Coach Nick Cushing entered the Citi Field press conference room with a smile after his team scored the 2-0 clean sheet win over Orlando City FC Wednesday evening. It was one of those smiles that reiterated what he has been saying for months.
There was never that defeatist attitude or lack of motivation. Instead, Cushing has always reiterated there was a fight to the finish.
His team scored an early goal and tacked on another in the second half. Goalkeeper Matt Freese recorded his third clean sheet of the regular season, and fourth in competition with two saves. Talles Magno scored his first goal in 150 days coming off the bench and first goal in 150 days since April 22 when FC Dallas visited Citi Field, then NYCFC won 3-1.
Then, NYCFC was in the early stages of a transition. Players coming and going. Draws were not those three point wins in the standings and NYCFC continued their struggle as the MLS playoffs in the ensuing months were quickly dissipating.
So Cushing had every reason to smile because his team has life and this win puts them within reach of playoff position, a point from the ninth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Then again, the coach has reiterated all along there was never doubting what this team can accomplish.
“I think I’ve said all along, and I’ve said it after the wins and this team is fighting and really believes, and it has a real desire and maybe we haven’t put games away,” Cushing said. “We’ve had this one-nil like the Vancouver (game), we got the goal. This team is learning all the way through, and I understand we want wins now, but I felt it before.”
He mentioned the Derby game last Saturday at Yankee Stadium against the rival Red Bulls that resulted in a 0-0 draw. Cushing believed that was even and his team had an opportunity to win it despite gaining one point in the standings. The coach believed as always, this season was not lost.
Regardless, NYCFC got a significant win at Citi Field and was impressive because they defeated a team sitting second in the conference that clinched a playoff spot despite their loss. Saturday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, Toronto FC and sitting last in the standings will be the next test. In late July, NYCFC scored the 5-0 clean sheet win in the Leagues Cup and a win would amount to another three points.
So pending the outcomes of their remaining four games, including a visit to Miami that should have Lionel Messi back in the lineup, and if teams ahead in the standings manage a loss, NYCFC has that outside opportunity of being in reach of the playoffs.
“The table stayed the same and it was a huge opportunity tonight knowing that everyone had to play again,” Cushing said. “I thought from the start maybe we weren’t so good with the ball, but we were really aggressive without the ball and we were really organized, and I thought the team executed the game plan against a good team really well tonight.”
And executed well they did with Mango, a forward coming off the bench to replace Richard Ledezma injured and pending against Toronto. Mango in the early stages of the second half within nine minutes got the cushion goal.
“One thing I will say is I’m so happy for Talles,” Cushing said. “I’m so happy because he deserves a moment, and he deserves to be the guy that gets us over the line, which he won us the game tonight because the second goal really settles us down. It’s what we haven’t had in games before when we might have gave away a one-one tie.”
Prior to his injury, Ledezma sent in a cross to Andres Perez at the back post, only for the Orlando goalkeeper to make a one-handed save to force a corner kick. Everything that NYCFC executed worked to plan against one of the better teams in the league.
“The difference is we scored,” Mango said through a translator. “We walked into both games (Red Bulls) with the same determination and eagerness, but the difference is that today we scored two goals. It was a crucial moment for me and also the team. I’ve been working hard during practice leading up to this moment.”
Cushing praised his goalkeeper and entire team as there was always a team effort to believe the playoffs would be in reach. Basically, they never surrendered through the adversity of losing key players due to injuries and roster spots gone to international leagues and teams.
Mounsef Bakrar scored his first ever goal at Citi Field, marking his third goal in the last four matches, NYCFC has not lost when Bakrar has recorded a goal (3W-0L-1D), and that occurred in the early going of the first half. Scoring early and tacking on has not come often that put NYCFC out of playoff position for a good haul of their season.
Said Bronx native and homegrown player Tayvon Gray, “No quit of course not. Keep going strong, there’s no doubt, there’s no need to doubt ourselves. We know what we can do.”
And what NYCFC has to do is win and let the others lose. It’s in their hands and playoffs are not out of the question.
Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso