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Injuries, adversity reveal cracks in NYCFC defensive foundation

It's striking how important the first-choice New York City defensive line is to the team's success, as the absences of Thiago Martins and Kevin O'Toole loomed large in the Columbus loss.

Strahinja Tanasijević tangled up with Crew striker Cucho Hernández. Photo: © Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The consistency and strength of the New York City FC defense has helped fuel the team's 2024 rise, but some key injuries and in-game adversity revealed fragility in that defense in the 2-3 loss to Columbus Crew.

Thiago Martins was ruled out the day before the match against Columbus due to the injury he suffered in warm-ups before the May 31 match vs. San Jose Earthquakes. Kevin O'Toole, removed in the 39th minute vs. San Jose with a hamstring injury, was not named in the matchday squad.

The absences of Thiago Martins and O'Toole loomed large. Both their replacements struggled, with Mitja Ilenič sent off with a straight red after he was judged to be denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity in the 39th minute. (Something about that 39th minute with NYCFC fullbacks...)

That red card gave the Crew, the most accurate passing team in MLS, more space in which to operate, and they broke through for three second-half goals in quick succession.

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Yet Columbus was dominant even before the Ilenič red. The Crew found its way through the reworked New York City back line with far more ease than you'd be accustomed to from watching the recent run of NYCFC success.

The Crew had eight shots on target, 11 total, at halftime and were credited with 1.45 expected goals (xG), with Matt Freese doing all he possibly could to keep the ball out of his net.

Even Freese, the subject of more recent press and All-Star voter attention of late, couldn't continue his hero act against Columbus. The strength of Freese's saves was dampened by a rare mistake from the keeper, a loose rebound off a dangerous strike fumbled into the path of Mohamed Farsi, who tucked it home to give the Crew a 2-1 lead just five minutes after they'd equalized through Christian Ramirez.

The totality of the defensive performance wasn't good, though the referee and the handling of the match by VAR were also huge factors that influenced how this specific result played out.

With the caveat that it was one slightly bizarre ref-mess of a match, the way NYCFC dealt with the well-oiled attack of the reigning MLS Cup winners while down two of their top 2024 defenders still raises concerns.

Those concerns are all about the next wave of guys called into action off the bench. Strahinja Tansijević has not looked like the most comfortable partner for Birk Risa at center back, though he's only played limited minutes both in MLS and alongside Risa.

Without O'Toole available, the only other natural left-back on the roster is Christian McFarlane, who did end up making his MLS debut in the Columbus defeat. Before McFarlane came on, though, it was Tayvon Gray filling in at left-back with Ilenič returning to his starter's role at right-back.

That change worked when it became necessary against San Jose, but it ultimately takes Gray out of the role he'd been thriving in, starting at right-back, and leaves the team precariously thin at fullback when a red card hits.

McFarlane looked like he belonged in his MLS debut at age 17, credited with two chances created, including a promising-looking cross whipped toward Andrés Perea almost immediately after entering as a sub in the 74th minute.

Perhaps the teen Homegrown player gets another, longer chance in the congested stretch of matches the loss to Columbus kicks off. There's also the potential of returns to health for one or both of Thiago Martins and O'Toole.

Yet concerns can't help but persist because of how well it has worked for New York City and Nick Cushing to rely on the defensive nucleus of Freese in goal and Thiago Martins and Birk Risa together in central defense.

When that group has started together, which it has done in almost every MLS match since Leagues Cup 2023 ended, the results for NYCFC have put them toward the top of the MLS form table.

Depth and reshuffling are always necessary across the long MLS season, but it's striking just how vital the "prime" New York City defensive line looks to be to the team's success.

This match might have looked different if it was that ideal NYCFC backline trying to stop Columbus's formidable attacking front led by Cucho Hernández, who blasted a penalty kick home for the third Crew goal and assisted on the Ramirez equalizer.

The reworked NYCFC defense might have also benefited from a referee who was slightly more seasoned and not as prone to handing out penalties and hanging out by the VAR monitor.

Instead, the Columbus loss serves as a warning sign. The back-up plans across the back are not inspiring tons of confidence, and that weak spot got pretty well exposed by the Crew.