Hudson River Blue spoke with New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing for an exclusive interview at the Etihad City Football Academy training facility in Rockland County, NY ahead of Sunday’s game against Minnesota United. We discussed the signings made in the busiest summer transfer window in club history, what NYCFC need to do to make the playoffs, and how the club had their eye on midfielder Andrés Perea when he was at Orlando City last season.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Hudson River Blue: How are you feeling going into Sunday’s game against Minnesota?
Nick Cushing: Disappointed after the Red Bull game, but it gives us an opportunity with the new signings. And a little bit of time to step back and get back into it.
We of course wanted to go through. But the main focus, if we look at the league, was to try and integrate the players that we brought in. We had two plans: One without games, and one with games. I would have liked games, really, because it means we could have advanced.
HRB: And a chance to work everything out with the new players in a competitive environment, instead of on the training field.
NC: I think the training field gives us obviously more time, and more chances of doing it in detail, but ultimately the games are where it really matters, and the best test. We managed to get a game, which was really important for the new players, but of course, the competitive nature of those games would have been perfect.
HRB: Let’s talk about the new players. We just ran a post that explained there has never been a summer transfer window like this one in club history. NYCFC tends to take care of business at the beginning of the season, not in the middle. How do you get those players integrated into the team inside a two-week window?
NC: Ultimately, the desire is always to do the business at the start of the year. This was pretty unique in the sense of the cycle of our success — it was impossible for us to keep everybody. We wanted to do the business then, but there were complexities around the amount of players we wanted to bring in.
We were disappointed, but at the same time we still continued to do the work, and we knew we’d get it done. We highlight those players that we wanted, and the key thing is we got the guys we’ve been doing a lot of work on. The likes of Birk Risa, Julián Fernández, Andrés Perea, those types of guys.
I’m really pleased we got those guys in. I think there was only one or two that literally landed quickly and we decided to do it. For the others, there was a lot of preparation, a lot of focus, a lot of homework done. We brought those guys in because we felt they were the right guys for us.
HRB: These were targeted players?
NC: Yes. We did a lot of work on Mounsef Bakrar, we looked at him a lot, we knew the profile of the No 9 that wanted.
Birk Risa was somebody that we had a real desire to do at the start of the season but it was difficult because of the club where he was at, and the run-in that they were having.
Andrés Perea was somebody that we highlighted. We liked him for two seasons. When he was at Orlando we knew that he had a good profile for our football club.
Although he’s on loan, we know that he will improve us, especially in that area. I think he’s very a unique midfield profile player that we don’t have here, not recently. I think he’s more of an Alex Ring-type profile in the sense of his ability to get around the field.
Julián Fernández is a young player who we know has got a lot of potential. We have some really, really, really good scouts in South America, ones who we really trust because of the track record of players they brought here from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil. He was one that we wanted to bring in, and we managed to do.
There was one or two that popped up and you have to decide: Do you feel it’s going to improve you? Or do you walk away from it? And we decided with Maxi Moralez and Alonso Martínez that it’s something that we want to do.
HRB: Can I ask you more about Perea? You talk about him being a physical player. What do you mean by him being more of a Ring-type of player?
NC: When I came here in 2020, Alex was exceptional at going and getting the ball back. I think it’s a very underrated part of the game, especially when we look at how we’re a team that wants to keep possession, and play between the lines, and create chances. Maybe we overlook almost the basic side of the game, which is just being really hard to play against, and having players who can make it difficult for the opposition.
Andrés has got that physical profile where he can cover a lot of ground. I don’t think we have that. It isn’t to say that our midfield isn’t good enough. We have Keaton Parks, and he’s been exceptional this year at opening the game, and being technically the player who can link back and front for us. James Sands is really important for us. Alfredo Morales, although he’s struggled with injuries here and there, he’s been really important for us.
But I think to have somebody like Andrés – he just wants to cover ground, he just wants to break the game up, he just wants to win duels and be a real competitive guy – that is an asset for our team.
He’s a technical player, he really wants to get on the ball, he wants to open the game. He played 90 minutes in the game against Austin, and he had a really good performance.
HRB: Part of the advantage of signing a player at the beginning of the season is you have time to develop them and bring them into the team. How do you bring them in so quickly? And what can the fans expect to see from these players?
NC: The most critical part of developing a team is the preseason, and I totally agree that you want to bring them early so that you get a good five to seven-week period of integration off and on the field. The challenge is that we don’t have that now. We had a 16-day period, but it didn’t always work out to 16 days because of visa issues. Not all of them were in the day after we were beaten by Red Bulls. They weren’t all there on that next day.
There were a lot of moving parts. They’re from different places, which have different visa issues.
For us, it’s about understanding the situation that we’re in and accelerating the process as much as possible. We feel that we’ve done that in a good way. I mean, Minnesota is a good test of that.
If I look at the group that we have, and the last 16 days that we had, whether it be on the training field or off, I’m really content with what we’ve done.
We managed to go away for almost a five-day period with the whole team — the only person who didn’t come was Julián Fernández because of his visa issue, but all the other boys came. We did some good activities on the field and off the field, we managed to play a game [against Austin FC] and we that were happy to get a result in, and played really, really well in the game. We managed to look at two or three things in the sense of how we want to evolve the team.
The fans can expect hopefully a team that is much-improved in results, because that of course is the huge goal, but we have a different dynamic in the team now. We have more options, we have more tactical flexibility. We have a different profile of player in the sense of what Alonso Martinez is, what Birk Risa is.
Maxi Moralez — we know this guy inside-out from a leadership perspective, but he has what we haven’t had in the front half of the field.
What this brings is more challenges for me, more problems. We had a team and a squad that picked itself, and we now have guys that will miss out on the squad, guys that will miss out on the team.
As I said, the main goal is to improve the results because we have ten games to get above the line. And the desire is to get into a position above the line that is going to help us out moving through the playoffs.
HRB: How has the tactical flexibility of the team changed?
NC: We brought in Andrés Perea, and as I said that is a different type of midfield profile. We have Alonso Martínez who’s a right-footed winger who can play on the right or the left — he’s really quick over ten to 15 meters, really clinical in front of goal. I actually believe he can play striker as well. Although he’s not played there so much, I think how clinical he is in front of goal, that if we can get him in front of the goal, he will put the ball away,
Birk Risa is a left-footed central defender, which we don’t have. He gives us more balance in that area in the sense of how we build the game whether we play three or whether we play two.
Maxi Moralez, we played him deeper last season in a 3-4-3 but he’s a natural No 10. Santi can play as a No 10, or he can play off the side.
It just gives us more options, and more flexibility.
I think we can play 4-3-3 if we play James Sands, Keaton Parks, Andrés Perea.
It gives us flexibility. It gives you more problems, because there are more things you can do. But at the same time, the main thing is we need to win football games.