What Are They All About? NYCFC
Clinched. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire qualified for the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2012. A resounding 4-1 win over San Jose coupled with a Montreal loss to NYCFC ensured that Chicago will be playing well into the Fall. Although fans will feel relieved to have secured a post season berth, they will be more pleased with the team’s performance. It was their first win in California since that fateful 2012 season and their first road win over a Western Conference opponent since 2013. Most importantly, the win puts them within touching distance of NYCFC for second place in the East. Their fate will somewhat be in their own hands as they welcome Patrick Vieira and NYCFC to Toyota Park this Saturday (7:30 CT on CSN Chicago Plus).
This match is perhaps the most crucial encounter of the season for both teams involved. NYCFC is coming off the back of some less than stellar results while missing an injured David Villa and is hoping to get their form on track. Furthermore, Atlanta United’s impressive home form amidst a string of fixtures in the new Mercedes Benz Stadium has the expansion side breathing down the neck of NYCFC, just three points behind them with a match in hand. A win against Chicago is necessary if they are to be at ease with their position in the standings heading into the last two matches of the season. Equally, this will be the last chance for Chicago to directly gain ground on NYC. If they want to secure a bye in the first round of the playoffs they will need nine points from their last three matches and a little help elsewhere. Will Veljko Paunovic finally get the better of Patrick Vieira, or will the Frenchman once again remind the Serb that he has a lot of room for improvement in his still young coaching career? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
NYCFC Form Guide (last five matches): W-D-D-L-W
Previous Result: A 1-0 away victory over Montreal.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Johnson; Matarrita, Callens, Brilliant, Struna; Ring, McNamara; Wallace, Moralez, Harrison; Shelton
Strengths: This will be our second preview of NYCFC this season as the two sides met in July at Yankee Stadium–a match which saw NYCFC take all three points in a 2-1 victory. In that preview we discussed NYCFC’s recent goal scoring streak, Patrick Vieira’s expert coaching ability, Sean Johnson’s form, and the inability for teams to adapt at Yankee Stadium as strengths for the hosts. Let’s see where they might succeed this time around.
Getting Healthy at the Right Moment: While Chicago is struggling in the injury department–Bastian Schweinsteiger’s availability for the match is uncertain, Juninho is most likely out, Meira is not back to full form, and Patrick Doody’s hamstring injury necessitated Corrales’ call up from Tulsa–NYCFC has received good news from their team doctors. David Villa returned to the fold as a second half substitute against Montreal after picking up an abductor strain earlier this month while on international duty. Likewise, Ronald Mattarita (starting) and Yangel Herrera (off the bench) returned after spells on the sidelines. As playoffs approach squad depth is crucial to a team’s success and NYCFC will be happy to be able to rotate their squad somewhat in the last few regular season fixtures.
Who Needs a Number Nine?: Although we’ll talk about some negative aspects of his lengthy absence below, NYCFC’s ability to cope without their leading scorer was impressive given the lack of out-and-out strikers available on the roster. In their win over Montreal and their draw with Colorado, their two most recent encounters where Villa was injured or rested, Patrick Vieira utilized Jack Harrison and Khiry Shelton as false number nines. Both of them would overload a single channel and leave the center of the final third relatively open.
Putting defenders into one v. one or two v. one situations was the goal and it worked like a charm. NYCFC was able to pepper both opponents with cut backs and crosses throughout the encounters with Moralez and McNamara making late runs to pick up the scraps. If Chicago is going to play its preferred style at home with Vincent and Polster pushing up the flanks, they might struggle against NYCFC’s wingers, who are not only faster than most of their opponents but are lethal finishers (see Harrison’s recent goals against Montreal and KC).
Sean’s House: Frequent readers knew that this was coming once again. This match will mark the return of Seas Johnson to Toyota Park after a series of heated interactions between the Georgia native and former coach Veljko Paunovic last season. Although his time may have been up with the franchise either way, Johnson’s departure could have gone more smoothly in terms of Chicago’s treatment of the longtime goal steward. He will certainly have circled this date on the calendar to not only thank Section 8 Chicago and Sector Latino, but to show Paunovic exactly what he is missing out on.
Johnson has played very much to the high standards that he sets for himself this season and has regained the form that saw him earn USMNT call ups earlier in his career. He boasts the third highest save percentage among goal keepers in the league, has the third best goals against average among keepers with more than twenty-five starts, and has seven clean sheets on the season. Aside from just a statistical analysis, he has improved his command of the box (an area where he struggled with Chicago), has been single handedly (literally) responsible for keeping his side in recent matches, and as for the ever controversial “distribution” category, Johnson has completed 73% of his attempted passes over the last four matches. He will certainly be a factor for NYCFC on Saturday night.
Weaknesses: The last time we previewed NYCFC we saw an inability to stay concentrated for ninety minutes, inconsistency at Yankee Stadium, and taking weakened sides for granted as weaknesses. Let’s see where they might struggle this weekend.
Putting Away Chances: Despite defeating Montreal on the road, there was a common theme among the coaches and players entering the media tunnel after the match. None of them could believe the match only finished 1-0. With almost 60% of the possession, virtually twice as many completed passes as their hosts, and twenty-two shots, onlookers expected a thrashing on the part of NYCFC. However, just six of those shots made it on target and Vieira was irate about his sides inability to test Evan Bush. Worse yet, a majority of those shots came from within the eighteen-yard box, marksmanship that won’t get NYCFC very far in the post-season against better opposition. Jack Harrison mirrored his managers complaints and seemingly indicated their overreliance on Villa for goals, a fact exacerbated by the gap in productivity on the roster. Villa’s nineteen goals on the season are almost double that of Harrison and four times that of Moralez, the next highest scorers for NYCFC. Their fifty-two goals on the season is the lowest such total for any of the top four sides in the East. Ultimately, against a side like Chicago, NYCFC will need to be more clinical if they want to get anything from this encounter.
Concentration: A seemingly continual theme rears its ugly head once again. For whatever reason NYCFC cannot seem to close matches out. Whether it is the uncertainty that lingered against Montreal, their inability to react to Houston’s quickly taken equalizing free kick, or giving up a goal in the last minute against Colorado, Patrick Vieira’s men just seem naive during key moments of the match. Should Chicago put together some of their vintage set pieces from earlier in the season or stick around long enough in the match, there will certainly be opportunities to earn a result.
What do Central Defenders Do Anyway?: The most glaring weakness in this NYCFC side recently is their overexposure centrally when it comes to defending. It’s a common story in MLS but despite Vieira’s acquisition of Alexander Callens to partner Fredric Brillant in the center of defense, NYCFC is often overwhelmed on the counter. Ben Sweat and RJ Allen have too many attacking duties to help in transition and as a consequence, many of their recent goals have been given away from the opposition coming right down the middle of the pitch. Nemanja Nikolic might thrive in this one.
Possession is Key: A major key to NYCFC’s success throughout the season is their ability to hold onto the ball. Overwhelming possession statistics in their most recent results evidence this need and their most recent losses show that they cannot earn results without such control. The problem for the New York outfit is that Chicago does not often concede possession at Toyota Park. If the home side dictates the pace of the game and is able to reflect typical possession statistics, the visitors may struggle to make an impact in this one. Dax McCarty will look to play a key part against a side he has been trained to hate.
Prediction: We will enter the end of the season as we did the beginning, drinking Kool Aid. The Fire will hold onto hope and take all three points this Saturday. Chicago 2-1 NYCFC. Nemanja Nikolic and Drew Conner for Chicago, a Sean Johnson goal kick is taken into the back of the net by the wind for NYCFC.