The first match for yet another new regime is upon us and the Fire are in need of a good start. The team has compiled a 1-7-4 record in the month of March over the last three seasons combined and that can't be repeated this year with 5 of the first 7 contests at home. The Fire also haven't won a season opener since a 3-1 victory against FC Dallas opened the 2009 campaign. Martin Tomszak takes a look at New York City FC and thinks the opportunity is there for Veljko Paunovic to become only the second Fire coach to win his first game with the club. Bob Bradley is the other.
Read through for bonus MLS picks from the Fire Confidential staff.
What Are They All About? NYCFC
And so it begins. After lifting the Simple Invitational trophy and remaining undefeated in official preseason matches, Veljko Paunovic and the Chicago Fire will begin the 2016 MLS season against New York City FC this Sunday. While supporters will take heart in the fact that the Fire have been working on fitness, tactics, style of play and team bonding for the last couple of months, the true test of preparation will come when Armando Villareal blows the starting whistle. While putting extreme emphasis on one specific match is not often conducive to evaluating a team’s success, the match against NYCFC is an exception.
Nelson Rodriguez and the Fire front office have painted a picture of revolutionary change. They’ve essentially started from scratch with the roster. They’ve revamped the entire coaching staff. They’ve alluded to the glory days with a return to the white stripe on the kit. They’ve adopted terms like community and family, and ultimately they’ve asked for faith, patience, trust and all forms of relational clichés. Now the public will get its first glimpse of the Paunovic/Rodriguez team when it counts. While one result does not make or break a season, the tension, anxiety, hope and expectations of the city are ready to boil over. Will Paunovic’s name be sung until the early hours of Monday morning or will the city of Chicago see a continuation of the struggle that has haunted their club of late?
NYCFC Preseason Form Guide: 5-1
Previous Match: A 2-1 win against KR Reykjavik.
Formation: 4-3-3; Saunders; Matarrita, White, Brilliant, Iraola; McNamara, Pirlo, Diskerud; Taylor, Villa, Shelton
Strengths: As NYCFC heads into Sunday’s match they find themselves in a situation that is eerily similar to Chicago’s. The dream start in MLS did not materialize for the expansion franchise co-owned by two success demanding sports giants, Manchester City and the New York Yankees. Their failure to make the playoffs, a goal that was envisioned at the outset, meant that changes were inevitable and France legend Patrick Vieira was given the reins at NYCFC. A storied career that included time with Arsenal, Inter, and Juventus ended with a short stint at Man City and the extension of an offer to coach the Man City Reserves. He is a natural starting point for our strengths section.
Coaching: Many people seem to think that foreign coaches simply cannot succeed in this league. While we won’t focus on it too much, the facts simply do not back this up. Sure you have the comical examples of people like Ruud Gullit and Carlos de Los Cobos, but look at what Adrian Heath, Oscar Pareja and Carl Robinson managed to do just last year. And let’s not forget that home grown talent like Jason Kreis and Pablo Mastroeni failed miserably. We’ll rubbish these preconceived notions and say that Vieira’s experience with the youth squad at Man City, the staff he has surrounded himself with, and his impeccable understanding of the game will lead NYCFC to have a considerably better season than last year.
Vieira coached the Man City “Elite Development Squad” from 2013 until this past offseason. His time there saw the squad win the Premier League International Cup in the 2014/15 season but more importantly saw a shift in the reserve’s philosophy from simply keeping the fringe first team players fit to a focus on youth development. As he shifts to Man City’s reserve reserves in New York he has brought this focus with him. In some draft day shenanigans, NYCFC acquired the Fire’s first round draft pick Jack Harrison (19) before also picking up Mikey Lopez on a free transfer (23), Ronald Matarrita (21) from Alajualense, and Federico Bravo (22) on loan from Boca Juniors. Vieira will hope this injection of youth well revitalize a squad that looked old and stagnant at times last season.
To further the success of his long term vision Vieira has surrounded himself with a staff that has a youth focus as well as a knowledge of the North American soccer scene. Vieira brought coach Christian Lattanzio with him from City, a man who also worked alongside Fabio Capello and the England National team. Former USMNT U-18/U-20 coach Javier Perez was also brought in and former Philadelphia Union Technical Director/Assistant Coach Rob Vartughian remains with the NYCFC staff for a second consecutive year. It could be a case of “Who’s doing it better?” when the two future focused teams meet this weekend.
Style of Play: Vieira’s understanding of the game largely comes from his legendary status as the perfect midfielder. In his playing days he was known for his technical ability, his tactical awareness, vision, passing, tough tackling, and perhaps most importantly a level of fitness which allowed him to continuously be a nuisance all over the pitch. If preseason provides any sort of insight we’ve learned that he is stressing all of those things to his players. No matter the result, Sunday’s match will be an absolute battle in the midfield. The Fire will come with a high tempo, high pressure, high speed tactical plan but Vieira’s men will be calm cool and collected as they try to control possession, build slowly but surely and set the tone with a few tough tackles. With eleven midfielders in the roster and only three “midfield” spots available on the team sheet Vieira may have a selection headache but he also has adaptability and competition for places.
A single preseason loss to Cincinnati will have New York fans hopeful but they’ll take even more comfort in the fact the NYCFC has managed to begin solidifying an identity that was missing for most of last season. Goals have come from all over the field and all over the roster. Vieira’s tactics have seen the players grow in understanding of the ebbs and flows of the game. The midfield contracts and expands to accommodate a constant movement of the ball in attempts to keep possession (we’ll see how this plays out at Yankee stadium) and David Villa’s fellow forwards have shown a knack for finishing in preseason, something the DP was left to do himself last year. Four clean sheets in six matches also has to bode well for a side that was atrocious in defense last year. We’ll see just how far the blue side of New York has progressed on Sunday.
Weaknesses: MLS has proven it is a league where quick turnaround can happen, but that doesn’t mean that it will. The harsh reality of the situation is that both NYCFC and Chicago have a lot to do if they want to overcome their disastrous 2015 campaigns. Let’s take a closer looks at the hill that New York has to climb.
Defense: NYCFC and Chicago were tied for the league’s worst goals against average last season. Both sides watched the ball tumble into the back of the net 58 times throughout 2015. Yes, you read that correctly 58. City shipped off five defenders and did not attempt to renegotiate goalkeeper Ryan Meara’s contract. They did find four replacements that look beyond adequate on paper and as mentioned above they did well in preseason. However, only one of their opponents in February was an MLS side and even then Montreal was missing Didier Drogba. Their incoming internationals could face a harsh welcome to the states when competitive matches start. Starting off the campaign against David Accam’s speed and Gilberto’s physical presence can’t be ideal.
DPs You Say?: While we can leave the teasing to NYRB fans, NYCF’s DP choices do necessitate a closer look. David Villa’s 18 goals from last season speak to his success on the pitch but his criticizing of MLS, his fellow teammates, the coaching staff, the field at Yankee stadium, etc. etc. etc. cannot be productive for a growing club. As they enter their sophomore year looking to build a sense of identity they’ll be hoping that Villa’s attitude issues are behind him but something tells us they aren’t.
The issues with Pirlo and Lampard are a bit more complicated. Both signings seem to have been disastrous from a soccer standpoint and we’re not sure how either player fits into Vieira’s system. Everything from the way in which Lampard was “signed” and his late arrival to the fact that he seems to be donning the NYCFC polo and Rolex combo on match days more often than the jersey and cleat combo reeks of failure. At the age of 37 he has only started nine matches for NYCFC and it will be interesting to see whether Vieira gives him an automatic start because of his clout and price tag or if the youth movement is for real. If it is the former, we feel that he’ll be a waste of space in their midfield against Chicago.
While Pirlo’s 12 starts are justified by the fact that he didn’t arrive until July NYCFC fans will be worried that he looked off the pace, tired, frustrated, and was constantly being muscled off the ball in those appearances. He scored his first goal in an NYCFC shirt in last week’s final preseason fixture. That certainly wasn’t the return that NYCFC’s owners were hoping for. If Pirlo starts on Sunday for reasons similar to Lampard then Paunovic’s system could catch him napping.
Prediction: There is no other option for the Fire aside from victory. Chicago 5-1 NYCFC. Paunovic and the Men in Red will prove that preseason was not a fluke and that they are ready to fight for the supporters, for the club and for the city. Goal scorers: Gilberto x2, Accam, Calistri, and Polster. Andrea Pirlo will remind Chicago that a high pressure style can result in dangerous set pieces as he adds a consolation free kick goal coolly put away with his cane in one hand and a glass of ’72 Domaine Leroy in the other.
New York City FC
Frank Lampard - QUESTIONABLE
Jefferson Mena - QUESTIONABLE
RJ Allen - QUESTIONABLE
Jack Harrison - OUT
Connor Brandt - OUT
Eric Gehrig - OUT (recovery)
David Accam -QUESTIONABLE (right hip strain)
Matt Polster - QUESTIONABLE (right lower leg strain)
MLS season predictions
Otherwise known as a chance for us to get everything totally wrong.....
Guillermo Rivera Jeff Krause Martin Tomszak
1. Toronto FC 1. New York Red Bulls 1. New York Red Bulls
2. New York Red Bulls 2. Columbus Crew 2. Toronto FC
3. Columbus Crew 3. Montreal Impact 3. Columbus Crew
4. Montreal Impact 4. New England Revolution 4. New England Revolution
5. New England Revolution 5. Toronto FC 5. Chicago Fire
6. Orlando City SC 6. Chicago Fire 6. Orlando City SC
7. Chicago Fire 7. New York City FC 7. Montreal Impact
8. New York City FC 8. DC United 8. DC United
9. DC United 9. Orlando City SC 9. Philadelphia Union
10. Philadelphia Union 10. Philadelphia Union 10. New York City FC
1. Vancouver Whitecaps 1. FC Dallas 1. Vancouver Whitecaps
2. FC Dallas 2. Portland Timbers 2. FC Dallas
3. Portland Timbers 3. Sporting Kansas City 3. Portland Timbers
4. Los Angeles Galaxy 4. Seattle Sounders 4. Real Salt Lake
5. Seattle Sounders 5. Los Angeles Galaxy 5. Seattle Sounders
6. Sporting Kansas City 6. Vancouver Whitecaps 6. Los Angeles Galaxy
7. Real Salt Lake 7. Houston Dynamo 7. Sporting Kansas City
8. Houston Dynamo 8. Real Salt Lake 8. Houston Dynamo
9. Colorado Rapids 9. San Jose Earthquakes 9. San Jose Earthquakes
10. San Jose Earthquakes 10. Colorado Rapids 10. Colorado Rapids
Vancouver Whitecaps FC Dallas New York Red Bulls
MLS Cup Final
FC Dallas over Toronto FC FC Dallas over Columbus Vancouver over Toronto FC