How Can Goal-Shy New York City FC Find More Goals To Celebrate?

March 27, 2024
4 mins read
New York City goal celebration
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 16: Kevin O'Toole #22 of New York City FC is congratulated by teammates Keaton Parks #55 and Mitja Ilenič #35 after O'Toole scored the game winning goal during the second half at Yankee Stadium on March 16, 2024 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The New York City FC defeated the Toronto FC 2-1. This goal was the first MLS goal for O'Toole. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

By James Nalton.

In the 2023 MLS regular season, only Toronto FC and Colorado Rapids — the bottom teams in each conference — scored fewer goals than New York City FC.

It raised questions about how a team from a multi-club group that generally favors an attacking philosophy could end up so ineffective in this area of the game.

In order to solve this issue, do they need to make tactical changes, personnel changes, or both?

Such conundrums have continued at the beginning of the 2024 season in which the team has scored just three goals in five games — the fewest in MLS.

One solution would be to try to nudge everything New York City does a little further up the pitch, but this answer itself leads to further questions about how exactly this can be done.

The first step in answering the questions and solving these problems may lie in off-the-ball considerations.

Increased final third pressing, a higher defensive line, and a better-organized press.

The pressing points are something it appears New York City have already tried to address in 2024, but they are still struggling to find the net.

Out Of Possession

Advancing the first line of the press closer to the opposition backline more regularly and not just at opposition goal kicks will naturally drag a team further upfield. 

Having a compact shape makes for higher-quality pressing, and being able to capitalise on any turnovers should mean that a higher press from the front encourages a more effective high defensive line and more proactive midfield support.

If the press works, this should result in more action in the final third and more possession wins in the opposition half, even if the opponent evades the first wave of the press.

All of this requires a well-organised team and players who are aware of the spaces between each other. Pressing is not just about closing down opposition players one at a time, it is about the whole out-of-possession structure working together.

Each player needs to be able to recognise any pressing triggers even if they are not the ones doing the closing down at a particular moment in time, and each player should be part of a chain of pressing that doesn’t give the opposition an easy way through.

This desire to press high should naturally lead to higher positions in possession, but it can still be easy for players to take the easy option and drift back into maintaining comfortable possession in the back line, especially against teams that sit deeper.

This was one of the problems with the team in possession last season. When the players put themselves under more pressure and play the ball in more crowded areas, some of their direct movement upfield through quick, short passing was good.

Stretching the field in possession, through wide players and diagonal passing, for example, but narrowing it in defense can be one way to thwart the opposition and attempt to assert some kind of dominance within a game.

In Possession

According to FBref, New York City had the 6th most touches in the league in 2023, but looking at where these touches of the ball occurred reveals a problem.

The team were a lowly 22nd in MLS for touches in the final third and 15th in the league for touches in the opposition penalty area. They were 5th for middle third touches and 2nd for touches of the ball in their own defensive third.

Anyone who regularly watched NYCFC in 2023 will be familiar with this, even without knowing the stats. There was a lot of passing between defenders and deep midfielders, but not much sustained attacking pressure in dangerous areas.

They were 7th in the league for average possession with 52.6%, which probably isn’t enough to be defined as a possession team that controls games with the ball. Compare this to 2022 (56%), and there is a dropoff in this area, not by much, but enough to make a difference in how dominant a team feels with the ball across several games.

Looking back at other data in previous seasons, in both 2021 and 2022 New York City were 5th in the league for touches in the attacking third, and second for touches in the opposition penalty area. So there has been a clear dropoff in this area too.

Overall possession average doesn’t matter so much if you regularly have the ball often in dangerous situations. 

Possession isn’t the be-all and end-all, but many other City Football Group (CFG) teams will still post high average possession numbers and it would be safe to generalise and associate this style of football with CFG.

It’s unfair to judge any other team in world football by the standards of Manchester City, but they are a CFG team so it is natural that New York City might take some cues from their style, which is heavily possession-based.

It’s perhaps fairer to compare New York City to Girona — La Liga’s upstarts who were challenging at the top of the table in Spain earlier this season and are also part of the City Football Group.

Girona average 57% possession in La Liga this season and have the 5th most touches of any team in the league. But unlike New York City, they back this up with the 5th most touches in the attacking third and 5th most touches in the opposition penalty area.

In MLS last season and this, Columbus Crew were playing more like you might expect a CFG team to play. Wilfried Nancy’s side had the highest average possession with 57% but also topped the league for touches in the attacking third and in the opposition penalty area.

There were moments when New York City were able to string passes together and attack quickly in a similar manner, reflected in the fact they were sixth in MLS for total progressive passes last season, but they didn’t maintain that progress for long enough or often enough during games.

Pressing can lead to possession, and in turn, better quality possession play should make pressing in advantageous positions higher up the field easier when required.

It is easier said than done, but New York City have some quality, technically gifted young players who should be able to challenge themselves to work more efficiently and more often in attacking areas, smaller spaces, and in closer combat with opposition defenders.

Stepping out of their comfort zone should lead to more possession higher up the field, a higher defensive line to help shift the whole thing up the field, and higher pressing to create turnovers in areas that could lead to chances on goal. There are some signs of it already.

Maybe then, once it all clicks, this team that has struggled to score enough goals to allow them to challenge at the top of MLS will start to find the net.

James Nalton

Freelance world soccer writer for Forbes, Guardian US, World Soccer magazine, FotMob, the BBC, and the Morning Star newspaper.

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