New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos picked an opportune time to turn strong play into real production.
The man known as "Taty" hasn’t always seen the fruits of his labor despite relatively strong play in a banged-up NYCFC attack. He'd scored just twice in MLS regular season action this year entering Sunday.
But in a crucial Hudson River Derby with MLS Cup Playoff seeding implications, Castellanos tore apart the New York Red Bulls, scoring his first MLS hat trick and adding an assist as NYCFC pulled away late for a 5-2 victory Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
"I know I was playing well and I was helping, but the goals just weren't coming for me. And they finally did," said Castellanos through a translator. "This was my first hat trick and to be able to help the team, that's really the most important thing. And today obviously being a rivalry game, we have to step it up and play well, and I'm just really happy."
Castellanos recorded the fourth MLS hat trick in NYCFC history, the club’s first of this season. He put together the second ever hat trick in Hudson River Derby play, joining former City captain David Villa, who did so in 2017.
The victory keeps NYCFC (11-8-3) in fifth place with 36 points entering the final week of the season. A top four place and home playoff match remain in play for City, but will require a win over Chicago Fire FC and some help elsewhere next Sunday.
"We were a better, better team," said NYCFC coach Ronny Deila. "We felt it during the last 20 minutes of the first half. In the second half we defended good and at the same time we scored some beautiful goals."
The Red Bulls (8-9-5, 29 points) drop to eighth with the loss behind Nashville SC on points per game, but the club remains in the hunt for a top six seed and a chance to avoid a play-in match. Their season closes Sunday against Toronto FC.
"It’s a crazy game," said Red Bulls interim head coach Bradley Carnell. "From the get-go, I didn’t feel we had a grip on the game. A little bit disappointing. These are moments, for me as a coach, are learning moments for sure. I didn’t feel I set the team up for success."
NYCFC got out in front early with some of its most free-flowing soccer of the season in the 12th minute. With the ball on the right, Jesús Medina switched the play to Maxi Moralez well outside the box. Moralez looked up to see Castellanos sneaking behind Red Bulls center back Tim Parker about 10 yards from goal. Moralez expertly floated the ball into the path of Castellanos, who held off right back Jason Pendant to finish with a precise header past keeper Ryan Meara.
It didn’t take long for the Red Bulls to respond. NYCFC seemed to have stifled a Red Bulls attack in the 18th minute, stuffing Christian Cásseres Jr. at the edge of the box, but failed to effectively clear. Brian White ran onto the loose ball and struck it toward net with his first touch, skipping it off a slippery Yankee Stadium surface and past Sean Johnson into the bottom left corner.
The match stayed relatively open with NYCFC controlling possession for much of the half, but the Red Bulls were able to pressure their way to a second goal in the 38th minute. Parker, playing way upfield from his typical defensive position, caught up with a loose ball at the corner of the box and sent it back toward a mass of players lined up in front of goal. Jared Stroud corralled it and fed White, who sent it to Cásseres at the top of the box. The 20-year-old thumped a shot off NYCFC center back Maxime Chanot, sending Johnson the wrong way for the Red Bulls’ equalizer.
NYCFC answered the Red Bulls’ gritty goal with another example of stylistic playmaking. Moralez delivered a great pass through the defense toward Castellanos, but the forward was off balance as it arrived. Still, Castellanos flicked the ball behind him toward Gary Mackay-Steven, who knocked it over Red Bulls keeper Ryan Meara and into the net for a 42nd-minute equalizer, his first goal of the season.
Halftime did nothing to calm the chaos of the first frame. In the 51st minute, Medina took a throw in quick, finding Alex Ring well outside the box. The NYCFC captain took a soft touch with his left and gathered himself to shoot, firing a rocket over Meara and into the underside of the crossbar to put his side ahead, 3-2.
The Red Bulls remained in the game as the second-half progressed, partially due to some strong goalkeeping by Meara, including a double save of Mackay-Stevens and Castellanos in the 61st minute. 17-year-old Caden Clark, thriving in the first three weeks of his Red Bulls career, entered alongside Omir Fernandez in the 64th minute to give them a fresh look, but couldn’t make a difference. Parker had his own chance to tie the match on a corner in the 69th minute, but misfired into the bar and out of play.
Not long after, Castellanos finished things off. In the 76th minute, a ball was sent by Mackay-Steven into the Red Bulls defense, bouncing around before finding its way to Castellanos. The Argentine controlled it and sent a powerful shot into the back of the net. In the 84th minute, Moralez drew a penalty on a shove by Parker and made way for Castellanos, who buried the kick easily to extend the lead and write himself into Derby history with the hat trick.