NYCFC 4-0 North Carolina + D.C. Preview: Open Auditions

NYCFC’s first ever Open Cup win was a talent show for its all-American backups.

Last week, NYCFC finally won a U.S. Open Cup game, cruising past the USL’s North Carolina FC to secure tonight’s fifth-round date against D.C. United. With a depleted roster and positions up for grabs, the moment was ripe for Dome Torrent’s fringe players to step into the spotlight and make their case.

Like any good boy band, there was the blonde bombshell, the hometown kid, the shy guy with long locks, and a heartthrob best known by his initials. Before tonight’s encore, let’s play Simon Cowell to New York City’s young Americans and break down their battle with the artists formerly known as the RailHawks.

With Sebastien Ibeagha the only available center back, NYCFC’s preferred back five was untenable, but switching to a nominal 4-3-3 didn’t stop Dome from pushing his fullbacks upfield in the buildup. New midfielders Tony Rocha and JPT (yes, 19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres has a name; no, it doesn’t sound as cool) killed it as makeshift outside backs. Sure, the USL opponent helped, but their commitment to getting up the wing and playing high-quality crosses drove the attack, leading directly to the own goal that put NYCFC ahead in the first half and Keaton Parks’ back-post header in the second. The verdict: promising versatility on both flanks, and encouraging to see that fullback overlaps aren’t limited to the 3-4-3.

The fullbacks’ attacking pressure was made possible by 17-year-old homegrown Justin Haak’s play as a deep-lying defensive midfielder. The Brooklyn native provided needed cover in front of Ibeagha and Anton Tinnerholm, who filled in out of position at center back. With deft knockdowns and feints, Haak helped retain possession and limited counterattacks. His short passing at the pivot helped unlock the front five without dragging him out of position. Judges’ review: a solid performance in the style of Season 3’s Homegrown Idol winner James Sands.

Hometown kid Daniel Bedoya, playing to a friendly crowd at St. John’s University, was the weakest link of the four Americans getting their shot. To his credit, his workrate in midfield was high, he was unafraid of contact, and he covered well for teammates, but he also hung them out to dry with hospital balls and generally overexcited passing. Every team’s got a place for a bench guy who’s passionate and committed to outworking the opponent, but Bedoya’s first minutes for NYCFC didn’t move him up the pecking order, and he probably won’t see more unless injuries hit hard.

Every talent show has a breakout performer, and last week’s was Keaton Parks. The Texas kid (by way of Benfica) has had a frustrating first few months on the bench, but he seized his moment—outside the magician Maxi Moralez, he was the best player on the field. As usual, Keaton’s body positioning and guile helped him keep possession under pressure and avoid costly mistakes. His first goal took full advantage of his 6’4″ frame, showing off an aerial threat that sets him apart from, well, pretty much every other NYCFC player. But it was pure hustle and skill that earned him the brace, as he sprinted three quarters of the field in the 76th minute, zooming past at least ten players, to calmly slot the ball home with his instep for NYCFC’s cleanest goal of the year.

Stick around for Keaton’s 3-0 goal in the 76th minute.

There were other performers on stage that night. Designated Players Moralez and Jesús Medina got to show some tactical fluidity as they ventured out wide, in the channel, and deep to build passing angles. Thanks to consistent support from the overlapping fullbacks and flexibility from Parks and Bedoya, Medina had his best game this year. He still had some unproductive possession and silly mistakes, but it was nice to see the Paraguayan put in some positive minutes and get on the scoresheet after a rough winter had landed him on the bench.

Taty Castellanos, playing the frontman, didn’t get in on the goalfest but still rocked out. The young Argentine was a wrecking ball of energy and constant pressure, bullying opposition center backs on and off the ball and consistently finding room to shoot. If it wasn’t a one-off, NYCFC might have a quality backup striker for Héber after all.

The competition gets fiercer tonight against D.C. United, who eliminated Philadelphia last week while showing off some young talent of their own in homegrowns Antonio Bustamante, Jalen Robinson, and Griffin Yow. With quite a few starters still out, a few of Dome’s young reserves should get a curtain call in the, ahem, hunt for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. As NYCFC works to develop its first star, the U.S. Open Cup marks an important opportunity for the club’s long term development as the kids get their chance to shine. ❧

Image: Allan Grant, Ricky Nelson