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NYCFC not yet where it wants it to be after early MLS Cup Playoffs exit

NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila looks on during

NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila looks on during a match at Yankee Stadium on October 7, 2020. Credit: NYCFC / Katie Cahalin

Late Tuesday afternoon, Orlando City SC released a "Legends Collection" on its online shop ahead of the holidays.

Nobody at New York City FC will add these items to their wish list.

The collection focused mostly on a new club legend: reserve defender Rodrigo Schlegel. Items for sale include a special edition Schlegel goalkeeper jersey and a T-shirt proclaiming the by-trade centerback "Godrigo," both reminders of a now-viral moment NYCFC can only hope to learn from.

New York City FC was on the losing side in one of Major League Soccer’s most chaotic, electric finishes in recent history last Saturday. Schlegel, playing out of position after a red card to starting goalie Pedro Gallese earlier in the shootout, stopped the penalty kick of Gudi Thorarinsson to set up the biggest win in Orlando City history on its next attempt, sending NYCFC home without a playoff victory for the second consecutive season.

It may be harsh for NYCFC’s season to come down to such a random event as a penalty shootout, especially one that lasted 25 minutes and featured more twists than the 120 minutes of open play preceding it. And it may be harsh to put a ton of weight into a season that included a bubble tournament, a new coach, several injuries and everything else 2020 has thrown at the world, including the absurdity of City’s latest disappointment.

But the club’s inability throughout the match to capitalize on clear advantages, as well as its struggle to maintain composure in high-pressure situations, placed even more weight on the shoulders of a club still seeking its first trophy, another example of NYCFC failing to live up to the expectations it sets itself each year.

"We have to learn from this, that’s what I say, we need better mentality," said head coach Ronny Deila. "We have to stand up when it really is fire. We had this game in our hands, and we lost it. And that's the mentality thing we have to improve. People have to improve, I have to improve, everybody has to improve. I talked about it the first day, we will have up and downs together, it’s about are you willing to improve? Are you willing to sacrifice everything to be a winner? We are not there yet."

Mentality was a constant theme for Deila in his first season as head coach of NYCFC. During the initial pandemic shutdown, Deila passed his time at home by watching each game played the previous season under Domènec Torrent. He saw "a very emotional team," something the group needed to control when going down early or responding to poor officiating.

The issue was apparent at the MLS is Back Tournament, where City lost its first two matches after going down early, only to sneak into the knockout stage with a slim win over Inter Miami. When the season resumed in home markets, the reaction to adversity didn’t improve, and at regular season’s end NYCFC still had a winless record in matches in which it conceded the first goal (0-8-1).

After NYCFC again conceded first on Saturday in the fifth minute against Orlando, a Maxime Chanot goal just three minutes later could have been a sign that the message finally had stuck with the arrival of the playoffs. The club’s response to a late Orlando red card and confusion from officials, however, signaled otherwise.

"We didn’t take advantage of [the man advantage] because we didn’t do what we agreed to do," Deila said. "We didn’t push up too much with the team, the midfield was too low, we looked very tired, we didn’t have any runs, we didn’t move the ball good. So we didn’t deserve to win the game in that period."

Statistically, NYCFC shouldn’t have expected to be far off from the 2019 season that saw it finish atop the Eastern Conference. While the club’s number of goals per 90 minutes was down from 1.85 in 2019 to 1.57 this season, the club’s expected goals per 90 was about the same, slightly up at 1.65 in 2020 compared to 1.57 a year ago, according to data from FBref.com. The club’s expected goal difference also was up from a year ago, now at 9.7 compared to 7.1, but the actual number was down from 21 last year to 12 in 2020. City finished the year in fifth in the East.

The numbers make sense to those who saw NYCFC create chances of decent quality this season but fail to capitalize, either because of lack of personnel, drive or luck. After making just a few utility and prospect signings last offseason, plus this year’s results, expect some turnover at NYCFC in the coming months. The club reportedly has two designated player spots available because of the loan of Alexandru Mitrita and the structure of Jesús Medina’s contract.

The loss of Mitrita, plus a long-term injury to striker Héber, means some attacking reinforcements are likely. Late-season inconsistency in the backline may prompt a reshuffle for a group that’s been fairly solid for the better part of three seasons.

No matter what the offseason holds, there still is some unfinished business in the CONCACAF Champions League. City’s last game before the March shutdown came in the first leg of its quarterfinal against Mexican side Tigres UANL, a 1-0 loss at Red Bull Arena before a stadium of fans blissfully unaware of what awaited them in the coming weeks. The competition will resume in a bubble environment next month in, coincidentally, Orlando with the second leg to be played on Dec. 16.

NYCFC talked a big game about the competition as a chance at its first trophy back in February and March, and immediately after the loss to Orlando, Deila was confident his team could refocus by kickoff. Still, he knows it’s time for the club, himself included, to take a look in the mirror.

"We’re still a long way to go to be a team that can go all the way," Deila said after Saturday's loss. "You have to be hungry to learn, wanting to sacrifice what it takes to be a winner. We are not a winner, we haven’t won with this club yet. That’s my aim, and my goal. I’m going to have to go in front and show what we want. We were close today, but it was the small details in the end that make us No. 2 instead of No. 1.

"We are not ready yet, but we will be ready. And there's another opportunity when we come to Orlando again to show that we learned something from today."

The club is off for the week of Thanksgiving before it regroups for training with a focus on salvaging its year. To do so, of course, will take the strong mentality Deila desires. Then, perhaps, NYCFC can earn a "Legends Collection" for its own shop in time for Christmas.

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