Schott: When NYC FC’s Defense Wings It, They Soar

(Chris Wingert and the NYC FC defense celebrate – Photo by Mike Lawrence)

New York City Football Club shut out Toronto FC 2-0 on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium in what their goaltender Josh Saunders called a “playoff game,” and the key was who was anchoring the back line.

Chris Wingert (hence the ‘wing’ in the title), R.J. Allen, Shay Facey, and Jason Hernandez form NYC FC’s best defensive unit. They proved it in this one, as they did in June when they were anchoring the back and they had a four-game unbeaten streak.

The proof is in their games against Toronto, as these four keyed a 2-0 win in Toronto on June 20th, followed by a 4-4 tie on July 12th in which newcomers Andoni Iraola and Angelino were in the back. To shut them out again shows this defense can have a late-season revival.

NYC FC allowed Toronto just 16 shots, and only a handful were really top-flight chances. They put seven on goal, six were off target, and three were blocked.

Josh Saunders. Photo by Mike Lawrence
Josh Saunders. Photo by Mike Lawrence

NYC FC goaltender Josh Saunders said of the four in front of him, “I thought they did a really good job, I mean, you can tell when they’re making plays and they’re slide tackles and blocking shots, they’re all rewarding each other, high fives, pats on the back, lots of communication, so I was pretty happy with them. They did a really good job.”

NYC FC Head Coach Jason Kreis said of the back line and if he will stick with this unit for the rest of the season,  “I felt that after the Dallas game (last Saturday), I felt that we were just a lot more organized defensively. And it wasn’t just the back four, it was the guys in front of them as well. We did get scored on twice at Dallas. Both of them I thought were just organization issues. Late in the first half we could be a little fatigued. I thought we made one or two poor decisions and then the corner kick goal comes up to just a complete brain-fart, if you will. But defensively, I thought we were much more solid and tonight I think it was the same. The group that plays and gets those kind of results will continue forward.”

Chris Wingert said of working with Allen, Facey, and Hernandez, “They’re great guys to work with. I think everybody back there, not just those guys, we’re trying to get that chemistry and that comfort that goes with playing together for a long time and we understand that that’s just not going to be the case because it’s our first year together, but everybody is on the same page, I feel like, in terms of what we’re working towards. I feel like, at times, we need guys to lead, and certainly Jason (Hernandez) is a guy that will do that back there and he’ll demand things from other guys, and those guys, including myself, R.J. (Allen), everybody, we’re willing to follow his lead, and maybe other times, I need to be a leader, or Josh (Saunders) is a leader, and then those guys will follow. I think it’s a little bit of kind of leadership by committee, and we’re doing our best.”

Jason Hernandez, Joshua Saunders, Shay Facey awaiting a corner kick to come down. Photo by Mike Lawrence.
Jason Hernandez, Joshua Saunders, Shay Facey awaiting a corner kick to come down. Photo by Mike Lawrence.

Saunders said of Toronto’s four-goal outing being in the back of his mind, “I would never do that…We looked at this as a playoff game. This is win or go home because if we would have lost this game, it would have been over I think, so we looked at this as, we’re gonna put everything out on the field and we’re gonna give it our best effort.”

This game was pivotal to New York City FC’s playoff hopes, as they are still on the outside looking in and trying to gain ground with two games at home in four days, this one with Toronto and Saturday against San Jose. With the win, NYC FC moved to 31 points (8-14-7), just two behind the Montreal Impact (33 points, 9-11-6), who hold the sixth and final playoff spot and have three games in hand on NYC FC.

Saunders said of how organized the defense was, “I thought the spacing was really good. I think we were pinching in a little bit more off our center-backs, which allowed us to get a little more support and make plays, push guys wide, so I thought our spacing was really good and I think it allowed us to help each other.”

Saunders said of shutting down Toronto’s Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, “I thought they limited the guys to outside shots, which is good for me, allows me to see the ball a little better, pushing them out and I think they started to get a little bit frustrated and started to get, not desperate, but they started to take shots from a little bit further distance.”

Wingert said of limiting Toronto’s chances, “We’re still gonna press in certain areas, it’s just gonna be a little bit closer to our goal. I thought we did a good job tonight of. when we lost it, winning it right back, you know, we still gave up some chances at times, but that’s gonna happen and I think for the most part, those came off of lost of possession and we can do a little bit better job with that, and we put out some fires fairly well as we went on too because we know how dangerous they can be on the counter.”

Josh Saunders surveys the action in front of him. Photo by Mike Lawrence.
Josh Saunders surveys the action in front of him. Photo by Mike Lawrence.

Wingert said of how consistent Saunders has been while the team has gone through growing pains, “Are we done with our growing pains? I hope we are,” he said to laughter. “It’s part of being an expansion team and a bunch of new guys coming together and then we added some incredible players midway through the season, and that takes some time for everybody to get used to each other and everybody’s doing their best. I think that guys have great attitudes and we’re in it every week, every day trying to put in the hard work and trying to get used to each other and get that chemistry and get that continuity that the great teams have, but there’s no substitute for having a chance to play together, and Josh has much or more than anybody, has just been incredible on the field.

“All season long, I think he’s been one of our best players, if not our best player. I’ve played with Josh for a while now, his personality is one that…he’s a great guy in the locker room and the guys really feed off of his positive energy and his work ethic and I think that’s showing more now than ever. There’s been times throughout the season where we’ve really needed to rely on him, and as a defender, you know I hate to say it obviously I wish every game Josh didn’t have to make any saves, but when we’ve needed him, he’s come up big absolutely,” said Wingert.

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