After 9 Games, NYCFC Is Potent and Confident

Matt Kremkau

By CHRISTIAN ARAOS

imagesBack-to-back wins against conference contenders Columbus Crew and Atlanta United are enough to inspire hot takes and superlative declarations about New York City FC’s status as a contender for MLS Cup, but it’s only been nine games so let’s not go there. Instead, NYCFC (5-3-1, 16 points) is coming together like a contender but the board doesn’t look like the picture yet.

“I think the season is a giant puzzle,” Sean Johnson said. “You put pieces together and you want to complete that puzzle leading to the end of the season and have all the pieces put together and ready to go. I think you’ve seen every game, we get better and better. The one thing that I can take away is that we’ve learned to do what’s necessary to win in multiple environments.”

NYCFC is learning that it will take part technical ability, part intensity and part physicality to win each of the games it plays this season. That can be seen in the midfield that Coach Patrick Vieira has repeatedly indicated to be deeper than last year with a greater variety of options. Seeing an opportunity to play on the counterattack during the last two games, Vieira has kept Andrea Pirlo on the bench and gone with Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera as the No. 6 and No. 8.

That decision is not a referendum on Pirlo so much as Vieira taking an early opportunity to get Herrera on the field. With Herrera set to leave for the FIFA U-20 World Cup to play for Venezuela, Pirlo will be back in the first team for the coming four-game road trip. If the rest can help him return to a role where he dictates the game, Pirlo will remain in the fold once Herrera returns. If not, it’s already clear that the Pigeons can fly on without him.

The game at FC Dallas on Sunday night marks the beginning of a trip that ends with rematches against Orlando City (May 21) and Atlanta (May 28). Orlando City accounts for two of NYCFC three losses this year and in both instances, City was convinced it was the better team despite only scoring once. Since the second loss, on April 23, City has six goals in the subsequent two games.

“We now want to keep the momentum going from two wins in a row to the road trip coming,” Jack Harrison said. “This was a big home win for us, a big consecutive win as well and I think we can carry that chemistry and carry that confidence into the next away stretch.”

Each of NYCFC’s front three has scored in the last two weeks. While no one will mind if more players not named David Villa get on the scoresheet, it has been the work off the ball of Rodney Wallace and Harrison that has been lauded by the coaching staff. Wallace placed himself in positions to craft chances for himself and his teammates throughout the game and was involved in all three goals.

“I think he showed how tough he is and how strong he is in his mind because he covered a lot of ground and he’s always at the right place to score goals or help the team,” Vieira said. “His work ethic is fantastic. When you look at his career, he won the title in this country. He went abroad. He had a tough time, and the majority of people might give up and do something else. He believed in himself and kept working hard in training, and there’s a reason why he’s in the starting eleven.”

NYCFC is fortunate to have Johnson and Wallace. Johnson only became available once Atlanta worked out a move for Brad Guzan. Wallace was set to return to the Portland Timbers until an injury to Gbenga Arokoyo forced their front office to shift priorities and they dealt Wallace’s Major League Soccer rights to NYCFC. Only through opportunism were both players able to end up in New York City, not that anyone will mind.

Matt Kremkau

Sean Johnson

Those additions have not only improved NYCFC’s defense but injected the team with talented, MLS experienced players that last year’s squad desperately needed. Johnson has been steady in goal while making the most of the new start in New York City. With Wallace’s positioning and industry, City has been able to better defend the flanks, resulting in a defense that is more compact with less space for opposing attackers to exploit.

Along with the tactical success, there is the statistical. NYCFC remains near the top of MLS’ passing, possession and shooting rankings. But most promising is that the club’s expected goal difference is 5.47, more than a goal ahead of next team. What that means in Vieira speak is that New York City has created almost five-and-a-half more chances than they’ve conceded over the course of the season.

NYCFC is still in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings and face a road-trip that will likely keep it there since it would be unreasonable to expect the same away success as last season. With an improved defense and a deeper squad, however, it is reasonable to expect City to end up at the same place it was at the end of last season — in contention for a top-two seed. That is, if the puzzle comes together.