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NYCFC surge past Nashville in triumphant return to Citi Field

NYCFC defender Maxime Chanot
Maxime Chanot, a defender doing attacking things to earn a win in Queens. | Photo

New York City FC made a winning return to Citi Field, beating Nashville SC 2-1 on the strength of early first-half goals from Keaton Parks and Maxime Chanot. NYCFC got off to a blindingly fast start, going up two goals on one of the stingiest defenses in MLS in under 30 minutes. The opening goal came in the 10th minute and started with some superb skill along the sidelines by Talles Magno, who managed to elude two Nashville defenders before laying it off to an unmarked Mitja Ilenič. The 18-year-old fullback then delivered a pinpoint cross that Keaton Parks powerfully headed past Nashville keeper Joe Willis.

Chanot doubled NYCFC’s lead 15 minutes later when he banged in a corner kick delivered by Richy Ledezma, who was making his first start since arriving at NYCFC. Ledezma turned in a standout performance while operating in the No 10 role in place of Santiago Rodriguez, who was among the substitutes and ultimately came on for Ledezma in the 60th minute.

While NYCFC looked poised for a comfortable victory for much of the night, Nashville did find a late lifeline thanks to a clinical 81st-minute finish from Hany Mukhtar. The pressure intensified on NYCFC’s defense in the match’s very late stages, but there would be no Nashville equalizer, and NYCFC finally notched a first-ever victory over the 2020 MLS expansion side from Music City.

NYCFC made it a third home win out of four to start 2023, and also notably played their first match in Queens since the club announced plans to build its soccer specific stadium across the street from Citi Field. The Willets Point project was a big pre-match topic both inside and outside of the stadium, with elected officials like New York City Mayor Eric Adams and City Councilman Francisco Moya on hand to mark the occasion and hype up the big Willets development.

RELATED: NYCFC pick HOK to design Queens stadium

The 2027 stadium pomp and circumstance was all well and good (as was the Citi Field Scran, from the looks of it), but the night’s was an important on-field win for NYCFC. Nashville had conceded just 2 goals all season coming into this match, and last conceded multiple goals in a single match at all back on October 4, 2022 when they lost 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo. That NYCFC could hit them twice in quick succession to start the match put the visitors in too deep a hole, and helped NYCFC continue its blooming love affair with The World’s Borough.

Game Stats

NYCFC: 14 shots, 6 on goal, 52.5% possession, 516 passes, 81.8% accuracy, 10 fouls
Nashville: 15 shots, 6 on goal, 47.5% possession, 442 passes, 79.9% accuracy, 8 fouls

The All-American midfield

Nick Cushing’s decision to sit Santi Rodriguez meant it was an All-American trio in the central midfield for NYCFC at Citi Field. That James Sands, Keaton Parks, and Richy Ledezma pairing worked wonders, with the NYCFC midfield in control and setting the tone for the vast majority of the match.

Sands, Parks, and Ledezma all outplayed their Nashville counterparts and were collectively a huge reason why NYCFC emerged victorious. Richy Ledezma had a Player of the Match-type performance in just his first MLS start, picking up a first assist and creating four chances. He was frequently running in behind Nashville’s defense and looked threatening for all 60 of the minutes he spent on the pitch.

James Sands managed to shake off any injury concerns that lingered over his early substitution against Atlanta United following Franco Ibarra’s red card-earning challenge. Sands did his usual stout disruptive defensive work, keeping Hany Mukhtar and the other Nashville attackers from creating much of a consistent threat. Keaton Parks looked much more like his old self than he has in a few recent matches, completing 86% of his passes while adding that critical opening goal.

RELATED: Rate the players, NYCFC vs Nashville

After the match, Cushing noted that Rodriguez was kept out of the Starting XI as a precaution due to a lingering hamstring injury, so it may be premature to anoint Ledezma the new starting No 10. Regardless, Cushing had to have liked what he saw from Ledezma’s first start, and from the first extended run of this Sands-Parks-Ledezma midfield.

It’s tantalizing to imagine what that midfield could do if given the opportunity to continue to build chemistry week in and week out. The results against Nashville were very promising, but it remains to be seen if that will mean more time for Santi’s hamstring to recover while he functions as a substitute? Or perhaps more game time for Santi as a wide player?

Defenders doing it all

NYCFC’s defenders have all somewhat flown under the radar this season, yet they’ve been a huge part of the team’s 2023 successes. Much more attention is paid to the lack of a clear starting-caliber striker, or to which wingers should or shouldn’t be starting. Against Nashville, both NYCFC goals featured the direct involvement of defensive players, with Mitja Ilenič dropping the dime assist on the first goal, and Maxime Chanot scoring the second.

Bonus points to both for contributing on the attacking side, but NYCFC’s defensive solidity mostly remained intact against Nashville, despite nervy late moments. Chanot had a vintage individual performance beyond the goal, completing 42 of his 45 passes while also making 10 clearances. The center-back pairing of Chanot and Thiago Martins has solidified and grown stronger since the season started, and is a big reason why NYCFC have been able to scrape out results while not yet scoring many goals.

Ilenič also enjoyed a strong match, as his assist was truly pinpoint, and he was aggressive in pushing the ball forward upfield into open space when it was given to him by Nashville. Ilenič and left back Braian Cufré are newcomers who have already carved out central roles for themselves. They’ve paired well with Chanot and Martins in this remade, yet still effective NYCFC defensive line that looks to be the foundation the team relies on as it still works to sort out how to get the most out of its collection of promising young attackers.

Barraza breakout?

Luis Barraza is not one of the big reasons why NYCFC have struggled at times early this season, yet some questions have lingered over the team’s new first-choice goalkeeper. He’s had some shaky moments in distribution, and his season-long passing stats are not the best.

Shot stopping, however, has not been an issue, and Barraza enjoyed arguably his best shot-stopping performance of the season against Nashville. He made five saves total, first turning aside a few early Nashville tests from long-range, then displaying good reactions and athleticism to keep out other Nashville efforts on goal.

Barraza also deserves some credit for helping NYCFC see out the final 15 minutes of this match, which got far closer for comfort than NYCFC would have liked once they were up 2-0 after a half hour. Barraza seems to have settled in nicely as the starter between the sticks, and this performance stood out as his best to date since ascending to the No 1 shirt.

NYCFC, Keaton Parks 10′
NYCFC, Maxime Chanot 25

Nashville, Hany Mukhtar 81′

NYCFC, Mitja Ilenič, yellow card, foul 45’+ 4′
NYCFC, Andres Jasson, yellow card, foul 76′

Attendance: 18,687

Referee: Allen Chapman
Assistant Referees: Kyle Atkins, Adam Wienckowski

Fourth Official: Ben Pilgrim
VAR: Jorge Gonzalez
Assistant VAR: Craig Lowry