NYCFC 5-2 Cincinnati: Maxi Moralez is Magic

How NYCFC’s playmaker led five attackers to the best offensive performance in club history.

It’s incredible what Maxi Moralez can do when put in the right spot. With several key players missing Thursday night in the Bronx, and his best bud Pep sitting in the club suite, Dome Torrent trotted out a lineup that put nearly every attacking player in the five boroughs on the pitch. The result was worthy of the coach’s old Man City days: NYCFC stuck five in the back of the correct net (and two more in the back of the wrong one) in a 5-2 rout of a struggling FC Cincinnati.

The offensive outburst produced the club’s highest expected goal output in team history and the most goals scored since the summer of 2016. But it was also only the second time NYCFC has scored more than one at home this season. Why the sudden explosion?

Certainly the opponent had a lot to do with it. Cincinnati’s inaugural season has been anything but encouraging. Heading into Thursday night’s game they’d lost eight of nine, had already fired their first head coach, and were missing several key players from an already shaky expansion roster.

But NYCFC’s offensive barrage was also thanks to Dome’s hyperattacking 4-1-4-1, which put Maxi in position to create behind a bunch of forward options—and boy did he use them.

With Alex Ring sitting deep, just in front of the center backs, Maxi and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi operated as central midfielders, each occasionally dropping back to receive the ball and bring it forward. Alexandru Mitriţă and Taty Castellanos played slightly higher and wider, hugging the sidelines until play entered the final third, at which point they’d cut in to combine with Héber’s hold up play and Maxi and Isi’s runs into the half spaces. On the game’s opening goal, Maxi drove to the end line and sent in a cross just outside the reach of goalkeeper Spencer Richey, where only Mitri could get to it, and the rout was on.

Six minutes later, Moralez received the ball on the attacking left side in way too much space and knifed his way into the center, giving Anton Tinnerholm’s backside run time to develop before providing the piercing pass that unlocked the second goal. Just twelve minutes after that, it was—who else?—Maxi who launched the buildup to the third goal with a beautiful longball onto the forehead of Castellanos, who headed it down to Héber, who played it in stride to a sprinting Tinnerholm, who found Tajouri-Shradi with plenty of room to pop off a near-post rocket for his fourth goal of the season.

Cincinnati’s shambolic defensive organization was on full display here. First, watch left back Justin Hoyte and center back Forrest Lasso allow Taty to split them and head down a pressure-free header to an unmarked Héber. Next, instead of closing down Tinnerholm when the ball swings out wide, Hoyte passes him off to the midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma, who’s trailing the play by a good 15 yards. By the time Ledesma catches up, he’s vacated a space at the top of the box for Tajouri-Shradi to stroll into and crank a shot with his preferred left foot. What Hoyte is trying to accomplish in this sequence is a total headscratcher.

By the half-hour mark, Maxi Moralez had orchestrated three goals in three different ways, and he didn’t slow down in the second half. For NYCFC’s gorgeous fourth he found Héber over the top of the defense, stirring memories of Andrea Pirlo to David Villa in 2016. Maxi’s knack for finding space for runners and combining in tight quarters set up the intricate fifth and final goal, which he finished himself. The star turn was a reminder of how important Maxi is to this squad and what he’s capable of with an effective center forward in front of him. Moralez now leads all MLS starters with 0.52 assists per 96 minutes, according to American Soccer Analysis, and has a goal or assist in each of his last five games.

If the top-heavy 4-1-4-1 had a drawback, it was the patchwork back line. Short on defenders due to injuries and international call-ups, Dome moved away from his lately favored 3-4-3, bringing on utility man Tony Rocha for a serviceable shift at left back. Alex Ring dropped very deep in the defensive mid hole, sitting just in front of the center backs to play destroyer. Without a partner for cover, Ring saw his most defensive action this season: three tackles, a clearance, a block, an interception, and a ludicrous 16 recoveries.

Alex Ring was a very busy man.

The 4-1-4-1 worked great against floundering Cincinnati, but will the formation stick around? It definitely packs a punch, and admit it, winning games 5-4 or 4-3 sounds like fun. Dome’s hinted that he may continue to tinker away from the 3-4-3 in the short term while he’s missing pieces. As long as we’ve got Maxi running the show, you get the feeling it’ll turn out okay. ❧

Image: Arnold Weylandt, Dreamland with Chevalier Ernest Thorn