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Intensity and Controversy: New York City FC win streak ends vs Columbus

A storm delay, a red card, VAR: It was an intense night in The Bronx as a short-handed New York City FC lost 2-3 to Columbus Crew.

Does that look like a red card to you? | © Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, Yankee Soccer Stadium played host to an unforgettable matchup between Major League Soccer heavyweights when New York City FC, riding a five-game winning streak hosted a Columbus Crew side boasting three straight away league wins.

It was an intense game between two quality sides. Yet the match will be remembered for two key decisions made by the referee. The first, an early red card for NYCFC, was deserved. But the second, a controversial decision to award a penalty to Columbus after a lengthy VAR review, set up the Crew to score what would prove to be the winning goal.

"I think what you saw tonight were two of the best teams in MLS going at each other." That was New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing's impression of Friday night's 3-2 home loss. After a weather delay pushed back kick-off, both teams came flying out of the blocks with intensity.

NYCFC's Matt Freese continued his case for the MLS All-Star Game starting keeper role, making eight saves in the first half, as Columbus dominated in attack. But, a red card for Mitja Ilenic in the 39th minute saw the Boys in Blue down to 10 men, and a Columbus that already looked dangerous were poised to pull ahead.

However, an Agustín Ojeda strike in the 44th minute against the run of play gave NYCFC the lead heading into halftime.

The fans were ecstatic, and optimism that the club-record win streak could be extended, filled the stadium. Alas, this wasn't meant to be. Two goals for Columbus in the opening 10 minutes of the second half turned the game on its head, as NYCFC struggled to cope with being a man down. The penalty made it 1-3, but a short-handed New York City fought back. NYCFC scored again in the 86th minute, and were the stronger side through regulation plus 14 minutes of stoppage time, but came up short in the 2-3 loss.


New York City: 14 shots, 6 shots on target, 44.2% possession, 393 passes, 83.5% pass accuracy, 16 fouls, 9 saves

Columbus Crew: 18 shots, 12 shots on target, 55.8% possession, 575 passes, 88.7% pass accuracy, 13 fouls, 4 saves

• New York City, Agustín Ojeda, 44'
• Columbus, Christian Ramírez, 48'
• Columbus, Mohamed Farsi, 53'
• Columbus, Cucho Hernandez, 65' (p)
• New York City, Santi Rodriguez, 86'

Attendance: 20,622
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High intensity from two former champs

An in-form New York City facing off against a full-strength Columbus Crew had all the makings of an MLS classic, and was easily the most anticipated game of this matchday.

A passing thunderstorm set back the kickoff by one hour, but both sides hit the field with intensity coming out of the weather delay. As Columbus applied immense pressure during the opening minutes of the first half, it was New York City's starting keeper Matt Freese who kept the match at a 0-0 deadlock. The American managed five saves in the opening 30 minutes, and eight in the first half.

The Boys in Blue poked and prodded on the counterattack, but couldn't manage to put a shot on goal as the forwards lacked that clinical final touch to finish off what were impressive moves upfield. Yet, it would go from aggravation to disdain for Cushing's side, as Mitja Ilenič brought down Columbus forward Christian Ramirez as he barreled goalward, the New York City defender was issued a red card for his troubles.

Already on the back foot offensively, an NYCFC reduced to 10 players would seemingly fall easily to a composed and dangerous Columbus. But New York City found a breakthrough courtesy of one Agustín Ojeda, as if willed on by the soccer gods themselves.

After a smooth series of passes, New York City striker Alonso Martinez served up a delicious back-heel inside the box towards the arriving Ojeda. The Argentine received the ball, skipped past two defenders, then fired a shot into the bottom right corner. Out of nowhere, 10-player New York City took the lead, and entered the halftime break up 1-0.

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Columbus (and VAR) turn the game on its head

The optimism that Boys in Blue created at the close of the first half evaporated in the first 10 minutes of the second half.

In the 48th minute, Columbus played the ball through the New York City defense, where Christian Ramirez slotted home a goal 6 yards out. However, the linesman's flag was raised for offside, but as Freese prepared to launch the ball upfield, referee Alexis Da Silva held up play as the goal was under video review. Da Silva headed to the screen to look for himself before overturning the offside and awarding Columbus the goal.

You could hear a pin drop inside Yankee Soccer Stadium as fans were astonished by the decision.

Not five minutes later, Columbus would go 2-1 up through a Mohamed Farsi goal. The Columbus infielder bundled the ball over the line after Freese's 9th save of the match landed right at the Canadian's feet.

For a moment, it seemed that the drama had concluded and that the remainder of this match would play out in a mundane fashion. But this is New York City FC we're talking about. Mundane isn't a part of the team's MO.

In the 65th minute, Columbus conjured another attack, this time filling the NYCFC penalty area with black and yellow shirts. Yet, as the ball floated helplessly across the face of the goal, NYCFC escaped unscathed. Or so they thought. VAR saw two possible fouls in the buildup of the Columbus attack, and encouraged Da Silva to take another trip to the review screen.

After a lengthy, drawn-out review which saw the official watch a replay numerous times, the Crew were awarded a penalty, which Cucho Hernandez dispatched with ease. It was 3-1 Columbus, and cascades of boos rained down on the field, mainly towards the officials. Ref-ball was on full display.

Da Silva is relatively inexperienced as a head referee, officiating just six MLS matches in 2024 including this one, and another three in 2023. In his six matches this year, Da Silva handed out two red cards, 18 yellow cards, and awarded four penalties.

After the game, a disappointed Cushing shared his thoughts on the match, and wasn't particularly pleased with the decision made by the referee.

"You can't put a referee that's referred two games on this game. [...]That takes a very experienced referee to referee that game. [...] The really experienced referees know how to referee these games and know how to make sure football wins and the fans really enjoy it. Tonight, what we saw, was maybe not that."

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Dominant end not enough for New York City

For the second game in a row, New York City's Maxi Moralez entered the game as a late substitute. And for the second game in a row, the playmaker set the tempo for the match and created chances for his side. But unlike the last game, when Moralez was the key ingredient in a 5-1 win over San Jose Earthquakes, the Argentine couldn't overcome New York City's one-player disadvantage and alter the course of this result.

But he came close. Moralez provided the assist for an 86th-minute goal from Santi Rodriguez. The calm and clinical finish was the seventh of the season for Rodríguez, and the No 10 now has 13 goal involvements through 17 games in 2024. That is just behind his previous season-long record, when he scored four goals and added 13 assists in 2022, when he appeared in 32 matches.

New York City dominated the final minutes of regulation plus 14 minutes of stoppage time, but the short-handed side just couldn't find the equalizing goal.

Courtesy g+ GameFlow

But Columbus were the stronger team overall. New York City FC had 14 shots, yet only managed to put six on target, compared to 18 shots and 12 on target for the Crew. The Boys in Blue struggled greatly in attack, particularly in the first half, with Santi Rodriguez's effort rattling the post in the 30th minute being the closest opportunity before Ojeda's opener later on. NYCFC showed flashes of brilliance when getting the ball upfield, but each move was upended with a lack of clinical finishing, something all too familiar for Cushing's side.

Did ref-ball make this match less enjoyable for all involved? Absolutely. But was it the sole reason New York City left Yankee Soccer Stadium with zero points? No. If you want to win games, you need to convert your chances, a notion which the Boys in Blue have been improving on with each passing game. But Friday night, whether it was the weather delay or the ref getting in the players' heads, NYCFC was not up to scratch, and it cost them a chance at club history.

• NYCFC, Strahinja Tanasijevic, yellow card, foul 32′
• NYCFC, Mitja Ilenic, red card, foul 39'
• Columbus, Evgen Cheberko, yellow card, foul 58'
• Columbus, Diego Rossi, yellow card, foul 90'+1
• NYCFC, Maxi Moralez, yellow card, foul 90'+9
• NYCFC, Keaton Parks, yellow card, foul 90'+10
• NYCFC, Santi Rodriguez, yellow card, foul 90'+15

• Referee: Alexis Da Silva
• Assistant referees: Jason White, Justin Howard
• Fourth official: Elvis Osmanovic
• VAR: Sorin Stoica
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