Skip to content

How NYCFC became one of the hottest teams in MLS

We take you through the five biggest reasons why New York City FC has picked up seven wins in eight matches and climbed to third place in the Eastern Conference.

Thiago Martins has helped New York City create a formidable defense. Photo: New York City FC.

In case you missed it, New York City FC is red hot.

The team is on a streak of four wins in a row and has seven wins in their last eight matches. The only reason they can’t comfortably be declared the hottest side in MLS: FC Cincinnati and their seven straight victories.

It’s been a turnaround of huge proportions since New York City lost the first three matches of its season, including a first-ever home opener defeat that came despite leading the Portland Timbers until the 84th minute.

Since that crushing late loss on March 9, New York City has gone 8 W-2 D-2 L and risen to third in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the Supporters' Shield standings.

What's been behind this near-perfect run of form? This is an attempt to catch you up on why NYCFC keeps winning, on the off chance that you haven't been giving Nick Cushing's ascendant young squad your full attention.

1. Dominant defensive core

New York City does not concede many goals. They rank fifth in MLS with 16 goals allowed, continuing the good defensive form that developed at the tail-end of the 2023 season.

That period after 2023 Leagues Cup happened to be when Matt Freese became the team's starting goalkeeper and Birk Risa and Thiago Martins became the first-choice pairing at center-back, an arrangement that has been in place for all but one 2024 match. That defensive group was good late last season, but it has gotten even better in 2024.

Freese is in the top five league-wide in categories like saves, save percentage, and post-shot expected goals (PSxG). Thiago Martins leads MLS with 76 clearances, and he and Risa have stood out as leaders and organizers of the New York City back line.

It's been a group effort for that back line. Kevin O’Toole has cemented himself as the starting left-back, putting in some of his best performances as a professional (i.e., the win vs. Charlotte FC) during this sparkling eight-match run. Right-back has continued to seesaw between Mitja Ilenič and Tayvon Gray, yet Gray has recently emerged as a playmaker, picking up match-winning assists in New York City's last two wins.

Kevin O’Toole: There’s a strong belief in this group
In this exclusive interview, the 25-year-old tells us about his transition from attacker to defender, and why he still likes “to take on guys on the dribble.”

2. Spreading scoring around

The defense has shined, but New York City has not suddenly become a prolific, well-oiled goal-scoring machine during this winning run.

The team still is 18th out of 29 MLS teams with 19 goals scored, though New York City ranks a more respectable 10th with a +3 goal differential, and eighth with 22.3 expected goals (xG).

All season long, the focus has been on striker Mounsef Bakrar and his inability to find the back of the net. Bakrar ranks seventh in MLS with nine "big chances" missed and has wildly underperformed his expected goals number, scoring just once in 2024 despite being credited with 4.5 xG.

Bakrar's issues haven't held back NYCFC during its hot streak. That's because the team has gotten goals from nine players during this run of seven wins in eight games.

New York City has consistently had two players—Santiago Rodríguez and Hannes Wolf—in the MLS Top 10 for chance creation and expected assists this season. Bakrar's struggles have been costly, but this hot streak has developed because other attackers and midfielders have stepped up and finished some of the chances that have been present but unfinished for much of the 2024 season.

3. Hannes Wolf breaks out

As hinted above, Hannes Wolf is among the MLS leaders in expected assisted goals (xAG, Wolf ranks 4th with 4.9) and big chances created (Wolf is tied for fifth with nine), yet it took until the Austrian attacker's ninth appearance with New York City for him to directly contribute to a goal.

Wolf's assist in the 2-0 win over DC United at Citi Field seemed to open the floodgates. He's added two goals and two assists since that DC match and was particularly instrumental in the road wins over Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union, and in the Hudson River Derby win in Queens, when Wolf finished off one of NYCFC's best team goals in its 10-year existence.

It took him time to acclimate and get back to his sharpest self, but Wolf has turned into the team's second-most-consistent attacker, complementing Santi Rodríguez as someone who can regularly make things happen for himself and his teammates when the ball's at his feet.

Like Santi, Wolf has excelled while creating off the dribble. Opta has Hannes leading MLS with 17 successful carries of the ball that ended in key passes or chances created.

Hannes Wolf: It’s fun to create chances
In this exclusive interview, the 24-year-old tells us why he signed with New York City, why he’s comfortable as a No 10, and why he likes to be aggressive with the ball.

4. Quality depth

Santi and Wolf have carried the New York City attack this season and have been nearly omnipresent in Nick Cushing's Starting XIs since Matchday 1, but this winning streak wouldn't be happening without the contributions of more inconsistent members of the team's starting lineup.

Malachi Jones, Andrés Perea, Alonso Martínez, Julián Fernández, and Agustín Ojeda collectively have made the most appearances as substitutes for Nick Cushing so far this season.

All players in that group have scored and assisted on important goals as subs or as rotated starters during the team's current eight-match hot streak.

That group has provided quality off the bench that wasn't available to Cushing during the 2023 season. For comparison's sake, the five players who made the most appearances as substitutes for Cushing in 2023 were, in order, Andres Jasson, Alfredo Morales, Talles Magno, Matías Pellegrini, and Richy Ledezma.

5. Cushing pushes the right buttons

The players are the ones performing and rightfully get most of the focus and credit when discussing what has gone right for New York City, but Nick Cushing's work as manager can't be ignored.

NYCFC faced down a gauntlet of three-matches-in-seven-days against Toronto FC, the Philadelphia Union, and the Red Bulls, yet Cushing maneuvered his squad expertly and came away with all nine points from that stretch.

Even red-tinted Red Bull alumni turned Apple broadcasters Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan had to heap praise on Cushing's man management coming out of the Hudson River Derby win, specifically as it pertained to his handling of the Mounsef Bakrar situation.

On a recent MLS Wrap-Up, Wright-Phillips said of Cushing, "Not too long ago we’re talking about a lot of pressure on his shoulders, but he’s turned this side around," while Kljestan pointed to Bakrar's goal celebration, running over and hugging Cushing, as indicative that "Cushing has buy-in from his players. He stuck with them when things were down, they’re playing very well now, and they’re coming back."

Bakrar and the overall striker situation—Jovan Mijatović's slow, strange transition to life in MLS included—has probably been Cushing's most consistent problem to solve in 2024, but he's been up to the task. The willingness to use Alonso Martínez as a No 9 has paid off, as has the regular shuffling of starters at positions like right-back and left-wing.

There's still half the MLS regular season to play and a whole midseason tournament to come, so a lot can change, but Cushing has his squad in a great place after 15 matches played.

NYCFC’s Nick Cushing: We will attack the game at every phase
In this exclusive interview, the New York City head coach tells us about the pressure to deliver wins, fast-attacking football, developing young players, and why he wore that jacket in Miami.