NYCFC scored a goal Saturday evening at Citi Field in their season finale and a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire got them a win they needed for their slim hopes of a last seed in the MLS Playoffs. Unfortunate, though, as they entered their locker room, their season came to an abrupt end.
Julio Fernandez scored in the 64th minute, a goal that was enough. The defense shined and keeper Matt Freese secured his fifth clean sheet in ten starts. But Decision Day in the MLS to determine final playoff seeds with Charlotte and rival Red Bulls winning, meant NYCFC for the first time since their inception in 2015 will not compete for the league Cup.
Yes, the win was a good way to conclude a disappointing season, though, 11th place in the Eastern Conference is not where they want to be. There were positives down the stretch, simple though to understand that NYCFC came up short in a season that was defined with a lack of scoring that came down to Decision Day.
So now as they take a brief break before assembling again in January, NYCFC could look different when they get on the pitch again for the 2024 season. There are bound to be some player moves, while the coach, Nick Cushing, is expected to return. The team credits him for motivation and preparation that got them to Decision Day.
Though the end result is disappointing. Seems only yesterday, two years ago, a final stretch of the season saw NYCFC and their marvelous run to their first MLS championship. Then, they had MLS scoring leader Valentin Castellanos and goals were not hard to find, but this was a season for NYCFC with numerous roster changes due to injuries and other factors. Most importantly their failure to get those coveted three points, instead of 14 draws and one point that led the league. In this league, nine teams from each conference get playoff seeds and though a draw is a win that is not enough.
“We have to look at our season, we have to reflect on where we get better,” said Cushing. “We haven’t scored enough goals. We’ve drawn far too many games. On our defensive side of the game, our ability to not lose games has been there or thereabouts.”
Basically, a recurring theme and not a reflection of the coach. The defense for sure was not a factor in the finale, though scoring 35 goals and allowing 39 this season does reflect something that came into play. The offseason begins this week to assure that NYCFC is not in this position come next October.
“If we can become a stronger team of creating big goal chances, ultimately, we’ll score more goals,” Cushing said. “We’ll become a better team because we’ll win. But our league position is really painful for me because I’ve been here for four years and it’s the most successful period of the football club. As assistant coach and as head coach our job now is to reflect, look at it, and make sure that we improve the team so that we can play a season like we played the last eight games.”
Those last eight games included a loss to Minnesota (2-0) and conceding a goal to Miami (1-1), two that could have meant the difference of seeing NYCFC getting a playoff seed, Cushing reflected on those outcomes as possible turning points.
Regardless, there is that need to get better. How the improvement evolves and when it takes place will be determined in the brief span of the offseason. The roster could have a different complexion with many looking at their options as MLS contracts are different from other major sports leagues.
“If we played eight games the way we played the last eight, we’d be in a better position,” Cushing said. “You look at the young talent that we have, it’s only going to benefit us to continue to develop these players and to continue to work with them and continue to grow them. Naturally, when you end the season every year, there is going to be retention, recruitment, all those things they’re natural. But as a number, I can’t tell you because we didn’t have that meeting yet.”
For sure, Fernandez the 19-year old Argentinian will return. His second goal in nine career matches was another gem with a left-footed shot from above the box into the upper right corner of the net.
“I think we put in a tremendous effort,” Fernandez said through an interpreter. “We’re a great team. We weren’ t able to reach our objective, which is to qualify, but at least we were able to come away with a win.”
Freeze got more time in the net. Cushing gave him confidence and showed with his clean sheets. And forward Mousef Bakrar, a midseason acquisition, expects next year to be different with a start when training resumes.
“Goals are necessary,” he said. “We need to work on this everything so next season will be a difference. Elimination is extremely painful, nothing we can do now look forward to next season. I will do better than what I did, I am sure.”
“I grew this season, and I think it’s the time to look back and these ten to 13 games that I played and grow from them and learn and take those lessons into next season,” said Freeze who got more confident with more playing time and a boost from Cushing and Rob Vartughian.
He added, “The positivity of the coach (Cushing) ultimately resulted in Decision Day.” And homegrown player Tayvon Gray, defender from the Bronx, put it all in perspective as the last to leave Citi Field.
“My first year we went past the first round, then next year we won, and now I’m here, so it’s definitely eye opening,” he said. “I think you just learn from it. You want to keep moving forward.”
And moving forward NYCFC will reflect on a disappointing season with a positive outlook. Lack of scoring goals defined their season and that was the difference.
Rich Mancuso: X (Formerly Twitter) @Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso