Is this what rock bottom looks like? New York City FC produced one of their worst performances of the season against FC Cincinnati, with the home team cruising to a comfortable 3-0 victory at TQL Stadium.
Any optimism that lingered around NYCFC following their chance-filled, frustrating 0-2 home loss to Minnesota United last weekend evaporated by the sixth minute, when Cincinnati’s recently-imported Designated Player striker Aaron Boupendza headed home the opening goal and set his team off on the path toward a comfortable win.
The early Cincinnati goal should have pushed NYCFC on and inspired the club’s remade attack to put Cincinnati under pressure, but that never materialized. New York City’s two best chances of the first half belonged not to any of their enticing new forward signings, but to defensive midfielder Andrés Perea, who steered promising shots wide in both the seventh and 45th minutes.
Cincinnati’s excellent attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta tormented the NYCFC defense throughout the match and played a role in all three of his team’s goals.
Acosta helped put the result out of reach in the 52nd minute when he found space on the left flank behind both Mitja Ilenič and Tayvon Gray, then slid a low cross out of reach of any of the retreating NYCFC defenders and into the path of an onrushing Junior Moreno, who made no mistake with his finish.
NYCFC’s set piece vulnerabilities resurfaced minutes later, as a 58th minute corner kick routine saw Acosta pick out an unmarked Nick Hagglund with a cross, with Hagglund powerfully heading a shot into the top corner past a reaching Luis Barraza to make it 3-0 FC Cincinnati.
New summer signings continued to be integrated by head coach Nick Cushing, with Perea and teen winger Julián Fernández each earning their first starts for NYCFC. Another new winger, Alonso Martínez, made his debut in
Bronx Blue Volt Orange in the 84th minute, while the triumvirate of Mounsef Bakrar, Maxi Moralez, and Birk Risa all retained their places in the Starting XI following the Minnesota loss.
The new faces are thus far failing to change NYCFC’s fortunes, and time is running out on the team’s 2023 season. Cushing’s side has earned just one win over its last 17 league games, and remain stuck on 26 points and six points adrift of the Eastern Conference’s final MLS Cup playoff berth.
Instead of coming out of a 16-day Leagues Cup break revitalized and reinforced and ready to go on another late-season run, NYCFC have produced back-to-back defeats and look closer to hitting rock bottom than they do to stringing together a winning streak.
NYCFC: 11 Shots, 4 On Target, 55.5% Possession, 567 Passes, 88.9% Pass Success, 11 Fouls
Cincinnati: 12 Shots, 6 On Target, 44.5% Possession, 457 Passes, 84.9% Pass Success, 8 Fouls
NYCFC’s new first-choice center back partnership of Thiago Martins and new signing Birk Risa has struggled badly in their first two matches playing side-by-side. Cushing switched formations from the duo’s first game, abandoning the back four from the Minnesota match in favor of a 3-4-2-1 setup with Tayvon Gray as a third center back and Ilenič and Braian Cufré as wingbacks.
The extra defenders and tactical flexibility didn’t trouble Cincinnati one bit, thanks in part to the rough days at the office experienced by Thiago Martins and Risa.
Thiago Martins suffered through an especially shaky performance at TQL Stadium, the second time in a calendar year he’s had one of his worst games for NYCFC against Pat Noonan’s team.
On the first goal, Thiago Martins got caught ball-watching and lost track of Boupendza, allowing him a free tap-in header after Barraza saved an initial shot from Bret Halsey. Thiago Martins came close to setting Boupendza up for a second goal, trying and failing to dribble out of defense in the 37th minute, only to hand possession back to Boupendza and allow him the space to get off a long-range shot that the Cincinnati striker put wide.
Risa, Thiago Martins, and the rest of the NYCFC defense were caught too far upfield and got punished by an Acosta-led counter attack on the second goal, while Risa was found to be marking exactly zero Cincinnati players and reacted far too late to prevent Nick Hagglund’s third goal off a set piece.
The early returns on the Risa-Thiago Martins partnership are worrying, as is the mysterious, unexplained absence of Maxime Chanot from the match day squad. Cushing did not shed any light on Chanot’s situation, but it’s clear NYCFC are prioritizing Risa and Thiago Martins as their “CB duo of the future.”
Thiago Martins has worn the captain’s arm band in both post-Leagues Cup matches and is one of the highest-paid defenders in MLS. Risa stepped straight into the Starting XI last weekend at Citi Field after a lengthy visa-related delay. This pair may have better days ahead of them as their chemistry improves, but their first two run-outs have been underwhelming.
Mounsef left on an island
Mounsef Bakrar made a promising first impression in his first two Leagues Cup appearances against Atlas FC and Toronto FC, but he has struggled to make a mark in three starts since. He was left isolated and only lightly involved against the Red Bulls, squandered chance after chance in front of goal against Minnesota, then put in another largely invisible, ineffective performance in Cincy.
He’s the striker the team insists it was after, and the one they expect to help solve their goal-scoring problems. Thus far, though, Bakrar has not hit the ground running in MLS. His recent performances look similar to many of the ones turned in by the other players NYCFC have tried at striker this season prior to his arrival.
Perhaps it’s a side effect of the style NYCFC plays, or a natural adjustment period for a player brand new to the country and the league. For a team desperately in need of goals, though, Bakrar’s recurring invisibility is proving costly.
End of the road
Was this sloppy, uninspiring loss in Ohio the final nail in the coffin of the 2023 NYCFC season? Our executive editor Oliver Strand thinks so, and it’s hard to disagree with his assessment that the season (un)officially ended in Cincinnati.
The Hudson River Blue NYCFC Playoff Tracker remains stuck on 26 points, 18 short of the projected 44 points NYCFC will need to virtually guarantee themselves a playoff spot.
Eight matches remain to pick up those 18 points, so NYCFC’s margin of error is basically gone: It’s all must-wins from here, with the possible exception of the two remaining road matches, trips to visit Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF and Wayne Rooney’s DC United.
That there are six matches at home left on the calendar would normally be something to celebrate for NYCFC, given the impressive home records the team has enjoyed in past seasons.
The 2023 version of the team, though, has not won a home league match since April 22nd, so it’s hard to envision them winning all six of their remaining home games.
Getting off the road tends to help teams in MLS pick up points, but NYCFC have been unable to win no matter where they’ve played. They have two upcoming games against Canadian clubs at Yankee Stadium to reverse that trend, and anything less than six points from these next two games looks likely seal the team’s playoff-free fate.
It’s possible the team’s new pieces will fit like gloves and help recapture some of the magic of the late 2021 and 2022 seasons, but one or two more results like the loss in Philadelphia might be enough to doom NYCFC to its first season of no playoffs in eight years.
- Cincinnati, Aaron Boupendza, 6′
- Cincinnati, Junior Moreno, 52′
- Cincinnati, Nick Hagglund, 58′
- Cincinnati, Matt Miazga, yellow card, dissent 45′
- Cincinnati, Yuya Kubo, yellow card, foul 50′
- NYCFC, Birk Risa, yellow card, persistent infringement 88′
- NYCFC, Andrés Perea, yellow card, foul 90’+2′
- Referee: Chris Penso
- Assistant Referees: Kali Smith, Jeffrey Swartzel
- Fourth Official: Elvis Osmanovic
- VAR: Kevin Stott
- Assistant VAR: Joshua Patlak