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Suspensions, injury wipe out NYCFC defense: What will Cushing do?

Former NYCFC defense center-back Alex Callens
He looks good in blue | Courtesy NYCFC.com

Things aren’t looking good for New York City FC. Three days after the team put in a strong performance in a game against New England Revolution that they coulda, shoulda won, the NYCFC defense are hurting after the club announced that center-back Thiago Martins underwent knee surgery and won’t return to training for six to eight weeks.

In fact, four defenders will likely miss the game against Real Salt Lake on Saturday. Basically, the entire starting line won’t be available.

Center-back Maxime Chanot was shown his fifth yellow card of the season against the Revolution, and will sit out this upcoming match. Left-back Braian Cufré was shown a straight red card in the dying minutes of that same game, and will miss two matches. Some speculate that his red card might yet be reviewed and rescinded, but don’t hold your breath. (UPDATE: The red card shown to Cufré was overturned, and the defender will be available to play against RSL.) And right-back Tayvon Gray was suspended by MLS while they investigate his alleged use of abusive language in the poorly officiated FC Cincinnati game on May 31.

Four regular starters, four absences. Keep in mind there are a total of ten defenders on the Senior Team roster. You do the math.

Real Salt Lake on Saturday: Triage time

Head coach Nick Cushing will first need to get through Saturday’s game against Real Salt Lake. We expect him to triage the lineup much like he did against the Revolution, when Chanot anchored a defense with three center-backs that featured repurposed midfielders Justin Haak and James Sands.

Central defender Tony Alfaro might start against RSL alongside Haak and Sands. Alfaro was signed in the off-season, and he was a sometimes-starter last year for DC United. But Alfaro seemingly hasn’t yet earned Cushing’s trust: The 29-year-old made just four appearances this season, and that includes coming on as a sub against the Revolution on Saturday in the 87th minute.

Instead, will Cushing might start Haak and Sands in a back four with Stephen Turnbull on the right and Kevin O’Toole on the left? Lining up without a traditional central defender would certainly raise eyebrows in Soccerland. But RSL will be the softest opponent NYCFC have faced since Orlando City, and a makeshift defense like this one just might work.

RELATED: Thiago Martins undergoes knee surgery
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Call up the kids from NYCFC II

Cushing might have the personnel to field a good-enough Starting XI against Real, but he needs to engineer a medium-term solution for the absence of Thiago Martins. He also needs to account for further injuries to his back line: Chanot is out for just one game, but a knock could sideline him for longer.

In recent games, Cushing added central-defender Nico Benalcazar to the bench. The 22-year-old is signed to the First Team but usually plays with NYCFC II, and he seems to be Cushing’s favorite for primary alternate.

Cushing might also call up central defender Samuel Owusu. The big, physical 22-year-old is also signed to the First Team, but has yet to make an appearance in the bigs this year.

Down the middle

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a pattern here. Haak and Sands are midfielders who can fill in as central defenders. Alfaro is a central defender. Benalcazar and Owusu? Central defenders.

That’s OK. Cushing’s NYCFC have been at their most dangerous and dynamic when they play with a back-three. As long as they shore up the middle of the field, New York City can use the more offensive paring of Mitja Ilenič on the right (if he’s fully recovered from injury) and Kevin O’Toole on the left, or the more defensive Stephen Turnbull on the right and Braian Cufré on the left (once he’s available).

We could even see a little from Column A and a little from Column B this weekend. O’Toole and Turnbull in the Starting XI, anyone?

More to the point: Sands and Haak can hold down the back line for another game, but they’re not a long-term solution. Cushing will need to deputize another central defender to pool with Alfaro and Chanot (once he returns). NYCFC II’s loss is NYCFC’s gain.

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Fantasy Island: Get Callens on loan

The injury to Thiago Martins wouldn’t be as damaging if Alexander Callens was still with NYCFC, and didn’t sign with Girona FC in La Liga.

Which prompts the question fantasy: Why not bring him back on loan?

The Spanish season ended over the weekend, and Callens now has his weekends free. The 31-year-old central defender made just six appearances for Girona, all off the bench. The last time he played a full 90-minute game was for the Peru National Team back in November 2022.

Callens might need a moment to get up to speed, but then he could slot right into a defense that he and Chanot successfully ran for six years.

Would Girona object? Possibly, but both they and New York City are owned by the City Football Group, and the clubs have shared interests. As CFG executive Brian Marwood put it to the BBC, “They also realise they are part of a bigger organisation. We have to accept that is the life and that is what it means being part of the group.” In other words, we family.

Besides, Callens looks good in blue.

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