the departure of Maxi Moralez.

This is what a rebuild looks like, and while NYCFC aren’t anything like the team that won the MLS Cup in 2021 and made a surprisingly deep run in the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2022, they’re not completely at sea. Yes, this squad needs to work on the fundamentals, and the roster is one or two signings away from nearing completion, but there’s plenty of time yet. Remember, there are another 27 preseason games left before the playoffs start.

Atlanta, Giorgos Giakoumakis 70′
NYCFC, Gabriel Pereira 72′

Atlanta, Giorgos Giakoumakis, yellow card, foul 45’+1′
NYCFC, Matí Pellegrini, yellow card, foul 54′
Atlanta, Franco Ibarra, red card, serious foul 62′
NYCFC, Maxime Chanot, yellow card, foul 7
NYCFC, Mitja Ilenič, yellow card, foul 90’ + 3′

Attendance: 20,095

Referee: Drew Fischer
Assistant Referees: Logan Brown, Kevin Klinger
Fourth Official: Ryan Graves
VAR: Kevin Terry Jr
Assistant VAR: Tyler Wyrostek