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Five Points | Opening Day Defeat

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New York City Football Club kicked-off the first game of 2023 with a trip to Nashville SC.

The Boys in Blue fell to defeat at GEODIS Park, courtesy of goals in either half from Walker Zimmerman and Jacob Shaffelburg.

Here are Five Points from Saturday’s clash…

New Blues

The trip to Tennessee saw two new recruits make their debuts in Bronx Blue, in Braian Cufré and Mitja Ilenič.

Having impressed in his first week of preseason, Cufrė was thrust straight into the starting XI, completing an impressive 70 minutes in which he contributed in both defense and attack.

The 26-year-old almost marked his debut with a first-half goal before setting up Thiago Andrade with a neat through-ball shortly after the restart.

It was a solid first display from the Argentine, earning deserved acclaim from Head Coach Nick Cushing after the game, who hailed the defender's 'quality.'

Youngster Ilenič was introduced for the final minutes and although he had little time to make an impact, earned valuable gametime, after showing glimpses of his exciting talent throughout preseason.

Keeping Positive

Much of the pre-match discussion had centered around who would don the gloves, following the arrival of off-season recruit Matt Freese.

While Luis Barraza had been a long-standing back-up to former number one Sean Johnson, boasting a strong knowledge of the NYCFC set-up and style, Freese holds plenty of MLS experience – and both fans and journalists had analyzed their qualities to predict who would line-up in goal in Tennessee.

Cushing and his backroom staff opted to field Barraza, and the 26-year-old impressed between the sticks, producing a number of fine saves – most notably a sixth-minute stop to deny Shaffelburg what looked a certain opener.

The Head Coach was full of praise for the shot-stopper in his post-match press conference, but had noted before the game he anticipated a ‘shootout’ between the two goalkeepers throughout the first half of the campaign, as they vie for a starting spot.

Barraza did his chances no harm in staking his claim for a regular place.

Switching It Up

City produced a much-improved performance in the second half, inspired by Cushing’s half-time team talk and a notable tactical switch.

The Head Coach opted to shift Thiago Andrade into a more central role, freeing Talles Magno into a wide position, and the swap almost paid immediate dividends with the visitors’ best chance of the game, as Andrade was released down the left, beat Joe Willis to the pass and squared for Matías Pellegrini. 

All that lacked was the finish, but it was a glimpse of just what the team are capable of on the attacking front. As Cushing admitted, it needed to be a more regular occurrence.

“We changed the shape in possession,” Cushing explained. “We brought Tayvon [Gray] inside, which gave us complete control of the first line. Then we brought Keaton [Parks] down and brought Talles inside.

“It was just because we went one side with Cufré, and the other side with Gabriel Pereira, and it gave us complete control in the game – it got Talles on the ball more, facing up and dribbling with the ball. I think when we are at our best is when we’re involving Talles Magno.

“We just didn’t create the moment. We need to be better when we carry so much of the ball, and we have so much of the ball in their final third. We need to make sure we hurt teams.”

Centurion

Despite the result, the game proved a memorable one for Keaton Parks, as the midfielder earned his 100th MLS appearance, and clocked his first 90 minutes of competitive action since June.

Following a steady preseason, the midfielder was named in the starting XI, as he continues his welcome comeback.

The 25-year-old had spoken in preseason of his desire to shine in 2023, having suffered two injury-disrupted seasons in 2021 and 2022.

Though he admitted it will take time for him to reach peak level of performance, the two milestones notched in Tennessee will have marked pleasing stepping stones.

With a full game under his belt, he has a platform to build on, focusing on looking forward, rather than back.

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Lesson One

The first game of the season is always a challenging one. With rustiness in match fitness, new faces learning the ropes, and little momentum, it is rare to find a perfect opening day display, but Cushing and co. will be encouraged by the second half showing.

The Head Coach and Barraza both spoke after the game of the importance of looking ahead, learning the lessons from Saturday’s game and being proactive in focusing on how to put things right over the next week in training, before next weekend’s trip to Chicago.

Barraza reflected: “We lost this game, but we’ve got a long season ahead of us. It wouldn’t be smart for us to get down and feel sorry for ourselves after this result.

“A lot can carry over to the Chicago game in terms of the way we want to possess, the way we want to build. We have a whole week to nail down what we want to work on. We always want to play our style, our brand, and we want to win doing so.

“It’s one game out of 34, 35 plus postseason. There’s definitely a strong motivator for us to really build this week, fix what we didn’t do, what we did wrong. Then we’ll move onto Chicago and try to seal some points there.”

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