What Are They All About? NYCFC
Ready for launch. This past weekend the Chicago Fire provided a superb soccer display at SeatGeek stadium, defeating the Colorado Rapids 4-1. The result leaves them undefeated in four straight fixtures and has them sitting just above the Eastern Conference playoff line in seventh place. The Fire’s stacked forward line proved to be too much for the league’s worst defensive side in a ninety-minute showcase of what fans have been waiting for all season. The three points came at a crucial time as Veljko Paunovic and his charges head on a road stint which will see them play three matches in eleven days. A cushion was always going to be necessary heading into such a congested part of the schedule, but the question remains, was Saturday’s performance against an atrocious backline a one-off or is this the start of something new for the Fire? Another formidable test on Wednesday against NYCFC will give onlookers more to judge this side by (6:00 CT on ESPN+).
The sky-blue half of New York heads into this fixture on a similar trajectory as the Fire having strung together an unbeaten streak of three matches including an impressive away victory against DC United this past weekend. It seems as if Domenec Torrent’s vision for the squad is finally coming to fruition after he was able to secure several key players in the offseason and give them ample time to gel. Comparisons to Vieira will continue to be made until a more formidable winning streak comes about but the Catalonian’s system seems to have something to it. A shift to a 3-4-3 has stamped his own image on this team for better or for worse and a favorable midweek result in the Bronx could alleviate some of the pressure that has been building behind the scenes at the club. Will it be the hosts that leap frog Chicago in the standings or will the visitors surprise NYCFC and jump into fifth? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red..
NYCFC Form Guide: W-D-D-L-D
Previous Result: A 2-0 away win against DC United.
Formation: 3-4-3; Johnson; Callens, Sands, Chanot; Matarrita, Ofori, Ring, Tinnerholm; Moralez, Heber, Mitrita
Strengths: At the end of the day and under the tutelage of City Football Group, NYCFC has made the Eastern Conference semi-final for three consecutive years. While they may not be reaching the heights that they want, the consistency in production has certainly been put in place by a global force in soccer. Let’s see where they might succeed on Wednesday.
Over the Hump: If this past weekend’s matchday is being billed as a potential turnaround moment for Chicago it is perhaps more so for NYCFC. They headed to DC to face one of the best sides in the league, they hadn’t won an away match since August of last year, neither their DP false nine, Alexandru Mitrita, nor their recent TAM signing Heber have gotten off the mark and they had only kept one clean sheet all season. All of those things changed against DC. Both Heber and Mitrita scored in the encounter to secure an away win and Sean Johnson returned to form by keeping out what would have been an early equalizer for DC en route to a clean sheet.
With all the talk of David Villa’s unfillable shoes, of Torrent being visited by City Group’s International Director of Soccer Operations last week, and a lack of identity, this side showed some grit, belief in the system, and trusted in their abilities to leave the capital with all the spoils. Back on their home turf, they should have the edge in momentum against a Fire side that has won just nine away fixtures in the last six years.
Peanuts and Crackerjacks: Speaking of homefield advantage, here is your obligatory reminder that NYCFC is still playing at Yankee Stadium. They have lost just six matches at home over the course of the last three seasons, a remarkable achievement given that even the remaining playoff teams averaged 3.5 home losses per season in that period. We’ve spent years discussing the baseball pitch that doesn’t meet FIFA regulations, so we won’t harp on it here, but the statistical advantage it offers its current tenants is clear.
Squad Depth: Schedule congestion and long travel distances are quintessential elements of MLS. No matter how high of a level newcomers have played at previously, it is always among the first things they notice when arriving to the league. These facets of the beautiful game in this country mean that GMs and head coaches must truly utilize all of their roster slots and acquisition mechanisms well. Additionally, keeping players healthy is a must, meaning that facilities, trainers, recovery programs, and equipment must be top notch. When looking at all of these things, it is clear that NYCFC has an advantage come Wednesday.
As of this writing, Chicago has six players that will miss this encounter through injury from a squad of twenty-five. They will barlely be able to fill the eighteen much less rest players that went ninety minutes this weekend. Conversely, NYCFC has two players questionable for this fixture—Alexander Callens and Valentin Castellanos. This isn’t just a question about healthy bodies either. When you look at the quality coming off of the bench for NYCFC, the likes of Ben Sweat, Jesus Medina, Jonathan Lewis, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi are players that would likely be starters elsewhere in the league. Chicago meanwhile has a bench of players that are otherwise USL loanees or rookies struggling to find minutes. These are the little details that matter in a long season and NYCFC should feel comfortable with their squad heading into this match.
Weaknesses: There is no hiding the fact that Dome Torrent’s side was winless in its first six matches of the season. They may have finally clicked this weekend, or it could have been one of the many flukes that MLS offers throughout a long and grueling ten-month season. Let’s see where reality might come crashing down on Wednesday.
Going, Going, Gone: Although balls past the wall in left field are good on some days at Yankee Stadium, they look a bit embarrassing in others. NYCFC has scored just nine goals this season with a third of them coming in the goal fest that was the opening of Minnesota United’s Allianz Field. To add to that unimpressive tally, they’ve scored just twice at home this season. Perhaps it is a taste of their own medicine as new arrivals struggle to adjust to the confines of the pitch or just the time it has taken to implement Torrent’s system. Whatever it is, NYCFC will face a stern test against a side that has become more cohesive and compact defensively since shifting Schweinsteiger to center back and Kappelhof to right back. In a bizarre turn of events, Yankee Stadium may actually suit the Fire for once.
Slim and Narrow: Another interesting facet of Torrent’s switch to a 3-4-3 in recent matches—although he may opt for a 4-2-3-1 at home as he has done on other occasions—is that he still utilizes two wingers in midfield. The result is that the three center backs have virtually no protection on the flanks. All three goals conceded against Minnesota came from play on the flanks and two near misses by DC came in similar fashion. Should the hosts not opt to address this formational flaw, the Fire could run riot on the touch line as they have done throughout the season. The likes of Frankowski and Edwards may be missing but Katai has been exceptional on the flank and Sapong’s explosive runs in behind the backline will have an elevated danger given the confines of Wednesday’s pitch.
Prediction: The Fire will gladly take a point in this one as they spoil Torrent’s party to start their road stint. Chicago 2-2 NYCFC. Mitrita and Heber for the hosts. Sapong and Nikolic for the visitors as Gaitan notches another pair of assists.
Injury update: Mitrita is now listed as questionable. Callens is no longer questionable.