What Are They All About? NYCFC
In the 92nd minute of this past weekend’s Chicago Fire match there was an aura of anticipation that could be felt around Toyota Park. To no one’s surprise, Veljko Paunovic and his charges obliged expectations by conceding a late equalizer to DC United. There wasn’t a reaction of deflation anywhere other than on the field. Perhaps some of the players still believed the result was attainable or perhaps they saw their fleeting chances of returning next season vanish in the chilly September wind. Either way, the march towards a forgone conclusion continues this Friday as the team flies to New York to take on NYCFC at Yankee Stadium.
The two teams are on completely different trajectories as the season winds down. Chicago is coming off of a three match home stint which might have vaulted them into contention for the final playoff spot had they secured nine points. However, they managed just four and have assured that they will be watching the post season from the comfort of their couches for the sixth time in seven years. On the other hand, NYCFC is three points and a favorable Columbus, Orlando, or Red Bull result away from clinching their first ever playoff berth. Patrick Vieira will be looking for some early justification by ensuring that it is his name that attains the coveted first post season appearance and you can bet that the likes of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Jack Harrison will be more than happy to oblige. Chicago has played both the role of doormat and the role of spoiler in recent memory, which will it be on Friday?
NYCFC Form Guide (Last 5 matches): D-L-W-L-W
Previous Match: A 2-2 home draw against FC Dallas.
Formation: 4-3-3; Saunders; Allen, Brilliant, Mena, Matarrita; Lampard, Iraola, Pirlo; Harrison, Villa, McNamara
Strengths: This is the third and final meeting between the two sides this season. A 4-3 thriller on opening day saw NYCFC leave Toyota Park with all three points and a drab 0-0 draw with more action in the stands than on the pitch followed in April. Playoff motivation is a different beast from contract motivation, let’s see where NYC has seen success.
High Intensity: In his midweek press conference Patrick Vieira said that he expects a highly organized Chicago side when the two teams meet on Friday. Whether or not Paunovic will indeed park the bus from the beginning remains to be seen, but given the last few matches the Fire will divert to this tactic at some point. Vieira’s solution was clear, NYCFC will have to emulate the high intensity start they had against Dallas. The notion of “scoring too early” doesn’t apply here; the quicker NYC can get on the score sheet, the easier the match will be for them.
In order to manage that you can assume that NYCFC will opt for a similar 4-3-3 line up as in their weekend match. Villa, Harrison, and McNamara constantly hounded the Dallas backline and the trio has already had success against Chicago in the Fire’s home opener defeat. Harrison put his skills on full display notching an assist on both of NYC’s goals against Dallas, McNamara keeps students of the game mystified with his success, and we’ll devote a section to Villa below.
Lampard, Pirlo, and Iraola have been Vieira’s preferred midfield trio as of late but with Lampard out injured we believe that NYC will opt to slot Khiry Shelton into the lineup. Look for Pirlo to orchestrate, Iraola to pivot in and out of a CAM and CDM role, and Shelton to add another speedy outlet to the high intensity plan. Ronald Matarrita and RJ Allen will also look to use the short dimensions of the pitch and their speed to help overload the flanks early on. The first 25 minutes of this match will be crucial and the Fire will need to weather an early storm if they want to leave Yankee Stadium with anything.
El Guaje: Standing in the way of the Fire’s aspirations on Friday is David Villa. You can say whatever you want on paper about setting up a game plan to absorb pressure, but with 17 goals from 57 SOG this quintessential #9 has proven he can score with even a half chance. He’ll want to secure the golden boot for himself—he’s just three goals behind BWP—and he knows that Chicago is the perfect team to grab a few against. Chicago has conceded and average of 2.4 goals per match in their last five matches so Villa won’t think twice in this one before attempting a shot.
However, he isn’t just a finisher... He makes smart runs on and off the ball as well. There were a few instances in the Dallas match where he slowed down or sped up his runs in order to draw attention away from other runners. This unique ability to read the game was perhaps most visible when he started the play on NYC’s first goal against Dallas. After spreading the ball wide he slowed down and drew two defenders centrally as McNamara and Harrison burst out to the flanks and combined for the goal. He’ll keep defenders guessing and the more scenarios that run through the heads of Chicago’s back line, the more room there is for error. Look for Villa to play a vital role in this match.
You Can’t Have the Ball: While we do not generally put much weight on possession statistics, NYCFC has averaged 61% of the possession over their last three matches. While this does not ensure success, you could argue that Chicago’s one loss from their last 14 home matches played has been largely due to their ability to create a plethora of chances, while their abysmal away form has largely come from a lack of those chances. Yes, they can create on the counter through Accam, but their goals have come from buildup play lately. The less they are on the ball in this one the more their confidence will wane.
Home is Where the Baseball Diamond Is: After a comical 2015 season that saw NYCFC lose more home matches than they won—the only team in the league to do so—this campaign has gone much better for them and they currently find themselves on a six match unbeaten run at home. This isn’t a patented Fire “undefeated” streak either; NYC has won five of those six… Perhaps they are finally embracing their diamond shaped home?
Weaknesses: Of the six teams still in the heart of the Supporters Shield race, NYCFC has struggled the most lately and there are several indicators that point to them continuing that against Chicago.
Josh Saunders: You usually don’t want to place a lot of blame on a keeper given that the backline is also responsible for goals conceded, but Josh Saunders is awful. He has conceded a league high of 52 goals from 147 shots faced. His GAA and save % are also the league highs among keepers that have started more than 20 matches. Stats don’t say it all so we’ll back it up some goal recaps.
Against Dallas Saunders was beaten at his near post by Urruti for the first. The shot was magnificent but Saunders was caught out of position and was on his heels rather than ready to spring off of his toes. The second goal came off McNamara’s inability to step with the rest of the back line in an offside trap to allow Barrios in with a chance. Saunders could have come off his line quicker and closed the angle better.
Two of New England’s goals in the previous match revealed that the keeper is prone to error. The Juan Agudelo goal saw Saunders crouching and going down early instead of staying big to give the attacker less to aim at. The assurance goal came off of a comical attempt from Saunders to sprint 16 yards and collect the ball from Agudelo’s feet despite three defenders closing him down. He didn’t have time to reposition properly as Fagundez followed up Agudelo’s blocked shot with his own.
We have no idea why he continues to start but Andre Rawles and Eirik Johansen have to be scratching their heads at their combined zero starts this season. With all of Saunders’ timing, positional, decision making, and organizational errors, we would be surprised if NYCFC didn’t make a move for a keeper in the offseason. Given that and the field dimensions, Alvarez, Solignac and DeLeeuw should shoot on sight.
My Contract Says I Don’t Have to Track Back: We’ll cut Saunders a little bit of slack and say that he can excuse some of the goals by blaming the sheer lack of tracking back by the midfield and attacking trios. McNamara at times seems to hustle back but his positioning and rashness in the tackle do not make him much use. Harrison and Villa on the other hand don’t even pretend. The attacking three had 11 successful touches in their own half against Dallas (7 of which were by McNamara), that is inexcusable given the formation and how short the field is.
Pirlo, Lampard, and Iraola make appearances in their own third but it is usually in buildup going forward. They’ll collect the ball and look to link with midfield but they combined for just 12 blocks, recoveries, and pass interceptions in their last match. NYCFC will make the playoffs but they will need to defend as a unit if they want to make a deep post season run.
Injuries: Frank Lampard joined Maxime Chanot on the injury list this week and the two will be dearly missed on Friday. Chanot added some much needed stability in his five appearances since being acquired from KV Kortrijk. Communication at the back has already been noted as an issues and Mena could be under some pressure knowing that he’s only starting because his replacement is injured.
Prediction: The Fire will keep the Eastern Conference and Supporters Shield race interesting. Chicago 3-3 NYCFC. David Accam notches a brace—becoming the first Chicago player since Damani Ralph (2003/2004) to score 10+ goals in consecutive seasons—and then Nick Labrocca subs on to clinch a late point for the visitors.