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They wanted it more

New York City's young prodigies could learn a thing or two from 37-year-old Diego Chará.


You'd think that when New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing brought on Julián Fernández and Jovan Mijatović late in the second half of the match against the Portland Timbers, they could change the game.

After all, the two young talents cost New York City a rumored $13.8 million in combined transfer fees. Surely somebody would step up.

Fernández came on in the 67th minute, when NYCFC were holding onto a 1-0 lead. The 20-year-old was brought in to replace Andres Jasson and bring a second wing to the attack. But the coltish winger who we watched score the game-winner against Lionel Messi's Inter Miami last November in the Noche d'Or was nowhere to be seen. On Saturday, Fernández took no shots, made no dribbles, created no chances, and completed just one pass into the final third.

He didn't do much on the other side of the ball. Fernández didn't win a tackle or a duel. Honestly, he barely tracked back.

Mijatović came on in the 78th minute to replace Mounsef Bakrar, and the 18-year-old did even less than Fernández. A striker who was recently linked to Manchester City in the transfer market took no shots and made no dribbles.

He touched the ball seven times in his 20 minutes on the field and was whistled for two fouls. Mijatović was also fouled twice, and after one call went his way he remained on the ground with his hands in the air while his teammates put the ball back into play. It's soccer 101: You can't score a goal if you're sitting on the grass and making pouty faces at the ref.

Portland scored their equalizer in the 85th minute, and the game-winner in the 97th minute. Both goals felt inevitable. Those of us in the stands at Yankee Soccer Stadium on that cold, miserable afternoon watched the gap widen between the two teams.

It started early in the second half, when New York City looked increasingly sluggish and disjointed. It grew as the game went on: The NYCFC attack didn't manage a single shot in the final 22 minutes of regulation plus stoppage time, Portland found an extra gear, and were running hard after a win they believed could be theirs.

Nobody was running harder than 37-year-old Diego Chará. The midfielder was already an elder statesman when these two teams played in the 2021 MLS Cup Final. On Saturday afternoon he schooled Fernández, Mijatović, and the rest of a New York City squad that couldn't keep up.

Chará had more touches (68), passes (50), and tackles (3) than any New York City player. He won more ground duels (7) and had a higher pass accuracy rate (91%) than anybody on the field.

More to the point, a player who is just two years younger than Cushing picked up steam as the game wore on. Chará was playing with more intensity in the 95th minute than he was in the 5th.

Chará wasn't directly involved in either of his team's goals, but his play provided the backbone for the Portland attack, and his on-field leadership set the tone for his team. They wanted it more.

Last year, New York City's failure to make the playoffs was as much about leadership as it was about ability. That NYCFC had the talent to sneak into the postseason, but it didn't have the mindset to close out tight games or fight for a result.

We saw that same lack of leadership on the field this past Saturday. Mijatović was unhappy with the officiating, but he was just following in the footsteps of Santiago Rodríguez, who spent much of the second half shouting and waving his arms at the ref.

Chará helped keep his team in a game that, according to the xG bots, Portland should have narrowly lost. Nobody on the NYCFC squad could match his effort, or his desire.

This New York City might be more talented and balanced than the team that played last year, but that only goes so far. As they say in Yankee Soccer Stadium, "Football is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

New York City still need to work on that first part.