What Are They All About? New York City FC
Just ok and that’s ok. This past weekend the Chicago Fire Soccer Club lost against the San Jose Earthquakes by a score line of 4-1. Although the match saw Chris Wondolowski set the all-time MLS goal scoring record, the result itself will mean very little in the long run for the Fire. The visitors were missing the spine of their team as Bastian Schweinsteiger served a suspension, Nicolas Gaitan was out with injury, and Nemanja Nikolic’s current form meant that he was present on the field in name only. With the brain, flair, and finishing missing, the result was seemingly inevitable and the out of conference away loss should be forgotten quickly. Moreover, results around the Eastern Conference shook out in the Fire’s favor as they are still just one point below the playoff line. They’ll have a chance to regroup and reset as they take on New York City FC at SeatGeek Stadium on Saturday (2:30 CT).
Dome Torrent and his charges enter this encounter on the back of an impressive streak. NYCFC hasn’t lost since the last weekend in March, a stretch of seven matches which includes four wins and three draws. In fact, they’ve lost just once all season, a 4-0 result away to Toronto. Additionally, the Pigeons have already beaten Chicago—a 1-0 home result in April—and have the highest away PPG ratio in the conference. Things are looking bright for a side that couldn’t muster a win for the first seven weeks of the season. However, MLS has the potentiality to change your fortunes in an instant and there are certainly flaws in the Catalan’s system. Will NYCFC sweep the Fire in 2018, or will the return of Schweinsteiger result in a return of points for Chicago? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
NYCFC Form Guide: W-W-D-W-W
Previous Result: A 2-0 away victory over LA Galaxy.
Formation: 3-4-3; Johnson; Callens, Sands, Chanot; Matarrita, Rocha, Ring, Tinnerholm; Moralez, Heber, Tajouri-Shradi
Strengths: When we approached this fixture in April, we talked about NYCFC getting over the hump of finally winning and having their new additions hit form. We also discussed their squad depth and ability to tap into the vast scouting resources of City Football Group. All of those factors remain but let’s see where else they might succeed on Saturday.
Keep Away: While some might not put too much stock into possession statistics—there is no direct correlation between possession and chance creation—it is a good gauge of NYCFC implementing Torrent’s preferred tactical system and soccer style. Additionally, as the saying goes, if your opponent doesn’t have the ball, they can’t score. For those reasons, NYCFC’s high possession percentages in their last three matches, even on the road, is something that bears examining.
It is clear that Torrent’s time learning under Pep Guardiola has had a distinct influence on how he sets up his sides. He has implemented a 3-4-3 regularly since taking the reins in New York and has opted for a possession-based approach favoring build up play over the explosive transitions of NYCFC’s past. Utilizing the phrase “front three” might be a bit of a misnomer as Tajouri-Shradi functions in a traditional winger role, stretching the pitch and adding speed just in front of a very mobile midfield four while Maxi Moralez is given the freedom to roam in a traditional “ten role”. Similarly, although the team sheet has Ronald Matarrita lined up on the wing, he serves as an essential creative outlet for New York all over the pitch. He’s responsible for showing inside and creating from the middle third of the pitch across its entire width, serving as a link between the midfield and Moralez. As he does this, Alexander Ring tucks underneath Matarrita to cover the empty space should New York lose possession, but he has also fully transitioned into a true two-way player in this current tactical landscape.
In Barcelona-esque fashion everyone on the pitch is required to be comfortable on the ball and clinical in distribution. Even Sean Johnson’s numbers in both of those categories have improved dramatically under the tutelage of someone with tactical astuteness. The result has been not only domination in possession statistics and passing percentages, but NYCFC’s confidence in their abilities has grown tremendously over the last few weeks. Two road wins in places not traditionally known for dropping home points is nothing to scoff at and they’ll know that keeping the ball will only add to Chicago’s woes.
Filling Shoes: One of the biggest questions heading into this season was whether or not they could find a striker to produce the types of numbers that David Villa provided before departing for Japan at the end of 2018. The jury is still out on Brazilian TAM signing Heber, but he has shown a promising start. After his arrival in late March, he has slowly been integrated into the starting lineup and has three goals in five starts for NYCFC. Although he isn’t a household name in soccer, those numbers will suffice as they continue on their upward trajectory.
More important than pure stats, Heber has seemed more comfortable in the number nine role in recent weeks and has taken to the system well. He isn’t afraid to drop deep to receive the ball, can play with his back to goal, and has risen to the passing and work rate levels required by the manager. He could be a handful for a Fire backline still adjusting to Francisco Calvo’s arrival. Oh, and if he doesn’t find himself on the scoresheet, NYCFC can take solace in the fact that goal scoring responsibilities have been undertaken by the team as a whole.
Weaknesses: The central flaw in Torrent’s system, a narrow shape, was discussed last time out and has continued to be an exploitable aspect for NYCFC’s opponents in recent weeks. Let’s see where else they might struggle on Saturday.
High Line: In terms of Torrent’s defensive strategy, he has opted to play a high line in recent weeks and has implemented an offside trap in both of NYCFC’s last two fixtures. Although his side earned clean sheets in both encounters, a deeper look shows that they came dangerously close to being caught out in both matches. Uncharacteristic misses from Zlatan Ibrahimovic for LA and Saphir Taider for Montreal unmasked what the score lines don’t show. Additionally, Zlatan also had a goal correctly disallowed on an offside call but there is always a danger in your backline throwing their hands up as they step forward on penetrating passes.
Nemanja Nikolic has made a career out of flirting with high lines and needs just one moment to punish an opponent for implementing such a strategy. Additionally, with Aleksandar Katai serving as a de facto number ten in Gaitan’s absence, the Fire still have the ability to place pinpoint passes at the feet of their strikers. Should NYCFC continue their preferred defensive shape, they’ll be tested more than they were in recent weeks.
But They Were Big Shoes: Although we rightly applauded the strides that NYCFC have taken in replacing the production of David Villa, there is also lingering doubt about the quality and consistency of both Heber and Alexandru Mitrita as strikers. Only Atlanta has scored less goals while retaining a playoff spot than NYCFC despite the Pigeons having a modest chance creation rate. This should be worrisome given the amount of time that NYCFC had to scout a replacement for the Spaniard, the funds at their discretion, and the network that comes with being a City Football Group project. Additionally, with all three DP spots taken they’ll know that they largely have to work with what they have come the summer window and that level of comfort for the new strikers can’t be all that helpful.
Mentality: Another interesting fact about this NYCFC side is that although they look great in possession, comfortable on the ball, and lethal when in full form, they have yet to win a match in which they’ve conceded the first goal. It seems as if they give up when things aren’t going their way and their possession ideal doesn’t afford them much when chasing a match. This type of shortcoming is not easily addressable when a system is so engrained in a side and Chicago should look to hit the ground running when Ramy Touchan blows the starting whistle on Saturday.
Prediction: NYCFC seems to be hitting a level of consistency in recent weeks and there are just too many questions surrounding this Chicago side at the moment. New York 3-3 Chicago. Heber, Moralez, and Tajouri-Shradi for the visitors. Nikolic, Katai, Frankowski for the hosts.