The Goal For NYCFC: Finding A Keeper


Find a keeper and this is uncharted territory for NYCFC as they approach their first match of the 2023 MLS season next Saturday at Nashville. A challenge for coach Nick Cushing to replace longtime keeper Sean Johnson who opted for free agency and left for Toronto FC.

Johnson, though, has been a top keeper in the MLS the past few years. He was a catalyst and instrumental in leading NYCFC to their 2021 MLS Cup Championship, a mainstay of the franchise since arriving from Atlanta in 2017, again this is uncharted territory.

Then again, NYCFC is also in a transition period with departures of Alex Callens, Maxi Moralez, Nicolas Acevedo, Anton Tinnerholm, and Heber, also instrumental players in that championship year. And midway through last season, as NYCFC struggled to score, Valentin Castellanos, the defending MLS leading scorer, departed and packed his bags for a lucrative contract on loan to Girona FC.

Despite the subtractions, Cushing had his interim coach status removed and NYCFC advanced to the MLS Eastern Conference finals, but Johnson and a contract extension were unresolved. NYCFC was prepared for his imminent departure which got to the point of finding another keeper.

This has been a preseason of adjustments with one final tune up before the season opener next Saturday. Finding a keeper is a priority, though 26-year old Luis Barraza and 24-year old Matt Freese are the focal point of replacing Johnson in the net.

Barraza had limited time in goal as the backup to Johnson, and the process was to possibly be a successor as NYCFC eventually expected a change at keeper. Freese was a valuable backup for Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, though with no playing time last year after starting six matches the previous year.

And for the MLS, embarking on an Apple Plus multi billion contract of streaming broadcasts, New York City is a prime market, but Johnson was considered a face of the NYCFC franchise and has been for the league with their international talent that comprise rosters.

Lots of decisions for Cushing and his staff to evaluate because Johnson set club records the past few years in clean sheets, and NYCFC won their share of low scoring and close games. or settled for the tie and one point in the standings. The league has become quicker in the pitch, so defending in goal is a major element.

Not much time to decide who will be the keeper before that season opener. Cushing is looking at that final pre season match this week, thus finding the keeper is a priority Thursday, though, a final pre season Zoom meeting with the media provided some indication.

Of course he is further on in and how to play our game style,” Cushing said about the progress of Barraza. “Freese is improving in six or seven training sessions. He’s made a lot of progress. We won’t make any decisions anytime soon.”

Cushing said there was motivation from both, but soon is not much time because the composition of this revamped roster, their roles, and decisions are in the final phases with a mixture of younger players and veterans.

Naturally with Sean opting out it’s an opportunity for Luis,” Cushing said. “For him, a natural progression at the same time. Freese did not come here to be the number two. Naturally the next to the throne is Luis, we have seen in the scrimmages although Luis is in the game. Freese will get the opportunity. The goalie we chose will be an ongoing process.”

In that championship year, Barraza built on his 2022 debut with several first team appearances when Jonhnson was not available and that led to a first win, clean sheet, and a boost to his professional career. The challenge, though, is possibly securing that spot as the keeper.

Last year was tough,” he said. “I definitely think given what’s happened the past three years the expectation is certainly huge. We can do really good things this year. Had a solid four weeks of pre season showing up and battling for that job ahead of the 25th.”

He said that final pre season match will be an opportunity for guys like him to cement their roles, realizing playing time the past few years has been limited, but the backup to Johnson had those advantages

I was the backup,” Barraza said. “In my time, I was able to learn a lot of things about him (Johnson), “Certainly a lot of good things I learned from him. It’s always going to be about competition but benefit.”

Decisions to determine who will be that keeper. NYCFC has a task and those shoes to fill.

Rich Mancuso Twitter@Ring786 Mancuso. Watch “Sports With Rich” with Rich and co-host Robert Rizzo Tuesday evening live 8pmET on the SLG Network and YouTube

About the Author

Rich Mancuso

Rich Mancuso is a regular contributor at NY Sports Day, covering countless New York Mets, Yankees, and MLB teams along with some of the greatest boxing matches over the years. He is an award winning sports journalist and previously worked for The Associated Press, New York Daily News, Gannett, and, in a career that spans almost 40 years.

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