Analysis: NYCFC’s Chances Ride on Its Wings

Matt Kremkau

NYCFC logoNew York City FC will face an inspired team that has not lost since Aug. 5, but tmay have gotten a break by matching up against the Columbus Crew.

NYCFC will play at Columbus on Tuesday night on grass against a team it scored at least two goals on twice in the regular season. The only trade offs are that the Crew is the hottest in the league and will have thousands of fans at their backs passionately cheering as they cling onto a team that’s being ripped from them. Oh, and it’s going to be cold with temperatures in the mid-30s.

It was in an uncomfortable BMO Field that City collapsed into a shell during last year’s conference semifinal against a team that was on their level. While they are better equipped this year to defend on the road this year, there is the away goal waiting to be claimed like a grail in the distance. The word from the locker room and coaching staff throughout the year and echoed last week too has been that this year’s team is much better than the one that also finished second in the Eastern Conference. A road win in an uncomfortable setting would prove them right.

To strike the right balance of containing the Crew while pursuing a road goal, The Pigeons need strong two-way play from their wingers. Jack Harrison and Rodney Wallace are probably going to get the nod on Tuesday and have had successes and struggles in defending and attacking over the season. Both will be responsible for preventing Columbus’ fullbacks, Hector Jimenez and Harrison Afful, from supporting the midfield and joining the attack. If Jimenez and Afful are able to do so, the Crew are not only going to be able to better retain possession in advanced positions but will be able to stretch City’s defense and create space for playmaker Federico Higuaín to drift into and craft opportunities on goal.

Although much of their work in keeping Jimenez and Afful contained will take place behind the ball, Harrison and Wallace have to take them on when they are in possession for City to truly nullify Columbus. Although he was the team’s second-leading scorer, Harrison only has two goals since the beginning of July while Wallace has not scored since May. A look at data from American Soccer Analysis shows, Harrison outscored his expected goals (xGD 3.62) by almost as much as Wallace underscored his (xGD -3.98) which would suggest that their combined 14 goals is a pretty fair reflection of their performance this season.

Harrison and Wallace are also a mixed bag when it comes to their ability to successfully dribble at defenders. According to WhoScored, Harrison averages almost as many successful dribbles per game as David Villa while Wallace averages as many as Khiry Shelton. Fortunately for them, neither Jimenez nor Afful are exceptionally guardian defenders. So even if there’s no guarantee that Harrison or Wallace will create a goal from taking their defenders on, chances are they can have enough success with it to keep them honest.

Patrick Vieira gave a principled non-answer to the question of what would be the objective in the first leg but if NYCFC are able to score at least once, then they should be in a decent position to win the series at Yankee Stadium. Whether they do depends on if they can find secondary scoring. Villa had a brace when the two teams met at the end of the regular season but Harrison had the brace when the team won in Ohio back in April.

Villa was sidelined for that game due to an illness but there’s a chance that Vieira could field almost exactly the same side from April on Tuesday. Harrison’s first goal from that game came off a deft chip but he created the chance with a run in behind the Crew defense which Maxi Moralez found. Wallace had a hand in created Harrison’s second by good pressure and positioning which he and Villa have done well to do throughout the year. Both goals came off of Crew turnovers and as City knows too well, teams that try to build from the back can be pressed into turnovers deep in their own half.

Out of the possible opponents NYCFC could have faced at this stage, they caught a break with the Crew. City would have had to prioritize defending against Atlanta United and would have the same risk it did with that approach in last year’s playoffs. In Columbus, the familiarity reveals a formula to victory. Whether two cold wingers can get it done, however, will go far in showing if 2017 is really any different.

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Thanks to all who replied Sunday, obviously the above addressed the wingers so here’s a chance to reply to some other things.

A couple of things. Vieira thinks Shelton can play as a center forward or as a wing so his versatility makes him a good option off the bench. In the game against Columbus, Shelton started as a right winger before moving centrally in a 4-4-2. Shelton also brings a ton of energy which translated means he’ll run around and close down on opponents. It also seems for now that Shelton has a slightly better understanding of the defensive responsibilities than Jonathan Lewis does. Obviously, he’s struggled to produce but Vieira knows he could catch lightning in a bottle.

Zack Steffen was out of his mind against Atlanta and probably the only human reason the Crew are still involved in the postseason. Inanimate metal crossbar and goalpost are also up there. City outscored their expected goals by about three goals so while there are days when it seems like they cannot hit the broadside of a barn, the stats show they are not extraordinarily awful in front of goal. One thing to look out for, City averaged 7.3 shots from inside the area on the road this season. They should have a chance to get an away goal.

Nothing to suggest that it won’t be Moralez, Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera. Vieira will have to craft a defensive schematic that accounts for Higuaín floating into gaps while maintaining the team’s shape.

If City get knocked out then it will have had an immense impact. I fear that someone would boil City’s postmortem down to something cliché like ‘they peaked too soon’ cause it wouldn’t reflect what actually happened. The injuries to Villa, Ring, Herrera et al. set the team back and only in the season finale did they begin to show signs of being back on rhythm. On a similar theme, don’t discount the effects of having two games relocated. Ring said after the game in Queens that it’s felt like the team has been away from home for eight weeks.

I think so. Brillant has done far better than most of us could have expected but Chanot is a better passer and brings added leadership.

And a Note

The Crew really don’t like to be called the Crew anymore. Public relations and ownership insist on referring to the team as “Crew SC” ever since Anthony Precourt led a rebrand in 2015. There are better takes on Precourt out there, especially from the Columbus-based media, and better ways to protest his dealings as seen with their rally. To show our disapproval, EoS going to refer to them as the Crew. (Even more, how teams want to display their names, FC, SC, etc., is up to them. But we choose our style, thanks.)