It’s been more than nine months since New York City FC claimed victory in a Major League Soccer match.
Given the fact that drought includes a full offseason and an unexpected pandemic-induced hiatus, it’s not the craziest statistic. The club’s played just five MLS matches in the time since — an MLS Cup playoff loss and four regular season losses this year, including two defeats in the odd bubble environment of the MLS is Back Tournament.
It’d be fair to brush off the long dry spell as an unfortunate circumstance of the COVID-19 era. But for a club such as NYCFC, whose players believe in the winning mentality preached by City Football Group, the players aren’t so quick to let it go.
“Since I’ve been at the club I think I’ve lost twice in a row once, so it’s been something new,” said captain Alex Ring. “We say the identity of the club is we try to win games. So for us it’s an unusual situation.”
Two losses in Orlando have NYCFC at the bottom of the Group A standings entering its final match of the preliminary stage. City faces expansion side Inter Miami CF at 9 a.m. on Monday, needing a win to have any chance at advancing to the knockout rounds.
“We’re all thinking about it. It’s the first time a lot of us have lost five or so league games in a row, six, whatever it is,” said homegrown defensive player James Sands.
NYCFC needs to be among the four best third-place teams to advance, a real possibility but a clear longshot for a club with just one goal in four league matches under new head coach Ronny Deila.
“When we haven’t won for a while, it’s something in the back of our heads, that’s something we have been talking about this week,” Deila said.
Despite the poor results and lack of scoring, Deila and his players remain confident they’ve been the better team in each match of 2020, citing poor starts to games and a lack of fight as fixable problems to be solved against Miami.
“I don’t think we’ve been outplayed in any game, probably been the better team,” Ring said. “We haven’t been able to score and then we’ve conceded easy goals where we switch off or not focused enough, so it’s definitely been frustrating for sure.”
Deila said he felt his team only really started playing in its last loss to Orlando City SC after going down 2-0 in the first 10 minutes.
“I think we have started the games not so good. We have to be much more aggressive in the start of the games,” Deila said. “When it got to 2-0 under in the last game, after that it was 6-3 goal chances to us. So it’s almost like we don’t have anything to lose and we go hard and attack, so I think we have to be more offensive in our mindset when we go on the pitch.”
For 20-year-old Sands, City’s struggles may be a product of the club’s seemingly easy success in recent years, including a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference last regular season.
“One of the big things we’ve spoken about recently is actually having to fight for results. Over the past couple seasons, we’ve won so many games that a lot of us just expect it to happen,” Sands said. “You look at a game like the one we had against Orlando, they just seemed to be fighting for everything a little harder. If we can match the other team’s intensity or be more intense, then I think we’ll get off to a better start.”
What does it mean to Sands to have more ‘fight’ in their game?
“Personally, the way I think about it is, our team has so much quality and there’s not one game we’ve lost this year I’ve felt we’ve been outclassed. The other team never has better players than us, we’re always more talented,” Sands said. “So the next thing you look at is, is the other team outworking us? You can say for sure Orlando outworked us, at least in the beginning. Some of the other games we’ve lost, we’ve just been outworked a little bit.
“I think when you look at the play on the field and it’s just about fighting for those second balls. We’re a team that relies a lot on having the ball and when we can’t win those second balls we’re kind of screwed a little bit. I think just giving that little bit more will move us a lot in the right direction.”