More Lineup Decisions as NYCFC Prepares for Playoffs

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

NYCFC logoA year of great change has come and gone but New York City FC is in the same position: Holding the second seed, waiting to find out the opposition will be and unsure who will actually play for it. While City know who its starting goalkeeper will be this year, it does not know who will be on the backline.

Maxime Chanot participated in parts of Thursday’s training session and Coach Patrick Vieira declared the center back fit for next week’s conference semifinal. Ronald Matarrita appeared in three of the last four games and fully participated in training. Whether Matarrita starts instead of Ben Sweat at left back next week remains to be seen. Matarrita said he’s fully recovered after a “difficult year with injuries” and ready to help the team.

“It’s simply to keep working hard and wait for the opportunity,” Matarrita said. “I have teammates in my position that are doing a great job so if I have the opportunity to play, I need to take it.”

Vieira faces a different dilemma than last year when he had to decide to replace a struggling Josh Saunders with an inexperienced Eirik Johansen in goal. He has to decide whether to favor continuity and keep Sweat and Frederic Brillant in the lineup or for talent and re-insert Matarrita and Chanot. He also has to decide on one of three right backs to start as well. Vieira said he will decide which combination to field based on the opponent NYCFC faces.

“It’s about the strength and weakness of the opposing team and trying to have the best starting eleven to win the game,” Vieira said. “I’m really glad that Mata is training every day and played some part of the last game. He came on and did really well so it was good to have him in the squad. Everybody’s back and that is positive for me. When you have everybody performing at their highest level because they want to play, that raises the performance of the team. That’s why the job for me to choose the starting eleven is going to be really difficult.”

City will face the winner of Thursday night’s game between the Columbus Crew and Atlanta United with the first leg of the Semifinal to be held in either Columbus or Atlanta. Against the Crew, Chanot played at right center back in the 3-2 win in April but Brillant at right center back in last Sunday’s 2-2 draw. Sweat, Alex Callens, Chanot and Ethan White played in both meetings against Atlanta. Sweat said the competition for places among players that’s lasted throughout the season means they are confident regardless of who starts.

“There’s competition for every place on this team,” Sweat said. “The coach is comfortable with whomever he puts in so we have confidence in whoever he chooses that they’re going to do the job for the team. Everyone is going to perform best for the team and do what’s best for the team. We’re going to prepare the same with the same desire to win and see what happens.”

Sweat, Matarrita and Vieira all spoke to Atlanta’s and Columbus’ quality, but each team presents different threats. Atlanta scored the second-most goals this season and have scored at least twice in every home game played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Vieira said Atlanta’s attack is dangerous because it involves individual players running at the defense while Columbus relies on a collective, organized efforts. Columbus, like City, were only shut-out at home once this season and scored twice in both meetings against The Pigeons.

“The two teams are very strong, especially at their home when we played them,” Matarrita said. “It will be a good game at either field we play. I believe that we had good games against them at home and in the playoffs there’s no doubt that the game will be just like those we played in the regular season.”

If Atlanta advances, Vieira may not be able to field the same backline for a third time because White left Thursday’s session with an apparent right hamstring injury. That would leave him with the choice between R.J. Allen and Andraz Struna who are both more adept at attacking than defending. Or Sweat can play right back like he did in City’s win at Montreal, its only win in their last seven games.

“My objective is to have all 22, 23 players ready to give their best,” Vieira said. “The objective is for me to choose the right starting eleven who can represent the football club, is representative of this group of players and have this group of players perform at the level I know they can.”