New York City FC made a stuttering start to the 2023 Major League Soccer season, losing its opening game 2-0 to Nashville and drawing 1-1 with Chicago Fire.
The MLS schedule handed head coach Nick Cushing and his team two away games to kick off the new season, travelling first to Tennessee and then to Illinois, returning to New York with just one point.
The home opener against Inter Miami was more encouraging, and that’s perhaps no surprise given NYCFC regularly has one of the best home records in the league.
Despite worries about the departure of many key players in the past year, including the spine of the team from goalkeeper Sean Johnson to goalscorer Taty Castellanos, there was something more familiar about the team’s play once it was back in the Bronx.
NYCFC created a few chances against Inter Miami, with an expected goals score of 1.45 – 0.30 in its favor, indicating the 1-0 win was deserved. The low quality of chances created by Miami was also encouraging from a defensive standpoint.
The most recent game, against D.C. United at home, showed further improvement. The team created four big chances, scoring three of them.
Talles Magno looked a little livelier and slightly more comfortable in the center-forward position as he moves inside from the left wing in an attempt to replace Castellanos. He scored with a poacher’s finish before goals from Santi Rodríguez and Thiago Andrade helped seal the win.
D.C. United netted twice, but the NYCFC defense limited the opposition xG to 0.86 which was another promising sign.
NYCFC joined the league as an expansion team in 2015, and since the 2017 season, it rarely loses at home.
The Bronx has become something of a fortress. 2017 was the last time NYCFC lost more than once at Yankee Stadium during the regular season, when Orlando and Portland both picked up wins there.
In 2018 the club lost a semifinal first-leg in the MLS Cup Playoffs to eventual MLS Cup winners Atlanta United, but since then has only lost one game per season at the home it shares with the New York Yankees baseball team.
NYCFC has also played ten matches in Queens—seven MLS games at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets baseball team, and three U.S. Open Cup games at Belson Stadium. The team has three wins from three at Belson in the Open Cup, including a Round of 16 win against New England Revolution in 2022.
The only time NYCFC has lost in Queens was a 2019 playoff match against Toronto FC at Citi Field. This might be an encouraging omen for the club as it plans to build a soccer-specific stadium of its own in the Willets Point area of the borough by 2027.
NYCFC’s “home” record across the Hudson River in New Jersey, at Red Bull Arena where local rivals New York Red Bulls play, is less impressive—nine wins, five losses, and two draws in regular season games. But overall, regardless of the venue, NYCFC has a very impressive home record since it began to gain momentum around 2017.
In total, in its 31 games in other home stadiums in the New York / Tri-state area away from the Bronx, including Red Bull Arena and Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, NYCFC has won 17 games, drawn seven, and lost seven. It has also lost the one home game it played at another Bronx venue, Coffey Field, 1-0 to New York Cosmos in the Open Cup in 2016.
It’s clear that NYCFC does well in New York, and does particularly well on baseball fields.
The team playing most of its home games on a baseball field at Yankee Stadium has been a contentious issue for some time. Clubs for whom soccer-specific stadiums were a requirement for entering the league, or others who believe the pitch is too small and confusing on which to play, will criticise the current situation at NYCFC, but many fields throughout the league offer certain challenges.
Variables include things like weather conditions, field size, atmosphere, spectator proximity, altitude, and playing surface. Every MLS team should be able to draw upon something to try to give it an advantage in home games.
It could be argued that playing on a synthetic pitch is much worse than playing on a baseball field. This weekend the game between Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles FC at the NFL stadium, Lumen Field, was talked up by MLS pundits ahead of the game as the equivalent of a Liverpool versus Manchester City Premier League match.
Even before the game started, as the players walked out onto the FieldTurf pitch, it became clear this was not the case.
With MLS being broadcast more clearly than ever in high definition on Apple
So even at the top level of MLS—at a home game for the team that last year became the first from MLS to win the Concacaf Champions League—there is an element of adaptation, unique home field conditions, and variety that makes the league so challenging.
And why shouldn’t soccer clubs use their home-field conditions to their advantage? There is nothing wrong with adaptations in a team’s style of play to suit its environment, or the altering of field dimensions (where possible) to suit a preferred style.
The range of field dimensions set by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) is surprisingly broad. The length of the touchline ranges from a minimum of 100 yards to a maximum of 130 yards, while the minimum for the goal line is 50 yards to a maximum of 100 yards.
This can potentially make for varying pitch sizes, but IFAB also indicates that competitions can set their own parameters for minimum and maximum size within these limits.
MLS sets its own minimum at 110 yards for the touchline and 70 yards for the goalline—the size of Yankee Stadium’s soccer field. This is the same as IFAB’s requirements for international matches, which suggests it is the accepted standard at the highest level. So, in terms of field size, Yankee Stadium could even host international soccer games.
There is no doubt the field is on the small side, and its layout within a baseball park can almost lead to optical illusions, but some visiting teams can, or could, use it to their advantage too.
It is no surprise that the last two teams to defeat NYCFC at Yankee Stadium are Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls—teams that prioritise direct, swift attacking play and intense pressing. Those attacks become even quicker on a smaller pitch, and a smaller area can be advantageous to certain types of pressing soccer.
It took NYCFC a couple of seasons to work it out, but good technical players who are able to control the ball and keep possession in tight spaces, combined with some of the quickness and pressing seen in the play of the Union and the Red Bulls, can make all the difference on a smaller field.
Incidentally, NYCFC’s record at the two other MLS stadiums with a length at the minimum 110 yards—Portland and Cincinnati—is won three, drawn two, and lost one, with one of those draws being the 2021 MLS Cup Final NYCFC went on to win on penalties.
There are many contributing factors to a team establishing a good record at home, including using its surroundings intentionally to gain an advantage or adapting to make the best of what it has available, but the main one is being good at soccer, which NYCFC has been in recent years.
The new-look NYCFC will have to convince spectators this remains the case following the departure of numerous key players in the past year, but early signs in 2023 suggest there will at least remain plenty of cheer for fans in the five boroughs.