The crowd at Citi Field held their breath for the second time late in the second half of New York City FC's MLS match against Minnesota United on Sunday. The first occurrence happened in the 65th minute when Mounsef Bakrar found the back of the net but was declared offside after the crowd erupted.
Here they were again, with a chance to cancel out Ján Greguš' screamer in the 53rd. Who was going to take it? Talles Magno, who has struggled to score all season? Or Maxi Moralez in his return to NYCFC? The answer was the VAR. The VAR took the penalty not for, but away from the Pigeons--and rightly so.
Sound familiar? This has been the theme of NYCFC's season, and the 16-day break after their Leagues Cup exit proved to do nothing.
The Pigeons controlled 62.7% of the possession. They shot 19 times but only found the frame with five. In my previous write-up, I mentioned how they lacked accountability during a shooting drill when I visited the training facility on Saturday. Boy, was I right.
NYCFC could not score in the 2-0 loss against Minnesota
Moralez played well with Bakrar in their first NYCFC game together, but Minnesota's Michael Boxall managed to be in Bakrar's space enough to disrupt his attempts. Birk Risa proved to be a good pickup playing on the backline's left side. His long diagonal passes were impressive, but this left Maxime Chanot's defensive presence on the bench. Richard Ledezma also sat through the game-- he probably had a great view of Minnesota's second goal in stoppage time, courtesy of Ménder García.
A 2-0 loss sent home fans packing before the final whistle.
Nick Cushing, who on Saturday said he was "really pleased with where the team is," entered the post-match press conference seemingly awoken from a good dream and realizing reality's existence.
The head coach took the words out of every fan's mouth.
"I'm tired of not winning football games. We have to believe. We have to continue to work hard--it's too familiar. It's so difficult to take because I take full responsibility of it as head coach; I don't hide away from that."- Nick Cushing
This was the first game out of NYCFC's final ten in the MLS regular season. They needed to go unbeaten in this final stretch to make a case for a playoff run. And they need a lot of prayers to achieve that. After returning with another head-scratching loss, it's either the fans and players aren't praying enough, or the gods turned notifications off for them. Cushing is aware though of the lack of time.
"Ultimately, the margin is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. We can not afford a performance like that--positive in every way except for the result. I have to move forward and keep believing, keep Mounsef's head up, [and] keep the guys believing that all we need is one [win/goal] to light the spark. We wanted it to be today, it wasn't."- Nick Cushing
Realistically, this season is over for the Pigeons. Their next match comes against FC Cincinnati, who are comfortably on top of the league, foreshadowing another loss in their record. The game against Minnesota should have been the pistol pop that got them going. Instead, it became a reality check that sent foreheads pointing back to the turf. Still, Cushing claims responsibility for controlling his team's reactions.
"I think that as soon as they feel that I don't believe, it's finished. And I can guarantee [that] I do. What I see out there is a team that's creating big chances but not taking them. I have to believe. I have to show [it] in my body language and energy. I will keep fighting until somebody tells me it's mathematically impossible."- Nick Cushing
Cushing's optimism can only go so far. Ultimately, it is the players who are out on the pitch. Safe to say most of these players show up to work but fail to complete the main task--scoring goals. NYCFC have yet to hit their sixth gear all season. Now they have to create a seventh and use it to reverse this trajectory...somehow.
Every game is an uphill battle from here, with seven of the nine clubs left to play ranked higher than NYCFC as of this writing. The two lower teams are namely Toronto FC, who NYCFC squashed 5-0 in the Leagues Cup, and tournament winners Inter Miami, who have one Lionel Messi.
It all starts with New York City FC's trip to Cincinnati on Saturday, August 26.