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Rusty NYCFC drops MLS is Back opener to Philadelphia Union

REUNION, FLORIDA - JULY 09: Keaton Parks #55

REUNION, FLORIDA - JULY 09: Keaton Parks #55 of New York City FC and Jose Andres Martinez #8 of Philadelphia Union fight for the ball during the second half in the MLS is Back Tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on July 09, 2020 in Reunion, Florida. Players of the Philadelphia Union wore the names of Black victims of police brutality on their jerseys. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images/Douglas P. DeFelice

New York City FC’s match Thursday was its first live action in four months, and it showed.

The club opened its MLS is Back Tournament slate Thursday with a 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union, looking sluggish after a 9 a.m. kickoff and failing to answer a second-half Union goal scored against the run of play.

While NYCFC seemed the better side for much of the game, the team largely was unable to turn possession into quality chances. That coupled with impressive goalkeeping by the Union’s Andre Blake kept NYCFC off the scoreboard for the full 90 minutes.

“It’s frustrating, I think today we had quite a bit more chances than our opponent, but we don’t score and they get the chance and put it in,” head coach Ronny Deila said. “We’re not effective enough in what we’re doing. I’m a little bit sad for the hard work the players and everybody put in that we didn’t get any points today.”

Alejandro Bedoya scored the lone goal for the Union, beating NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson from the right side of the box after corralling a deflected shot in the 63rd minute.

The match was preceded by both teams kneeling in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Philadelphia players also replaced their own names on their jerseys with those of past victims of police brutality.

City now is behind Philadelphia and Orlando City SC, who beat Inter Miami on Wednesday, in Group A of the tournament. Nashville SC and Chicago Fire FC previously were in Group A as well, but Nashville was removed from the tournament Thursday because of multiple COVID-19 tests, while Chicago was moved to Group B.

“We’ve started with a bad result and you know how it is in tournaments like this, you want a point from the first one and now we didn’t get it,” fullback Anton Tinnerholm said. “I think the next game is going to be crucial for us.”

The match also counts toward the regular season standings when the play fully resumes. With the loss, NYCFC still has yet to earn a point in 2020 and sits at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with a 0-3-0 record. NYCFC will return to the field Tuesday against Orlando City.

“I think Orlando, they’re going to want to repeat their performance from [Tuesday], but I think it’s much more important for us,” said James Sands, who started at centerback. “We just have to come out with and energy and we really have to go for it. There’s no holding back, we know it is a must win and we need three points.”

NYCFC’s first half was sluggish although City had the better chances against a Union side reluctant to keep up its trademark defensive pressure. NYCFC controlled possession for 57% of the half, but managed just two shots on target.

The team’s best chances came from moving the ball wide, often through Tinnerholm, to set up long aerial passes into the box. NYCFC earned a handful of free kicks as well, but simply didn’t create enough chances in the opening 45 minutes to break down Blake and the Union defense.

At halftime, Deila made the first of his five available substitutions, bringing on Jesús Medina for Keaton Parks to give the midfield a stronger attacking presence. It worked early on as City worked to get extra runners in the box with Valentín Castellanos and Medina putting a few shots on target.

Despite the change, Philadelphia found the back of the net first. After receiving the ball on the right side of the box, Bedoya sent a pass to Brenden Aaronson in the center of the box. Aaronson’s shot was blocked by centerback James Sands, but the deflection went right back to the Union captain, who fired it back on target. While Johnson got a finger to the ball, it was nowhere near enough to stop the powerful shot.

After the goal, NYCFC got a few attempts, but mostly turned off. Héber had the best chance late, controlling a pass and firing to the far post, only for Blake to make a diving save.

Said Tinnerholm: “Sometimes you don’t score the goals and then it’s impossible to win the games."

Notes: Winger Alexandru Mitrita, NYCFC’s second leading scorer a year ago, was left out of the NYCFC lineup and bench for the opener. Deila said Mitrita picked up an injury during a training session Wednesday, but believes he’ll be available against Orlando…Former Arsenal prospect and Sporting Kansas City player Gedion Zelalem made his first appearance for NYCFC, entering for Maxi Moralez in the 76th minute...Gudmundur Thórarinsson also made his club debut, coming on in stoppage time for Castellanos.

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