Welcome to the second annual New York City FC midterm report card, in which John Barney, Andrew Leigh, Raf Noboa y Rivera, and Oliver Strand hand out NYCFC midterm grades — and add helpful comments we know the club will read and take to heart.
Raf Noboa y Rivera: New York City FC carries three goalkeepers on the roster: Luis Barraza, Matt Freese, and Cody Mizell. Barraza is the starter: Although they acquired Freese from the rival Philadelphia Union for $350,000 in general allocation money, Barraza has started every game bar one. Freese did not impress in his solitary start, a 3-1 loss to Eastern Conference leaders FC Cincinnati. Barraza has been solid. He’s clearly the locked-on starter. He’s also a clear step-down from Pigeons stalwart Sean Johnson, for now. He should improve with experience. Midterm Grade: B
Oliver Strand: Conventional wisdom is that Barraza has the starting spot over the more athletic Freese because he’s good with his feet and familiar with the system. While that might be true Barraza has looked shaky at times, and even worse, at odds with the defenders. But Raf is right: He’s improving with experience, and his league-best performance on Saturday against Real Salt Lake was nothing short of brilliant. I’m not going to give into recency bias and give too much weight to that match. Instead I’ll issue a grade for all 17 games so far. Midterm Grade: B-
Andrew Leigh: Barraza has excelled in the starting keeper role following Johnson’s defection over the Canadian border. I agree Barraza has gotten better as the season has gone on, with a notable Player of the Match performance against Real Salt Lake on Matchday 17. Barraza looks mostly comfortable in possession and at times functions as a sweeper keeper, though his distribution has too often left something to be desired. Freese has made two appearances, starting in two losses to the Eastern Conference juggernaut that is FC Cincinnati. Barraza and Freese both look capable at the MLS level, so this position ranks low as an area of concern for the 2023 squad. Midterm Grade: B-
John Baney: Weirdly, I think this might be our strongest position so far this season. Barraza has proven himself to be a capable starter in this league, exhibiting strong feet and an overall solidity seldom found in keepers in their debut season. Plus, from the few minutes of Freese action I’ve seen, he looks impressive as well. How many positions on this NYCFC squad can you say we have two starting-quality players in? I’d say this is the only one, unfortunately. Midterm Grade: A-
OS: The defense has been the most consistent part of the team this season even if it is a step behind where it was last year: How I miss Alex Callens. I desperately want Thiago Martins to prove himself to be the Designated Player he was signed to be, and for NYCFC to develop an Italian-like defense that locks out the other team. Is it too much to ask for the first legit catenaccio in MLS history?
Instead this defense give up key goals, then do just enough to keep New York City in it. To be fair, NYCFC have allowed only 22 goals. It’s not so far off from the 19 they allowed at this point in the season last year, when the defense was one of the league’s best. Midterm Grade: B
AL: NYCFC are exactly middle of the pack in MLS in number of goals conceded halfway through the 2023 season, and that feels like an accurate representation of their defense. Center backs Maxime Chanot and Thiago Martins have been veteran workhorses, and were mostly excellent as a duo up until the May 27 home loss to the Philadelphia Union, which saw the NYCFC defense leak three goals at home and lose Thiago Martins to a long-term knee injury.
Now it’s a revolving door at fullback for head coach Nick Cushing, with none of the players the manager has tried – Braian Cufré, Kevin O’Toole, Tayvon Gray, Mitja Ilenič, Stephen Turnbull–really distinguishing themselves. At times they look as defensively solid as any MLS team, but at other times their lack of defensive depth looks glaring. Like right now, when they’re relying on journeymen defenders like Tony Alfaro, or converted central midfielders like Justin Haak or James Sands, to protect their net. Defense remains a position of need despite recent incomings, which doesn’t reflect well on the recent work of NYCFC sporting director David Lee. Midterm Grade: C+
JB: While we may not have missed Johnson as much as I would’ve expected, this team certainly misses Callens. Yes, we brought in Alfaro, but Cushing’s decision to play two midfielders in Sands and Haak over the former DC United man last week probably tells you all you need to know. If we’re going to play Cushing’s three-back system (which I think has been our best football under the Englishman), we need to bring in re-enforcements this summer. Thiago Martins is hurt, Chanot is old, and we need a left footer. Midterm Grade: B-
RNR: Head coach Nick Cushing has experimented with some variations of playing three at the back, but for the most part the Pigeons have lined up with a four-man defense. With the departure of Callens, Chanot is now the beating heart of the defense. Thiago Martins, after struggling to adjust to the pace of MLS and playing style last season, is much improved. Tayvon Gray is the locked-in starter as right back, while Cufré has been eclipsed by O’Toole lately. James Sands, Mitja Ilenič, and even Justin Haak have also lined up at the back as Cushing looks to arrest an eight-game winless run. Midterm Grade: B-
AL: Keaton Parks and James Sands have consistently been two of NYCFC’s better players this season. When he’s been deployed as a No 10, Richy Ledezma has also been a bright spot, tied for the team lead in assists while consistently providing an attacking threat from the middle of the pitch. Alfredo Morales has struggled to stay healthy, but has been solid when he’s been available and on the pitch. Justin Haak hasn’t been the worst depth option, but also hasn’t seemed to progress enough to warrant more than a sub’s minutes. Midterm Grade: B
JB: While bringing back Sands was probably the best bit of business we had this offseason, it clearly hasn’t been enough.
Sands provides good solidity, but is hardly a creator. Parks is left to do a lot of that creative work on his own, but hasn’t quite found the consistency we’ve expected of him. Between the departure of Cacha Acevedo, the aging of Alfredo, and the use of players like Santiago Rodríguez and Richy in the front line, this midfield feels very thin and lacking spark at times. But, I’d say it’s hardly our biggest problem. Midterm Grade: B-
RNR: As much as New York City might miss Callens on defense, it’s nothing compared to how much they’re missing Maxi Moralez in their midfield. Without him, the Pigeons’ have struggled. The issues don’t lie in the defensive midfield, they reside on the offensive side. Simply put: Players like Santi, Morales, and others fail to make a consistent impact on games. Even if they may control possession, that possession is sterile and devoid of creativity. If you’re trying to figure out why NYCFC haven’t won since April 22nd against Dallas, this is where to start. That said, Ledezma may be the cohesive force the midfield needs. Midterm Grade: C-
OS: A work in progress. James Sands looks as sharp as ever, the Maxi-sized hole in the midfield isn’t doing any favors for Keaton Parks and Rodríguez. As both Andrew and Raf say, Ledezma has put in some promising performances. But the inconsistencies in the attacking side of the field are so frustrating they make me want to, in the words of Icona Pop, crash my car into a bridge and watch it burn. Midterm Grade: C
JB: It’s no secret that this team’s biggest struggles are in the final third. Sometimes the issue is in creating chances, sometimes it’s they just can’t convert, but too many times it’s been an ugly combination of the two. Talles Magno has been really disappointing so far, which pains me to say as I picked him to be our standout performer this year in our preseason player profiles. In a year where we’ve needed him more than ever, he’s been short on the very confidence he needs to be successful. But it’s not his fault we don’t have a No 9. Midterm Grade: C-
RNR: If NYCFC profoundly miss Maxi in midfield, that’s nothing compared to how desperately they miss Valentin Castellanos on offense. While they somehow made do in the second half of last season, the Pigeons are completely lost this season on attack. The top scorers this season are wingers Gabriel Pereira and Rodríguez, with four goals apiece. Talles Magno was supposed to step up and replace the scoring output of Castellanos. Instead, he only scored three goals this season, he started just one game since May 13, and he’s closer to being a relative flop as opposed to being a change-maker. New York City need goals, and no one is scoring. Midterm Grade: D+
OS: I’ll quote what Andrew said in last year’s midterms: “If you stop showing up, you fail the class.” The attack simply hasn’t shown up to a number of games — New York City managed just one shot on goal in five games this season. That said, there have been flashes of brilliance from Pereira, which is the only reason why I’m not flunking the attack. Midterm Grade: D–
AL: Talles Magno entered the season expected to assume the role of leader of NYCFC’s attack, but he has been a flop. He couldn’t cut it as a striker and needed to move off the position, yet hasn’t produced much even while deployed on his preferred left wing. Talles Magno’s inability to function as a No 9 has led to Rodríguez occasionally playing the role of False 9, which worked great once but hasn’t proved to be a successful setup. Pereira has comfortably been NYCFC’s best attacker in 2023, but he remains a bit mercurial and not the type of match-after-match goal threat NYCFC needs in this post-Taty, post-Maxi period. There’s no real clear-cut striker on the roster outside of Gabe Segal, who has been better than expected since arriving from the reserve squad of FC Koln in Germany. Despite Gabriel Pereira’s occasional greatness, there has not been anywhere close to enough production from this group. Midterm Grade: D
OS: Another inconsistent part of the squad. Players such as Justin Haak, Morales, and Tony Alfaro are demonstrating their worth by filling in while NYCFC wait for Chanot and Thiago Martins to return. But then Pellegrini has yet to make a meaningful appearance, and O’Toole has yet to return to the form that made him so impressive at the end of last season. Midterm Grade: B–
AL: There are no impact players to speak of coming off the NYCFC bench this year. Pellegrini has earned lots of bench minutes to date but he’s been an all-effort, no-attacking-production player on both wings so far in 2023. Andres Jasson has gotten plenty of looks as both a sub and spot starter and has still yet to open his MLS scoring account. Defensive depth players like Tony Alfaro and Stephen Turnbull have been asked to step up due to injuries or suspensions and haven’t been bad, but also haven’t looked like future members of the NYCFC starting XI. There’s simply not enough depth on this bench to set NYCFC up for success when injuries or international call-ups leave their roster depleted. Midterm Grade: D-
JB: Respectfully, at times our reserves more closely resemble an MLS Next Pro side than an MLS bench. I think it was probably best summed up by Cushing in his post-match presser after the loss in the Hudson River Derby. When asked why he didn’t make any substitutions until the 89th minute while chasing a goal, he replied, “I think we had all our offensive players were on the field.” If that doesn’t tell you we need signings, I don’t know what will. Midterm Grade: C-
RNR: NYCFC’s bench isn’t particularly impactful, in my opinion. Players like Alfaro and Gabriel Segal are serviceable, while Talles Magno and Morales—who should be starters, given their salaries—have been benched due to their lack of impact. This is not what you want to see from a bench. Think of a bench as a potential source for solutions for challenges posed by a given game. That’s not what the Pigeons’ bench offers currently, and it shows. Midterm Grade: C
AL: Have any NYCFC players really thrived under Nick Cushing in 2023? Pereira has been the team’s standout performer, but his season also feels like an extension of the level he reached in 2022 under both Ronny Deila and Cushing. There have to date been no real breakout performers on the 2023 roster, and the team is suffering through just about its worst-ever run of results since joining MLS in 2015.
Cushing should not shoulder all the blame, as he was handed an incomplete and largely overhauled roster heading into 2023 after a number of critical veteran players left the club. NYCFC remains young and a work in progress, but it also feels as though Cushing has not done enough to coax results from this collection of talented young players. The pieces would appear to be there for a better season than what NYCFC has enjoyed to date, and Cushing has to take the blame for that. Midterm Grade: D
JB: I’ll maintain strong sympathy for Cushing because I think he’s been dealt an impossible hand. He’s doing his best to reach the MLS Cup-level expectations set by previous squads, but doing so with a cast that’s simply nowhere near as talented, experienced, or well-balanced. But, he’s still the man in charge, and this squad is still good enough to win more games than we have. There are still teams with lower payrolls and less talent that look a whole lot better than we do these days, and that comes down to management. Midterm Grade: B-
RNR: New York City won’t fire managers. Aside from Jason Kreis, who clearly wasn’t a good fit for what CFG were building here, every Pigeons’ manager has performed well, even if they struggled initially. Patrick Vieira built the Pigeons into a stylish offensive outfit and nearly won a Supporters Shield, Dome Torrent performed equally as well in half as many games, and Ronny Deila brought a championship. In contrast, Nick Cushing has struggled mightily. I was keen to give the man a chance with a full off-season behind him; instead, the team has regressed. Unlike Torrent, Cushing seems devoid of ideas, aside from impossibly stale chestnuts from the English coaching book like self-belief and bravery. This ain’t Dunkirk. It’s a 90-minute game with a round ball.
New York City won’t fire managers, but Cushing might be the second manager sacked absent a massive improvement in results. If NYCFC miss the playoffs, he should be. The team is rebuilding, but that’s no excuse for listless, unimaginative play. Midterm Grade: F
OS: I disagree with Raf here. Cushing deserves credit for doing what he can with a makeshift roster that has yet to recover from Taty leaving last summer, never mind losing Maxi, Johnson, Callens, Héber, Thiago Andrade, and Anton Tinnerholm this year. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those names combined for 33 goals last year, and they were replaced by players who scored exactly one goal in top-flight football in 2022. That said, it’s hard to love these results. Midterm Grade: B
7. Front Office
JB: Taty left about a year ago, but we knew he was leaving six months before that. I don’t care what you say about “finding the right player,” 18 months to find a single replacement is unacceptably long, and we’re floundering this season as a result.
And, while we’ve been so desperate for goals since Taty’s departure, what have we done in response? Sell our two next most prolific players in Héber and Thaigo Andrade. Make it make sense!
All I’m saying is whoever we bring in better score 35+ goals next season or it wasn’t worth it. No pressure. Midterm Grade: D+
RNR: On the one hand: New York City finally have a stadium. In the Five Boroughs, and in Queens, the world’s most diverse collection of neighborhoods, no less. When the Etihad Stadium opens in 2027, you should expect it to be a jewel of a stadium.
On the other hand: Ye gods, this roster needs a lot of work. The thing to keep in mind is that NYCFC are in the first year of a multi-year rebuild. The first one paid off with an unexpected title run; this one should be capped with one, to go along with the stadium’s expected opening in 2027. So…that gives us three-and-a-half more years that should gradually get better? But, boy howdy, it’s gonna be painful getting there, at least for now.
First things first: The front office needs to land a solid scorer in the secondary window. Castellanos’s loan to Girona only runs through June. Could he return? I doubt it, but you never know. A more realistic option would be to see what the team does with their U-22 flexibility. I wouldn’t expect them to sign a European player on a free-transfer, although they desperately could use a dependable scorer like Teemu Pukki or even Bas Dost. Midterm Grade: B, mostly because of the stadium
OS: True, Brad Sims et al. delivered on the stadium, Steve Cohen’s suspect parking lot threats notwithstanding. Also true: Sporting director David Lee has not filled in the gaps left behind by the recent exodus of talent. Is he to blame? Or is it budgetary? After all, Taty hasn’t been sold yet, and New York City haven’t made any real money from a transfer fee since Jack Harrison in 2018. If you give a high mark for the stadium, a low one for transfers, and weigh both given the circumstances… Midterm Grade: C+
AL: Cushing takes the blame for not getting much out of the players he’s working with, but Lee deserves a much harsher spotlight for the current state of the NYCFC roster. The wave of player departures that kicked off after the MLS Cup win in December 2021 has seemed to be too much for Lee to deal with, as NYCFC have been extremely slow to replace players and have looked willing to trot out weakened, underperforming lineups while holding out for their ideal transfer targets.
This has been a unique period of extreme, simultaneous roster turnover that has required a more active response than what David Lee has provided. Maybe it will all pan out after some key signings are made during this summer’s transfer window, but for now, NYCFC looks like a roster that was torn down while Lee searched for his next big bargain signing. Right now it’s very easy to question the City Football Group bosses for their willingness to accept this feeble version of NYCFC, a rudderless team that sits in 13th place in the Eastern Conference halfway through the season. Midterm Grade: F
AL: This has felt like the worst NYCFC season since 2015, with 2023 also looking like a real contender for first season NYCFC misses the MLS Cup Playoffs since that inaugural campaign. There look to have been too many player departures and not enough real quality reinforcements to replace them to make this team truly competitive in MLS, even with this season ushering in an expanded playoffs that includes nine teams qualifying from each conference.
The team’s attack has too often been clueless and ineffective, while the team has been too defensively inept in dead-ball situations to avoid dropping costly points particularly on the road. None of the alternative options afforded to Cushing have been able to get the job done, and all attention will now be on the summer transfer window as NYCFC fans hope new signings will arrive to right what looks like a sinking ship at least for 2023. Midterm Grade: D-
JB: Obviously, 13th place in the East is not good enough for this club’s standards. But, I take some solace in the fact that I think we could be one or two signings away from being a good team again. With a prolific striker and a left-footed center back, this squad suddenly feels really complete. And, the beauty of MLS is that we just have to reach ninth place to have a shot. We’re in our worst form in recent memory, and have been brutally unlucky, but we’re somehow only 4 points off the playoff line.
Believe. Midterm Grade: C-
RNR: TL; DR: this might be a rebuilding team. It’s also a talented team. There’s too much talent in this roster for New York City to be in 13th place, four points out of a playoff slot. Lee’s one of the best in the league at finding talent and leveraging CFG’s worldwide network for that purpose. Ultimately, this team’s performance – or lack thereof – is squarely on Nick Cushing. Any creditable manager needs to be creative with the resources at his disposal. Can Nick Cushing find those solutions? Time is running short. Midterm Grade: C-