Nick Cushing says his New York City squad are recharged and raring to go ahead of Saturday’s visit of Philadelphia Union.
The Boys in Blue return to home soil for the first time in more than a month, refreshed by a welcome bye weekend break, after a challenging five-game road stretch.
With ten days between games, the squad were able to switch off mentally and physically, buoyed by a last-gasp equalizer at Orlando City SC last time out, and Cushing says the team have returned fresh and fueled by an insatiable hunger for points.
“I’m really pleased with how the guys came back,” the Head Coach said. “We gave them a few days and they came back really fresh, and really motivated. It was almost the perfect timing for us.
“Training week has been really good – the mood is excellent in the group, and the motivation is there.
“The initial focus was rest and recovery. After a busy period, entering a bye week was a good opportunity to get rested, and to make sure those guys who played a lot of minutes recover really well.
“It was physical and mental rest that we needed from a lot of focus, a lot of learning, a lot of listening, and a lot of trying to develop this team – the new team that we have [built] along the way. It was an opportunity to switch off mentally and of course, physically because of the run we had been on.
“The next stage is to reflect and review. I said we would know the capability of this team when we returned from five away games. We have to look at why we played really well in some of the games and didn’t win, why we didn’t get any points in some of those games we should have, and why we showed resilience and really good fight in the second half of Orlando.
“There have been many positives, many negatives – and of course, four losses and a draw is something we want to put right. We have an opportunity now. We have three home games now, starting with a difficult one against Philadelphia to make sure we put some points on the board.
“I would have been worried if the players would have come back without still one eye on those results, because we have to look at them, we have to remember them – we can't just forget that we didn't get any points in four, and that we then fought for a point.
“But we also are not going to forget that we went on a really good run at home. There are many areas we need to develop as a team but we're a new team, a young team. The guys are working incredibly hard to develop in those areas, so it was a great opportunity to switch off but for sure we’re switched back on now.”
City face familiar foe in Philadelphia with the two sides having met on 20 occasions competitively in total over the years.
The Union typically play in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, but have switched to a three-man defense in recent fixtures.
Anticipating a difficult encounter against a side in impressive form in the Eastern Conference, Cushing asserts his side will be prepared for whatever line-up they face, eager to return to winning ways.
“They play 4-4-2 diamond but in the last few games, they’ve played three at the back so they’re not so ingrained in their style,” he continued.
“We played them the year before and they played almost a different shape to 4-4-2 diamond. Teams will always evolve in their systems based on players they have available – we changed our system last year based on a lot of injuries, and it was really successful for us.
“You have to have a team that understands the principles of how you play, and the methods, and the ideas that you want, the identity that you want as a team, and within that, system plays a very small part of that. You can see we've played a system this year, we played a system last year, we've played very similar.
“I think for us, it's about how we become the best team that we can be, whether it's at the start of the game, or bringing guys off the bench… you have to find the right balance.
“I used three in the back against Cincinnati. Will I use it again? Yeah, maybe we'll use it this weekend. It's a really effective system against 4-4-2 diamond, but they’ve played three at the back for the last few games, so who knows what they'll play?”
Inside Training | Nick Cushing: "We Can Be A Real Special Team"
Reflecting on the season so far – a mixed campaign for the City Boys with contrasting fortunes at home and away – Cushing insists his side’s ultimate target remains the same: to build a squad that will compete for silverware.
“My expectation hasn’t changed – the aims and goals of the team haven’t changed,” he added. “There is no way I can go into that locker room and say: ‘Listen guys, we’ve changed out a few players, we’re a little bit younger than we were, so this year we’re happy to finish ninth and play the playing game.’
“That’s not the focus of the team, and they would kill me if I went in and said that to them. The guys are super motivated, super hungry and incredibly frustrated when we don’t get points.
“I also think we have to be realistic... The work level is that of a team that wants to continue exactly what we’ve done over this last two or three years. My expectations and goals haven’t changed, I’ll say again, but I do think we’ve got to be realistic in the sense of how quickly and at what level we can put expectations.
“A good example is: Luis Barraza is playing really well, and is exceeding all expectations, but it’s unfair to put the expectation level that we had on Sean Johnson on Luis Barraza.
“The most pleasing part with a new team, when changing the age profile of the group, we have to rebuild the culture, the resilience, the maturity of the team, the chemistry, the cohesion of the guys…
“We have to make sure those guys who had leaders above them (Keaton Parks and James Sands, who had Alex Callens and Maxi Moralez above them) have to step up, so we have to put more expectation on them, whilst they concentrate on their performance... We have a goalkeeper who was a number two that is now a number one, who also has a guy really chomping on his heels that wants to be number one behind him…
“Guys are having to put an incredible amount in to make sure we retain performance level. We’re always going to have opinions on whether we play well, whether we play badly, whether we play the right way or the wrong way… I get it.
“I’m really pleased with where we’re at. I still want players to improve in certain areas, and those guys know that. As a team, we have to really improve. The pleasing thing is: they’re incredibly committed, they’re working incredibly hard to give our Football Club exactly what we expect – and that is a team that plays good football, that attacks the game well, that creates goal chances and scores, and wins football games, and ultimately, fights for trophies.
“We’re making steps, but Saturday will tell us whether we are taking steps forward. We don’t want to make steps backwards – we want to make steps forwards, and we want to make them really quickly.”
Tickets for NYCFC's visit of Philadelphia Union this Saturday are available. Don't miss your chance to secure your seat at Citi Field.
Sign-up for MLS Season Pass on the Apple TV app - and never miss a moment of the 2023 season. Stream every regular-season, playoff, and Leagues Cup match. Every Screen. No Blackouts.