1. Let’s start off with the most obvious point of all: Taty Castellanos’ suspension. How much do you think that it will affect New York’s attack, especially against Philly’s strong backline?
It’s a heartbreaking red, and it takes away the closest thing any MLS team has to a guaranteed goal—Taty scored eight goals in six games. That said, we’re not short on attacking talent—six players not named Taty scored goals in that same six-game run. Just look at Santi Rodríguez. His opening goal against New England was unstoppable, and even when he doesn’t score he keeps the opposing backline off-balance and creates chances for others.
Remember, Taty isn’t our traditional striker: That’s Heber, who was out for most of the season with an injury and just recently eased back into play. We also have Talles Magno, a 19-year-old Brazilian star-in-the-making who scored two goals in five starts; Thiago, another Brazilian who scored one of the great goals of the year in extra time against DC United to win the game [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyuuwwl2RBc]; and Ismael Tajouri Shradi, who’s match-fit after an injury. There’s a game-winner in every one of those players.
If anything, this might be another if-lemons-then-lemonade calculation for manager Ronny Deila: After losing Keaton Parks for the season, our improvised defensive midfield of Alfredo Morales and James Sands dismantled Atlanta United and held off New England. Deila could mix and match strike partners, even change it up in the middle of the game: Swap Thiago’s physicality for Magno’s footwork, or Heber’s poacher’s instinct for Tajouri Shradi’s blistering workrate. Philadelphia might have to adjust to three or four different kinds of attackers.
NYCFC has played Taty because he’s the best in MLS, but the bench is deep with goal scorers.
2. On the flip side, how is NYCFC looking on defense? Where are its strengths and weaknesses?
Our redesigned backline has been a revelation. It completely shut down Atlanta and turned Josef Martínez into a whiny U11 forward who shouts at his teammates to pass him the ball. It held its own against a stacked New England team: We neutralized Gustavo Bou, who looked like a season ticket holder with a field-side pass, and we frustrated Carles Gil, who usually pulls the strings. Adam Buksa and Tajon Buchanan were trouble, but we contained them just enough.
The greatest strength of the backline is its unity and trust. Center-backs Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot are seasoned vets, and play against the best in the world for their national teams. Malte Amundsen on the left was iffy at the start of the year, but that’s why we have those 34 pre-season games. Tayvon Gray on the right is the real story: A 19-year-old Bronx native, he stepped into the very big shoes of injured Anton Tinnerholm and locked down that flank—he assisted Santi’s goal last night, and he marked Buksa for 120 minutes. The kid is fast, strong, intelligent, and now he’s battle-tested. The four of them work together, cover each other, move like they have one central nervous system.
Our greatest weakness is injuries. Callens was questionable for the game against Atlanta but he seems to be fine; Gray cramped up in the final minutes yesterday and was hobbling around like me after a pickup game. If we’re fit, we’re solid. If we’re hurt, that’s another matter.
3. New York is coming off of an impressive upset against New England. While the Revs did have an extremely long break between matches, they are still one of the better teams the league has ever seen. How do you think that NYC looked on Tuesday night, and will that momentum carry over to Sunday?
Both New England and Colorado were defeated at home, and it’s fair to say that the three-week bye played a role in both games. It’s one thing to get a week off, but the international break let the gears get a little rusty. A real tragedy for all those fans in Needham and Newton—pardon me while I wipe away these tears.
NYCFC looked confident, hungry, ready. Our postseason history is garbage, but then we pulled apart Atlanta like a loaf of warm monkey bread. It was more than a win, it was a purification.
At New England, we proved that we could outplay the best team in MLS, on plastic grass, for 120’ and beyond. Defensive midfielder Morales scored the opening penalty kick—how’s that for confidence? Earlier I said that Gray is battle-tested. Well, the entire team is now battle-tested.
My one worry is timing. Philadelphia will be our second consecutive away game on short rest. I hope each NYCFC player is spending this time getting reflexology and scalp rubs, going from Japanese soaking tub to Russian plunge pool, maybe lighting a scented candle that, as Robert Duvall put it, “smells like victory.” [[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdzoIHJBGt0]] They should do what they have to do to recharge.
4. Any absences? What are your lineup and score predictions?
Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm are out for the season, and Taty gave himself a personal day. The rest of the team was available for the New England game, and hopefully, that will hold for our trip to Chester.
The backline will likely be the same four we saw against Atlanta and New England: Amundsen—Callens—Chanot—Gray. Sands and Alfredo Morales will be the midfield defensive pivot in front of them, Rodríguez and Maxi Morazlez feeding the attack. The forwards are the question mark. Magno and Tajorui Shradi? They’ll stretch the Union defense. Thiago? He’s physical, works nonstop. Heber as a late sub? He could backheel a golf ball into a Dixie cup. It’s a mystery. Will you tell me if you find out?
As for a prediction, well, with all affection for the marvelous people of Philadelphia (Shot Tower Coffee! Chubbys Steaks!), I think NYCFC will win the game 0-2. The Union are a strong side, but NYCFC will suffocate the Philadelphia attack and find a way to score goals.