What Are They All About? NYCFC
Welcome back. The CONCACAF Gold Cup break saw the departure of many of MLS’ key players and now that the group stages are done the league is ready to kick start the second half of the season. After two and a half weeks off, the Chicago Fire will return to action against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium this coming Saturday (1:00 CT on CSN Chicago Plus). Although Toronto FC moved ahead of Chicago in the standings by earning a draw against NYCFC, the Fire could restore their lead in the Supporters Shield race should they manage a result in New York. A healthy Bastian Schweinsteiger, a well-rested David Accam, and a fully acclimated Nemnaja Nikolic await an NYCFC side aiming to make a statement in the East.
NYCFC is coming off of a home draw against Toronto which felt like a loss to some of the players and the fans. On Wednesday night, the Bronx Blues faltered at the opportunity to remain within touching distance of TFC and Chicago, meaning they will need all three points on Saturday if they wish to remain in the Supporters Shield picture. There have been times this season where NYCFC has looked like the real deal–a 3-0 away thrashing of Orlando, a 3-1 victory over high flying newcomers Atlanta, and their first ever win at Red Bull Arena–but there have also been some head scratching moments–including losses to bottom dwelling DC United and then Western Conference dumpster fire RSL.
Given the consistency of Chicago this season, this match will largely be about whether or not NYCFC shows up to play. The quality is there, the strategy is flawless on paper, and they have the ability to conjure moments of magic out of thin air. Will we witness a momentum shift in the Eastern Conference, or will it be business as usual for the Fire as their revival rolls on? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
NYCFC Form Guide (last five matches): D-L-W-W-W
Previous Result: A 2-2 home draw against TFC.
Formation: 4-3-3; Johnson; Allen, Chanot, Callens, Sweat; Moralez, Ring, Herrera; Harrison, Villa, McNamara
Strengths: When they are playing to the best of their ability there are few teams more fun to watch than NYCFC. The turnaround present since their strange expansion year has been evident on and off the pitch over the last two years and they’ll be looking to build on recent success. Let’s see where they might succeed on Saturday.
Goal Guarantee: This Bronx outfit has scored thirty-eight goals this season. Only Atlanta United have tallied more goals in league play. Furthermore, there has only been one occasion this season where Vieira’s charges have been kept scoreless–opening day away to Orlando. One can forgive them there given that it was the opening of a stadium that has gone on to be a fortress this season. Although all eyes will be on David Villa and his thirteen tallies on the season, the entire squad seemingly has the ability to finish given that eleven different players have scored for them thus far. To add to that versatility, twelve different players have tallied assists. Aside from Chicago’s meeting with TFC in August, this is sure to be the biggest challenge their stalwarts defense faces down the stretch of the season.
Team Talk: Much of the credit for NYCFC’s turnaround has to be given to head coach Patrick Vieira. There have not been many better defensive midfielders to play the game than the French international legend. He’s brought his vision, tactical astuteness, and regimented approach to NYCFC and he has been able to play puppet master in a way that not many foreign coaches have managed to in MLS. Vieira’s ability to man manage difficult personalities and youngsters alike has been a positive this season. At half time on Wednesday he told sideline reporters that the stoppage time goal meant very little to him due to the lack of consistency present in the half. Whatever he said at half time worked as NYCFC came out focused and executed his plan almost to perfection in the second half. For a team as tactically astute as Chicago, Vieira is the perfect opponent to unlock their midfield dynamism.
Whose House: Our readers knew this was coming. After spending seven seasons with Chicago it was time for both Sean Johnson and the Fire to move on from a tumultuous relationship. Johnson was rumored to not have seen eye to eye with Veljko Paunovic and his coaching staff on training methods and tactics, a disagreement that culminated in Paunovic keeping Johnson out of the eighteen due to “injury and fitness issues” while at the same time the keeper was quoted as saying his health and fitness were fine. Johnson was shipped off to his home town of Atlanta in the offseason and was then quickly flipped to NYCFC the same day. Since departing Chicago, Johnson has become an integral part of an NYCFC side that had struggled in the goal keeping department since entering the league. His four clean sheets and twenty-goals against are statistically among the top half of MLS keepers but his true worth comes in reaction saves that have kept NYCFC on the winning side of matches. He will certainly have a lot to prove on Saturday and could be a game changer in favor of his new club.
Revenge in Sight: Perhaps the biggest strength for NYCFC heading into this weekend’s fixture is the fact that the players feel they were hard done by in their match against TFC. Maximiliano Moralez expressed frustration in the wake of what he felt was equivalent to a loss by saying “we didn’t show the soccer we have been playing but we were still better than our opponent”. He felt that NYCFC left with a bad taste in their mouth and that they will be rearing to get the three points this weekend. A motivated attacking side is a dangerous one.
I Tripped on the Pitcher’s Mound: We would be remiss not to mention the anomaly that is Yankee Stadium. We’re not just talking about the strange site lines from the stands or the rumors that the pitch does not meet FIFA size requirements for a playable surface. The changes in grass length, visible inconsistencies in the pitch, and the impairment caused by acres of grass beyond the playable lines often make for a strange outing. Very rarely are teams able to come to Yankee Stadium and play their preferred style. The width of the field makes throw ins as valuable to NYCFC as free kicks are, the likes of Villa, Pirlo, and McNamara do not have to run as much as on other surfaces arguably making them more effective, and the shortness of the end lines forces teams to play at a quicker pace than some are used to. Those of course are all the more common concerns, there are also the occasional PK slips on the sod, the need to fill divots in midfield, and the invasion of pigeons. Chicago has the quality to beat any side in MLS but strange confines will add another hurtle for the Fire.
Weaknesses: Although NYCFC is a much-improved side in terms of maturity, style, and player acquisitions, there are a few reasons why they have consistently been five or six points outside of the top slot in the Eastern Conference this season. Let’s take a look at where they might struggle on Saturday.
Matches are Ninety Minutes: In their last encounter against Toronto, NYCFC’s performance was very different throughout the match. A lackadaisical start saw them concede a majority of the possession to Toronto over the first twenty-five minutes, a spell which saw them give up a goal in the eleventh minute. A quick throw in, the allowance of unopposed possession in their own box, and a wide open Ashtone Morgan on the back post culminated in an all too avoidable tally for the visitors. A goal against the run of play late in the first half and the aforementioned pep talk from Vieira saw NYCFC come out of the tunnel with something to prove.
They dominated possession and chance creation for the first fifteen minutes of the second half and scored their second goal of the evening in the fifty-sixth minute. The problem was they thought they had done enough and conceded possession in dangerous areas for the remainder of the match, culminating in a mind-boggling tackle on Jordan Hamilton by RJ Allen in the last minute of the match. Allen found himself on the wrong side of the ball on a deep cross and gave up a penalty in the dying moments which was converted by Victor Vazquez. All of this was against a Toronto side missing Bradley, Morrow, Altidore, Cooper, Osorio, and Ricketts to international duty and Giovinco to an early injury.
In his post-match press conference Vieira thought NYCFC were lucky to come out with a point on the back of lapses in concentration, saying “we didn’t shuffle across, we didn’t defend well as a team, and at times it was too many space between the lines, […] we should defend much better than that”. This narrative is not new for NYCFC, Vieira’s charges conceded a second minute goal against Vancouver before giving up a decisive third goal in the last two minutes of the match, losing 3-2 in an encounter that they arguably deserved more from. Although they did beat Minnesota in week eighteen, a ninth minute Cristian Ramirez goal was all too familiar of a sight. All told, NYCFC has dropped points from a winning position five times this season. It is no surprise that Vieira has ended several pressers by saying “we have to manage the games much better”.
I Tripped on the Pitcher’s Mound Too: For as difficult as it is for other teams to adapt to the smaller field dimensions, strange bumps on the field, and the vertigo instilled by the shape of the stadium, NYCFC has just not quite adjusted to their surroundings over the last three years. They have dropped nine points at home this season, more than any of the top four teams in the East. They have made up for it in terms of away victories, but not knowing what you’re going to get out of your squad at home cannot be considered a positive by any stretch of the imagination. The search for the ever-elusive affordable New York real estate site cannot come to a successful conclusion soon enough.
Prediction: The Fire will continue their turnaround season by picking up a result in the Big Apple to return to the top of the standings. Chicago 1-1 New York. Nikolic builds towards what looks to be a Golden Boot winning season and Villa scores his fifty-fourth goal in an NYCFC jersey.