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NYCFC bring the fight—but it’s not enough

New York City were knocked out of CONCACAF Champions League, with Seattle Sounders advancing on a 4-2 aggregate.

It wasn’t to be. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Credit to the Pigeons: They came out flying from the start. New York City FC manager Ronny Deila made just one change from the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals, replacing Keaton Parks with Nicolas Acevedo. The game was feisty from the whistle—in the first minute, forward Valentin Castellanos absolutely steamrollered Xavier Arreaga. He earned a yellow card for the foul. 

At that moment, Castellanos also set the tone for the match, letting the Seattle Sounders know that New York City would not back down. NYCFC were on the front foot for the first 25 minutes. But in the 28th minute, Nouhou Tolo delivered a splendid pass to Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz that utterly carved apart the New York City backline. Ruidiaz slotted the ball past Sean Johnson to give Seattle the lead against the run of play, 1-0.

Deila made one change at halftime, subbing on attacking midfielder Gabriel Pereira for Nicolas Acevedo. The sub had an immediate impact: The Pigeons pressured the Sounders every minute of the second half. It paid off in the 51st minute, as Santi Rodríguez scored to level the game at 1-1. 

The scoreline meant the Sounders still led 4-2 on aggregate, though; New York City needed to score twice more to simply push the game to penalties. They were unable to do so, despite unrelenting pressure. Seattle keeper Stefan Frei was utterly clutch in making save after save: The Sounders defense bent, but did not break.

Seattle’s game management – and, let’s be honest, straightforward gamesmanship – was excellent. Time and again, they interrupted NYCFC’s offensive rhythm and buildup with convenient injuries. It felt as if the stretcher crew was a constant presence on the field.

In the end, Seattle was content to play out the game as a draw. The 4-2 aggregate win sees the Sounders become just the fifth MLS team to make a continental final. They’ll be favorites against Mexico’s UNAM Pumas in the CCL Final: They are a more talented team, and they’ll play the second leg of the Final at home in Seattle. The first leg will be played at Pumas’ Estadio Universitario between April 26 and 28th; the second leg will be played in Seattle at Lumen Field between May 3rd and 5th.

Meanwhile, New York City will now concentrate on two tasks: Defending their MLS title, and winning a first-ever US Open Cup. Their next game is this Easter Sunday at home in Yankee Stadium against Real Salt Lake. That game kicks off at 1 pm.

Now, here are five thoughts for the five boroughs:

New York City could’ve won tonight

NYCFC was far more aggressive tonight, and I’m not just talking about how feisty they were from the start. They had to be, given they were down 3-1 going into tonight’s match. So if Pigeons’ players and fans feel bereft, it’s with good reason. They had 24 shots on goal, many of those coming in the second half, when the pressure to score became palpably frantic and desperate. Which that brings me to the second thought…

New York City squandered their chances

Of those 24 shots, only eight were on target. The quantity was there, but it was not accompanied by quality. Castellanos missed several gilt-edged chances, including one early in the first half that would’ve seen NYCFC take the early lead. In the second half, Talles Magno passed up several chances to make the simple pass and set up scoring chances, deciding instead to engage in flashy dribbling that invariably resulted in dispossession. That second-half offensive pressure brings up another thought…

Ronny Deila got the tactics wrong

His only change from last week was replacing Keaton Parks (a box-to-box midfielder) with Nicolas Acevedo (a defensive midfielder). It’s almost as if he thought New York City was up 3-1 on aggregate, not down 3-1! The presence of two defensive midfielders meant that the Pigeons controlled the midfield more than they did last week; it did not mean they were able to translate that control into meaningful chance creation. To his credit, Deila swapped Gabi Pereira for Acevedo to start the second half. It’s no coincidence that NYCFC scored six minutes later, or that they placed the Sounders defense under unremitting pressure throughout the entire half.

New York City’s defense was better, but still shaky

This is the first game where I felt that Thiago Martins wasn’t entirely out to sea. There was still a breakdown of sorts on the Sounders goal, but after watching the film several times, the breakdown isn’t on the backline. It’s on the space that Nicolas Acevedo should be defending. If you watch the play develop, you can see Seattle forward Raul Ruidiaz making the run. By the time Nouhou Tolo serves the ball up to Ruidiaz, neither Martins nor Alex Callens can do anything defensively—the ball arrives on Ruidiaz’s foot and all he has to do is strike the ball to score. He does. Game over, essentially. No wonder Acevedo got benched at the half.

Seattle’s game management was superb

Complain if you want, but Seattle did what they had to do when faced with the kind of intense offensive pressure New York City put them under. Call it game management, call it gamesmanship, but this is what all elite teams do when they have the lead and need to ice the game in a hostile environment. Was it frustrating? Sure. Seattle couldn’t possibly care less whether you think it’s frustrating, because they took care of business last week in taking a 3-1 lead, and they took care of business tonight in scoring early to really put NYCFC in a nigh-impossible position. That’s what championship clubs do.

Bonus thought for Harrison, NJ

The result is disappointing. It’s also instructive. Seattle will play the CCL Final as the favorites, but they endured years of continental disappointment and heartbreak before making this breakthrough. New York City seems to be carving a similar path. This is a deep team that is getting deeper and more talented. In previewing tonight’s match with Sounder At Heart, I mentioned that NYCFC was a more naturally talented team than Seattle. That’s still true.

The difference between the Sounders and the Pigeons is that Seattle is a much more coherent team and they are maximizing their talent far more right now than New York City. That is not a permanent state of affairs, though. Martins may be struggling right now; he will adapt and be a better player. His performance tonight was his best yet. Anton Tinnerholm will return, and he was the best right-back in the league. You can tell that Gabi Pereira will be a massive improvement over Jesús Medina. Thiago is probably going to wind up replacing the talismanic Maxi Moralez.

I could keep going, but you get the visual: this is a team that is struggling right now, but it’s going to kick into gear as players return and get more used to MLS play. I fully expect this team to be a playoff contender. The Supporters’ Shield might be out of reach, but they’re the deepest and most talented team in the Eastern Conference, and I think they’re probably the second-best team after Philadelphia. And they’re good enough to not just make the CCL Final but win it—not this year, or maybe not next, but certainly in the near future.