The sun was out on Saturday morning, yet the breeze hugged New York City FC’s training facility in Orangeburg, New York.
The Pigeons looked sharp on the training pitch. But in their final shooting drill, they collectively sent balls to the roof of the building, battered the goalpost, or met Matt Freese’s hands more times than finding the net.
A concerning sight for fans of the club. At this point, you would at least hope they have been working on their finishing, given the "do or die" state of the season. But there were pros and cons to this practice. For one, Freese looks like he is in good form. Secondly, they appear in good spirits ahead of tomorrow’s game against Minnesota United FC.
The players bantered, laughed, and jokes flew in multiple tongues.
NYCFC's optimism might be concerning
It has been 16 days since NYCFC's last match, a losing effort against the New York Red Bulls that led to their Leagues Cup exit. While practice shots should not be taken for granted, this is the nature of practices a day before a game. They portrayed a perfect balance of loosely composed and precisely focused.
Head Coach Nick Cushing reflected on the tournament run.
"Before the Red Bull game, the games trended toward the same place. We dominated the ball, [and] we had the majority of the games where we wanted. We don't expect to score five every game. But to create a lot of chances and score a lot of goals is the team we wanna be. The really disappointing part was going to the Red Bull game and not imposing ourselves. I think we went into the break with a real drive and hunger to get our performances back to the level where they are but also take the next step by adding players and pushing hard on the training pitch."- Nick Cushing
Like the players, Cushing was also jovial on Saturday-- his mood contrary to his team sitting two spots from the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Cushing even sat amongst media members before the pre-game presser and laughed with those in attendance. But once the cameras started rolling, the elephant in the room had to be addressed.
With a 5-8-11 record in Major League Soccer, NYCFC brought in six players since their last match. The most notable signing was the return of Maxi Moralez, who left the club after playing a key role in their MLS Cup win in 2021. A reunion with his Empire State home now comes at a pivotal point in the season for the 36-year-old. He expressed the following:
"It's like I never left. I'm really excited to be back and help out as much as I can. [I am] looking forward to the next ten games. It starts with tomorrow, hopefully [we] make a strong push for the rest of the season."- Maxi Moralez
NYCFC's reputation as a team that plays better at home has been long-tarnished this season. However, the Pigeons still have the comfort of being travel-free for seven of their last ten games. Some marquee matchups include dates with FC Cincinnati and the Hudson River Derby in the Bronx. They also have the highly anticipated meeting in Miami with a now star-infested Inter Miami CF squad, who look to rally from the bottom with Lionel Messi in front.
Cushing said that the team continued to work.
"We just spent 16 days making sure that we refine our playing style and improve the team. Also trying to gel the team and build that chemistry. We went to Austin and have done some stuff back here in New York that has given us the opportunity to [build chemistry]. Those (new) players have slotted in quickly because of their character. I'm really pleased with where the team is."- Nick Cushing
While looking back can be helpful in how you move forward, Cushing focuses on the task at hand--Minnesota. When he started to discuss them, he had a smirk.
"We had the opportunity to watch them in the Leagues Cup because they kept going through. They have a number 10 that is possibly up there with the best in the league across both conferences. [Emanuel] Reynoso is everything to their offensive game, and if we allow him time and space to get into his rhythm, he becomes dangerous. We're going to have to make sure we deal with him and make sure that we don't allow him to dictate the game."- Nick Cushing
Eliminating the opposition's ace is one thing. Taking matters into your own hands is another. The common denominator still appears to be goal-scoring. One can only hope what has been a broken record of excuses will soon turn into prophecies. Hope that at the end of the season, fans can talk about how NYCFC's slow burn set the rest of MLS on fire.
The smiles and the enthusiasm would make you think they have something up their sleeves. But throughout this season, the NYCFC fanbase forgot to hope and learned to fear. I would love to be proven wrong, but what I saw on the practice field on Saturday will not beat Minnesota tomorrow night.
The Loons will pay New York City FC a visit at Citi Field for 7:30 PM ET kickoff on August 20.