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NYCFC is surviving instead of thriving

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It hasn’t been easy.

The performances have been labored. Talisman Maxi Moralez has been hurt. Seven games have yielded just two wins, even after Monday night’s success.

Still, New York City FC’s 1-0 squeaker against Columbus this week was a win nonetheless and you could tell just how much it meant for this desperate team from the players’ postgame comments.

“We owed it to ourselves,” goalkeeper Sean Johnson said.

“Everyone has a right to their opinion,” said captain Alex Ring, who celebrated his winning goal by shushing an unclear target in the empty stadium. “It’s easy to say stuff, but say it to my face or the face of the team.”

While the three points were a welcome return for the club, it’s hard not to notice the feeling that has surrounded it of late. The East’s top seed a year ago now has an air of survival around it.

“Everyone who’s been [in] football understands just how tough of a situation this is, when you go around and you’re not winning games,” head coach Ronny Deila said. “This club is used to [winning]. That pressure is on all of us.”

Anton Tinnerholm NYCFC
Anton Tinnerholm of New York City FC and Derrick Etienne of the Columbus Crew pursue the ball at Red Bull Arena.Getty Images

To look at the finer details of NYCFC’s season thus far obfuscates from the larger picture that shows the season has gone woefully wrong to date. This is a team that felt on the cusp of real success last year, so to be currently scraping to get back into the playoff picture feels like a massive step back.

Of course, Moralez’s eventual return from injury will help (as Deila pointed out during his virtual presser), but when you’re still talking about attackers gaining “confidence” after seven league games, as he did, things aren’t quite right. Especially when those attackers are all prime-aged players who formed the league’s second-most prolific attack last season.

Heber and Alexandru Mitrita should have no reason not to be generally confident. Both hit double figures in goals last season, but neither has scored yet this season. That regression should be troubling to New York City fans, and so too should Deila’s passive outlook toward the team.

“By winning and performing, we will get the quality out of the players,” he said after the Columbus victory.

Creating that momentum, however, is precisely Deila’s job. You can criticize his tactics or bemoan Moralez’s health if you want, but this much is objectively true: a team that returned its core from a record-breaking season is now struggling to create good chances and win games in the same way.

That doesn’t feel like progress.

Red Bulls can’t outlast fine margins forever

Although they bested New York City FC in the Hudson River Derby last week and have a more comfortable position in the table, the Red Bulls have problems of their own.

Results are catching up with them.

On the surface, the Red Bulls have enjoyed a decent start to the season with 10 points, and just three losses from seven games. The more advanced stats, however, show them as a team in grave danger of falling off a cliff.

The Red Bulls have conceded far more xG (7.8) than NYCFC (5.3) per FBref.com, and have barely outscored their crosstown rivals in the same metric (3.6 to 3.4). They were fortunate to beat NYCFC with an error from keeper Johnson (and possibly the refs), and probably should have been dispatched more easily than the 1-0 scoreline they fell to Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

The narrative around the Red Bulls seems less alarmist than NYCFC (maybe because the latter had higher expectations entering this year), but this team will struggle mightily to win games going forward if it can’t effectively create chances. You know things are a bit dire when your top scorer is a defender (full-back Kyle Duncan leads the team with a meager two goals).

Things could improve, but right now this is a worse team than the table would tell you.

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