In the final game before the June international break, New York City FC traveled to Minnesota to face Minnesota United FC for the first time since 2019. The two teams are 1-1-1 against one another, and notably their last meeting was the thrilling 3-3 draw in 2019.
Meanwhile, NYCFC wanted to extend the team’s ten-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. Before the match, they sat in second place in the Eastern Conference too, so the pressure to either hold the position or move into first was there.
In the end, the Pigeons got their second road win of the season, and beat Minnesota by a narrow 1-0 score line. A goal from Alexander Callens in the first half sealed the three points, and now, thanks to the Philadelphia Union’s 1-1 draw, they sit in first place in the Eastern Conference.
It might not have been a goal scoring frenzy, but NYCFC had one of their better performances of the year. They played their usual attacking football, but also were stellar in the defense once again.
New York City FC won 1-0 against Minnesota United FC
To start, the first half was one of the best halves of football New York City FC played all season. Not only did they score a goal, but they controlled the pace of play from the opening whistle. The Pigeons had over 63% of the possession, and consistently retrieved the ball when the Loons had possession. In fact, the home side kept giving the ball away in their own half, which led to attacking opportunities for NYCFC.
When Minnesota did have the ball, their chances were lackluster. Still, the NYCFC defense contributed to limiting their attacking opportunities, whether it was from the blocks, clearances, or interceptions. The passing out of the back was also smooth as butter, and was a huge contributor to the high possession in the first 45 minutes.
Overall, the team did well with the passing when they had the ball. Sure, the Loons turned the match into an entirely different fixture in the second half, and put more pressure on NYCFC. That being said, the away side still finished with over 54% of the possession, and limited the attacking chances of the home side throughout the entire game.
That is not to say that Minnesota was not a threat. In spite of everything, Sean Johnson had to make five saves on the night, including the critical double save toward the end of the second half. Both Emanuel Reynoso and Robin Lod had successive chances for the Loons, which forced Johnson to make those vital stops.
First, Reynoso’s shot caused the goalkeeper to make a save near the bottom right corner of goal, and Johnson was able to deliver. Then, Lod immediately send the ball to the center of goal, which led Johnson to quickly get up and force the ball over the bar. Not only did those saves help protect the lead, but Johnson’s work at the end led to a club-record sixth straight clean sheet in Major League Soccer.
Also, the team continued their shutout streak, for the Pigeons have not allowed a goal in 540 minutes. This is currently the longest streak in the league. More importantly, the team has not lost since they exited the CONCACAF Champions League, and now have an eleven-game unbeaten streak in all competitions.
Alexander Callens is an early contender for Defender of the Year for New York City FC
Of course, the recent streaks are due to the defensive efforts by New York City FC. There is no doubt the team sometimes struggles with capitalizing on goal-scoring chances, but this year, the defense allows them to get 1-0 wins like they did on Saturday.
However, if there is one player that is leading the charge, then it is the goal-scorer Callens. Defensively, he has been superb all season long, and arguably is an early contender for the Defender of the Year. He seems to always be at the right place and at the right time, and is constantly a thorn in the sides of every opposing team.
When the defense gets messy, the center-back feasibly moves into the right positions and clears the ball out of harm’s way. He is also not afraid to make interceptions in the defensive third, and move the ball toward the midfield, or sometimes the attacking third. He actually made four total interceptions against the Loons, which is his highest amount in a fixture this season.
He even leads the team with touches on the ball, with 953 touches. This illuminates his ability to direct from out of the back, and get involved all over the pitch. The defender also has the fourth highest successful passing percentage, with 88.7%, but has the most accurate passes with 733.
As mentioned, Callens has no problem with getting forward with the ball, and sometimes likes to act like a forward as well. He has three goals in MLS so far this year, including the one against Minnesota. He scored the game winner off of a corner kick, and headed the ball into the ground, which led it to bounce into the goal.
Of course, the Peruvian’s defensive work notably helped keep the clean sheet. While Callens only had one block, he did have four recoveries in NYCFC’s own half and six clearances, as well as the four interceptions. In all competitions, he leads the team with 50 or more clearances, depending on what site one looks at statistics.
It is not just the statistics, but the eye test also shows how well Callens has been defensively. Again, he is always there when he is needed, and when the Pigeons are falling apart in the back, he is there to pick up the pieces. Without Callens, the team probably would have given up a goal or two during this shutout streak, and could have seen points dropped.
Based on his play so far, Callens is clearly competing for the Defender of the Year in MLS, but obviously holds the title right now for New York City FC. The match against Minnesota was just another example of how good he has been in 2022, but also how vital he is to the Pigeons.