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NYCFC choke, give away lead twice in Atlanta

It's now 11 matches since NYCFC's last win after a 95th-minute Atlanta equalizer extends rut.

Round of applause for NYCFC's most exciting player | Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC squandered their best chance to date to earn a road win in 2023, instead settling for a 2-2 draw at Atlanta United after conceding an equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time. This now makes it 11 matches played since NYCFC’s last win, which is the longest winless run the club has suffered through since the early stages of their inaugural season back in 2015.

NYCFC got off to a flying start in the ATL thanks to Gabriel Pereira, who opened the scoring after just 42 seconds of action, finishing cooly past Brad Guzan to give the visitors a dream start at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was a great piece of deception from Pereira, who collected a perfect pass from Keaton Parks, then hesitated and feinted as though he intended to pass himself before placing his shot perfectly into the far corner out of Guzan’s reach.

The early goal represented NYCFC’s first lead in any match since the 1-3 home loss to Philadelphia Union back on May 27, when Gabriel Pereira also gave NYCFC an early lead that they would relinquish.

The first Atlanta United equalizer arrived 10 short minutes after NYCFC’s opener, with Tyler Wolff finishing off a neat bit of combination play by powering a shot through the legs of Luis Barraza at the near post. In retrospect and on replay, it’s a goal Barraza would likely prefer a do-over on, though he was also done no favors by a few of his defenders in the lead-up to Wolff’s shot.

The hosts were the brighter side following the Wolff goal, and the Atlanta youngster could easily have had a brace by the 23rd minute. NYCFC were ripped open in transition and Wolff was teed up for a tap-in, but he couldn’t apply the necessary finishing touch to Caleb Wiley’s cross.

NYCFC were fortunate not to be behind at halftime, though they reclaimed a lead early in the second half. A heavy touch in possession by Atlanta’s Ajani Fortune handed Richy Ledezma possession in the NYCFC attacking end and he connected with Gabriel Pereira who again beat Guzan in the 56th minute, giving Pereira a team-leading sixth goal and Ledezma a team-leading fifth assist.

The focus for NYCFC then shifted to preserving a one-goal lead and seeing out a first road win of the 2023 campaign. Head coach Nick Cushing made four substitutions with the intention of seeing out the victory and preserving player legs ahead of a quick-turnaround trip all the way to Portland, Oregon.

It wasn’t to be, though, as NYCFC’s defense folded at the last possible moment and conceded a last-gasp equalizer to Nick Firmino, a non-Roberto member of the Firmino clan who was making his MLS debut after a short-term loan in from Atlanta United 2 in MLS NEXT Pro. New York City’s marking at the back post left lots to be desired and Firmino took advantage, handing NYCFC a fourth straight draw.

Game Stats
NYCFC: 3 shots, 3 on goal, 41.1% possession, 351 passes, 84.6% pass accuracy, 11 fouls
Atlanta: 12 shots, 5 on goal, 58.9% possession, 508 passes, 87.2% pass accuracy, 14 fouls

The GP11 Praise Section

There have not been many consistent positives to point to throughout NYCFC’s 2023 season, but Gabriel Pereira is undeniably the big one. He claimed the team lead in goals with his brace in Atlanta, running his total up to six goals on the season. His opener scored at 42 seconds also went down as the third-fastest goal scored in NYCFC’s history. (Alexandru Mitrita vs. FC Cincinnati in 2020 was at 30 seconds; Taty Castellanos at FC Dallas in 2019 at 39 seconds)

Pereira has kept the momentum he gained after Taty Castellanos left last summer, fully claiming the role of NYCFC’s primary goal-scoring threat and consistently putting opposing defenses under pressure like no other player currently in the squad.

GP11 has turned into what many fans likely hoped Talles Magno would become: The NYCFC danger man that opposing teams spend their week worrying about before lining up against the Boys in Blue.

The biggest issue with Pereira’s performance in Atlanta was its length. His withdrawal at the 76th minute let Atlanta off the hook, removing the most dangerous NYCFC player from the equation just as the home team was throwing everything forward in search of an equalizer. That leads into the next topic of interest from this frustrating draw…

Subs fail to see out the win

Depth was always going to play a role in this match, as both teams faced key absences due to international call-ups, injuries, and suspensions.

Atlanta United was a severely weakened version of its usual self, as main attacking threats Thiago Almada and Giorgos Giakoumakis were entirely absent, with seven absentees in total from their normal squad. NYCFC were without their three best individual defensive players, as James Sands, Maxime Chanot, and Thiago Martins all missed out due to international call-ups and injury.

NYCFC still found itself in position to protect a lead for the match’s last half-hour, and Nick Cushing started turning to his bench in the 75th minute looking to nurse that 2-1 advantage.

Cushing did not end up pushing the right buttons, as none of the four substitutes the NYCFC manager chose to insert made any positive difference on the outcome. Talles Magno, Matías Pellegrini, Kevin O’Toole, Andres Jasson–all entered, yet none stood out enough in the final 20 minutes to ensure that NYCFC left the Benz victorious.

It feels glaring that Cushing chose not to remove one player, Stephen Turnbull, who got put through a proverbial meat grinder and had many observers questioning his ability to continue playing at multiple times.

Turnbull was left a bloody mess after crashing head-first into the advertising boards behind the end line in the first half, and suffered a number of other collisions with Atlanta players that left him down and writhing in pain.

Yet Turnbull was left out there for the duration of the match, and could only flail helplessly while not marking any Atlanta players nor effectively protecting the far post on the last-second Five Stripes equalizer.

It’s no guarantee the match’s outcome is any different if Pereira remains on the pitch for all 90 minutes, or if Turnbull is replaced with a fresh defender like Mitja Ilenič, or if the legend of Gabe Segal got another chance off the bench rather than going unused after his late-game heroics vs. Columbus.

The decisions to yank Pereira, leave Turnbull, and ignore Segal stand out as the easiest second-guesses on the latest frustrating evening of NYCFC soccer.

What could possibly go wrong next?

The good news: NYCFC are unbeaten in their last four matches.

The bad news: They now must shake off the disappointment of this draw and almost immediately travel thousands of miles to Portland to play one of the toughest away fixtures on any MLS team’s schedule.

Portland’s Providence Park was the site of the club’s greatest triumph in its short history, but NYCFC will still have to dig deep to reverse the catastrophic course they’re currently on.

The Timbers just lost at home to one of NYCFC’s bottom-of-the-Eastern Conference rivals, Chicago Fire, and will no doubt be looking to bounce back against another East Coast team, particularly one that has yet to win away from home this calendar year.

NYCFC’s performance was positive at times in Atlanta, but they were also statistically second-best on the night, and comfortably so. The Boys in Blue still managed just three shots, though they efficiently scored two of them, and uncharacteristically got dominated by Atlanta in terms of possession and chance creation.

The quality of NYCFC’s performances feel increasingly irrelevant, as even the most positive performances haven’t translated to any wins since April 22nd. Will a first trip back to the place where NYCFC hoisted MLS Cup in December 2021 be enough to stir up enough good vibes to finally, mercifully end the extended winless run NYCFC are suffering through? We’ll have to wait until the wee hours of Sunday morning on the East Coast to find out.

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NYCFC, Pereira, 1′
Atlanta, Wolff, 11′
NYCFC, Pereira, 56′
Atlanta, N. Firmino, 90’+5′

Atlanta, Cobb, yellow card, foul 22′
NYCFC, Cufré, yellow card, foul 70′
Atlanta, Gutman, yellow card, foul 75′
NYCFC, Pellegrini, yellow card, foul 81′
NYCFC, Rodríguez, yellow card, foul 86′

Attendance: 42,557

Referee: Jon Freemon
Assistant Referees: Ian McKay, Walter Heatherly
Fourth Official: Sergii Demianchuk
VAR: Sorin Stoica
Assistant VAR: Jonathan Johnson