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Without key players, NYCFC still moves atop Eastern Conference

Down four regular starters due to injuries and international call-ups, NYCFC still won a fifth consecutive game to move into first place in the East.

Sep 7, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gill (22) plays the ball against New York City FC forward Jesus Medina (19) during the second half at Yankee Stadium. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

BRONX, N.Y. — Heber has been a game-changer for New York City FC, but he’s sidelined three to four weeks with a quad injury.

It’s been viewed as a devastating blow for NYCFC’s hopes of finishing atop the Eastern Conference. The club is 12-2-3 when Heber scores, a stat captain Alex Ring read during the week.

“A lot of what I read this week — Heber’s out — I saw our record, and we’re not going to be there anymore,” Ring said.

And yet, in the first of what will likely be seven of the final eight regular-season games without the Brazilian forward, NYCFC in fact moved into first place in the East following a 2-1 win over the New England Revolution.

The goal-scoring hero on that day was Jesus Medina, the much-maligned Paraguayan Young Designated Player, who has played a little less than 500 total minutes this season in 14 appearances and four starts.

“I couldn’t be happier for Jesus because he hasn’t shown his anger whatsoever,” Ring said. “He’s tried to put his head down and work and good things happen. It’s like I say, you stay positive, mistakes happen, but that’s the only way out.”

Johnson returns, but sits

Sean Johnson was released from the United States men’s national team following a 3-0 loss to Mexico in an international friendly Friday night — a match in which he didn’t play — so it was assumed NYCFC’s top-choice goalkeeper would be in the net for a critical match against the Revs Saturday afternoon.

Instead, Brad Stuver stepped in, as he did when Johnson was away with the USMNT during the Concacaf Gold Cup, with Luis Barraza serving as the backup.

NYCFC coach Dome Torrent explained his reasoning was two-fold: Johnson didn’t return home from MetLife Stadium after the game against Mexico until 2 a.m. and Stuver trained well all week while Johnson was away.

“When I say everybody deserves to play, I have confidence with Brad and Luis,” Torrent said. “I show them how important it is, for me, everybody. Not just Sean, and Maxi Moralez. We will miss Maxi Moralez for the next game against Toronto because of five yellow cards.”

Ibeagha ‘perfect’

Heber and Johnson weren’t the only regular starters missing Saturday. NYCFC was also without central defender Alex Callens, who is with the Peruvian national team. It was yet another example of the next man up.

That player was Sebastien Ibeagha, who put in a Man of the Match-worthy shift before coming off for Medina in a tactical substitution, according to Torrent.

“Seb played amazing. Seb played amazing. I changed Seb because I needed another winger/striker, but Seb was perfect tonight,” Torrent said. “I explained to him the change is because we need another player on the pitch.”

Ibeagha had one slip — literally —that provided the space needed for Juan Fernando Caicedo to score the opening goal inside two minutes, but he bounced back to earn his coach’s praise.

“It’s good, but at the same time I know what my role is and just kind of do what I need to do for  the team,” Ibeagha said. “It’s always good to get praise and stuff like that, but my shift is just to make the team better and keep going on the road we’re going.”

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