New York City FC had its buzz back following Wednesday’s Campeones Cup victory over LigaMX champion Atlas FC, and it wasn’t just from the post-game locker room celebration.
As a cart full of uncorked bottles and crumpled cans rolled out of NYCFC’s locker room, the players and staff followed with a swagger fitting of the moment, but also with hope that the club’s recent poor form was discarded alongside those emptied recyclables.
Yet amid the outward confidence, interim coach Nick Cushing hedged on whether the defending MLS champions had fully reset with the win entering a key Hudson River Derby on Saturday, perhaps a hangover from the 10 league matches prior to Wednesday in which City earned just one victory and fell behind its rivals in the Eastern Conference standings.
“I think for me, it’s an opportunity to be a springboard, but we also had a really big win against Chicago away and had a moment on the pitch after that, and then lost games,” Cushing said. “We just have to obviously enjoy this because it's a big moment for us, it's another trophy for our football club, but at the same time the Red Bull game will be incredibly difficult."
NYCFC (13-11-7, 46 points) returns to league play on Saturday in fourth place in the East with three games left. They are four points behind the third-place Red Bulls (14-9-8, 50 points), who’ve already clinched their 13th straight playoff appearance
Maxime Chanot, who captained the City’s 2-0 victory Wednesday, believes the club did what it needed to right itself, saying the players have not lost faith that they can win matches despite a lack of results.
“It may be surprising, but if you come into the changing room — even after the last loss to Charlotte or the draw against Cincy — you keep going to see smiles on the faces, because for any reason I cannot really explain why, but we really trust ourselves,” Chanot said. "We spoke to each other, we know what we did wrong, and I do believe the victory tonight is the start of something big to happen with this club and this team.”
The pieces truly could be aligning for City to end its MLS skid against the Red Bulls. After nearly two months of road trips and home games in Queens and New Jersey, Saturday will be the club’s second straight game at Yankee Stadium, where the team is 5-1-2 in MLS play this year. Both Chanot and Cushing agreed on the importance of being back in the Bronx.
“Playing at Red Bull Arena, I don't want to put the blame on anybody, but it's not the same, we don't feel home,” Chanot said. “Playing at Yankee Stadium, I think our record is very high, so it's very nice to play in front of our fan base.”
Added Cushing, “We always seem to get a bit of magic in this building.”
Cushing knows that may not be enough Saturday, remaining somewhat cautious in his post-Cup news conference. After a 1-0 NYCFC victory in their last MLS meeting at Red Bull Arena in July, he anticipates the best from the Red Bulls and coach Gerhard Struber, who was spotted in the Yankee Stadium crowd on Wednesday and recently guaranteed a RBNY derby triumph.
But that prudence doesn’t stop Cushing from taking a few digs at the rival coach in the afterglow of a locker-room celebration.
“I wish soccer was so simple, huh?” Cushing said with tongue in cheek. “Listen, I expect it, and I expect it because it was the greatest-ever performance of an NYCFC team against a Red Bull team in the last defeat. When you lose derbies, it's hard. I think for him when he lost the way that he lost, I think that's difficult," Cushing said. "So they will have incredible motivation to make sure that we don't play the football that we played in their home and win the way that we won.”
City won that matchup on the back of classy Valentín Castellanos goal in the second half, controlling much of a high-energy match and staving off a number of crosses and corners to give NYCFC just its second ever road win over the Red Bulls.
“One thing I will say is, it was the perfect warm-up game tonight for Red Bull because the direct balls and just like smashing it from back and getting after it, you know, it was a perfect warm-up game.”