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NYCFC show quality, defeat a physical Comunicaciones 3-1

City win hard-fought first leg of CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals in front of hostile crowd at “home."

Los Cremas tried to muscle Taty off the ball | Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

New York City FC returned to their winning ways, outplaying a physical Comunicaciones FC to triumph in the first leg of the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals by a score of 3-1.

At first, the NYCFC squad had trouble adjusting to an opponent who went after City with a relentless high press and aggressive man-to-man defending—and to a referee who often seemed to forget he had a whistle in his hand. But the quality of the City players came through. The team kept their focus even if they didn’t get the calls, and because of NYCFC’s creativity in front of goal the squad will travel to face Comunicaciones in Guatemala City next week in a good position to advance to the CCL Semifinals for the first time in club history.

Most importantly, this NYCFC are starting to look like the NYCFC that lifted the MLS Cup last year. Seven weeks of travel, early start to the season, playing on short rest: The team haven’t had the easiest time of it in 2022. But that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee. Instead of making excuses, NYCFC put up a solid result and rediscovered their form against an unremitting opponent—all good signs with the MLS home opener just a few days away.

A new shape

Last night, NYCFC lined up in 3-5-2 for the first time this year, with manager Ronny Delia taking full advantage of the offseason acquisition of central defender Thiago Martins: With Alexander CallensMaxime Chanot, and Martins anchoring the backline, NYCFC could flood the midfield and feed the attack. It was the kind of tactical shift the NYCFC faithful have hoped to see in a team with this caliber of talent and this level of depth. Manager Ronny Delia made our Football Manager dreams come true.

It was rocky going at first. Comunicaciones used a high press, running hard at NYCFC’s players and quickly establishing that referee Marco Antonio was going to let this be a physical game to the advantage of Los Cremas. Forward Talles Magno gave as good as he got, but it was hard for him to move inside the attacking third when he was being double-teamed and clipped any time he touched the ball.

Still, NYCFC stuck with the plan. After a Talles Magno goal was voided because of a maybe-I-guess offside call, NYCFC responded with a classic run of play: An Andres Jasson cutback, a Maxi Moralez lofted pass, a Taty Castellanos in-yer-face header.

Composure over chaos

NYCFC started the second half knowing that a 1-0 lead wouldn’t be enough to carry the team through a second leg in Guatemala City. But Comunicaciones continued to harass City, leveling the score in the 60th minute off a set play and a chaotic goalmouth scramble lashed in by Manuel Gamboa, a 23-year-old defender who spent most of the match practicing his grappling holds on Castellanos.

Now that Comunicaciones had their away goal, the Guatemalan side sat back—and the mostly-Guatemalan crowd roared their approval. NYCFC’s response? An elegant run of play at the top of the box: A Talles Magno pass, a Castellanos lob, a Moralez pirouette of a volley over the outstretched arm of Comunicaciones goalkeeper Kevin Moscoso. NYCFC retook the lead in style.

That second City goal might have shifted the momentum, but Comunicaciones didn’t make it easy for NYCFC—and it didn’t take the crowd out of the game. But the cohesion that NYCFC lacked in recent games came through in this match. City kept their composure, created their chances. A three-on-two in 71st-minute let Castellanos pick his pass to Santiago Rodríguez, who calmly slotted the ball past the charging goalkeeper.

Castellanos has been mostly quiet in the two MLS league games this season, but tonight he both scored and created: One goal, two assists. Welcome back.

About that home crowd

NYCFC was forced to play their “home” game at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, CT, a 110-mile drive from New York City, because it was the closest CONCACAF-approved venue the club could secure for the match

Fair enough. But that created the circumstances that transformed this match into something closer to an away game for NYCFC: Thousands of fans of the legendary Guatemalan team traveled from the northeast and beyond to support a team that rarely has the opportunity to play in the United States. The NYCFC fans who made the drive to East Hartford were vastly outnumbered by Comunicaciones supporters—anecdotally, between 80% and 90% of the crowd at Prat & Whitney stadium was cheering for the Guatemalan side.

We could get into a point-counterpoint exchange (NYCFC fans need to support their team! NYCFC can’t play a midweek game two hours outside the city and expect fans to show up in numbers!), but we’d rather acknowledge that last night was something like a semi-away game played in an unfamiliar stadium, and that the team stepped up.

The strong performance brought together elements of 2021’s MLS Cup-lifting run (possession, creativity, grit), with components of what we hope will be 2022’s winning formula: Tactical intelligence, strong teamwork, a nonstop Talles Magno.

If this is what NYCFC could do playing on plastic turf and on short rest, we’re hopeful for how the Pigeons will play this Saturday in the cozy confines of Yankee Soccer Stadium.