NYCFC has not scored in bunches and Sunday at Citi Field, without leading scorer Valetin Castellanos, out with yellow card accumulations, they relied on their defense and keeper Sean Johnson. Their fifth consecutive clean sheet continued to be routine with a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire.
Clean sheets are nice, but the wins are significant. NYCFC is now a first place team in the MLS Eastern Conference as they take a nine game unbeaten streak into their US Open Cup game Wednesday.
They are playing to defend their first MLS Cup and Johnson, with one save, surpassed the clean sheet record set in July of 2018. The consistency of keeping opponents from getting into the net can’t be overlooked and coach Ronnie Deila attributes the persistence of Johnson as a key factor.
“Hardly conceded goal chances,” Deila said about Johnson. “I think he had one shot on target in three games so that says something about the disciple and the organization and the team’s aggression. It’s really tough to play against us and that’s why we dig out the result today. Again, because we defend as a team and are very compact together.”
Johnson and the defense during the late 2021 season run to the Cup championship were good at defending the goal and Castellanos was in on every play. Some of the names have changed but for the most part many are holdovers and into this business of the NYCFC clean sheet.
As a team they know a clean sheet is bound to conclude, but for now this steak has caught attention of the league. The locker room knows something special has transpired in the past few weeks in particular before their home fans at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.
Johnson eclipsed 30,000 minutes played in his MLS regular season career and gone 285 minutes without allowing a shot on target. NYCFC also has the second best defense in the league, conceding ten goals in twelve matches with a league best +14 goal difference.
Johnson, who started his career with Chicago, is not about records and the milestones he achieved. To him, it’s more about the consistency and a group of returnees with first year players that have contributed to the clean sheets.
“It’s a lot of hard work that goes into it ,” Johnson said. “Guys like this show that we have to be on the same page as the guys in front of me. Everyone has worked so hard to get to this point in time. The offense side of things is impressive but to be a high caliber attacking team is tough to do. We aren’t complacent and we are committed to excellence no matter who we are playing.”
He said all of this separates NYCFC from being a good team to a great team. His belief, as does this entire squad, is that they are on their way to being great and doing something special with or without the clean sheets.
Heber scored the lone NYCFC goal, his first on a penalty kick in the 23rd minute. From there it is all about the defense. It was about Johnson with a clean sheet on a hot and humid Field in Flushing, Queens that required two water breaks during play in the first and second half.
“It starts with our defenders,” he said. “They work hard under high pressure, it’s how they play. We get a chance when the (other team) doesn’t score.”
It’s a part of this discipline the coach talks about. NYCFC knows on the pitch they are becoming a defensive team and opponents are taking notice. The newcomers are also into these clean sheets that have become a routine.
“As a group it obviously shows, clean sheets and goals, the stats show that,” said 19-year old first year defender Tavon Gray.
Said defender Alexander Callens “It’s everyone efforts in order to get to Sean you have to get through the forwards first. It’s a team effort. It’s very positive in the locker room right now.”
Positively, he said about the clean sheets. They have become a routine for NYCFC.
Rich Mancuso: [email protected] Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso