NYCFC Can Win Without Pirlo

Matt Kremkau

By CHRISTIAN ARAOS

As Andrea Pirlo sat on the bench, the coaches stood and applauded. The fans answered the public-address announcer’s “Tommy” call with “McNamara!” The teammates huddled and embraced seconds after combining to produce Saturday’s game-winning goal.

It was clear. After two seasons of star power, New York City FC is now a collective greater than the sum of any of its parts — including Pirlo.

Both of NYCFC’s goals required bonds between teammates that cannot be forged by money alone. David Villa is handsomely paid but he recognized Jack Harrison making a run behind him. Ronald Matarrita may be the apple of some European teams’ eyes but he still knew to cut back for McNamara who was in a better position. Though McNamara replaced Pirlo, he included him when he discussed the chemistry among the midfielders.

“We can all play and throughout most of the game we had most of the ball,” McNamara said. “We moved ball up the field very well and got into the final third and created a lot. We’re all players. We want to get the ball on our feet and we want to play.”

That McNamara replaced Pirlo and went on to score is enough to inspire debate, but Coach Patrick Vieira did have a point when he said Pirlo was not performing that badly. The Pigeons were able to get Pirlo on the ball frequently and he completed just under 94 percent of his passes. The problems, however, were clear. Pirlo was pressed into conceding possession in midfield and also into making a bad back pass that led to San Jose’s goal.

Defending is equal parts mental and physical, and positioning only carries Pirlo so far. So long as there is a midfielder who can cover ground and win the ball on the field, then some of Pirlo’s flaws can be mitigated. The question that Vieira has to answer is in what scenarios can he live with that and what scenarios can he not. Yesterday, a tie game at home against an opponent that’s difficult to breakdown required Vieira to make the sub.

Vieira has fielded the same starting lineup in each of City’s last three games but he suggested that some rotation may be on the way. Frederic Brillant made his first appearance of the season and Khiry Shelton came off the bench for the second time. Vieira said getting these players into the fold will be crucial for the team’s success this season.

Matt Kremkau

Tommy McNamara replaced Pirlo and then scored the game-winner minutes later.

“Tommy, like all the other players, they want to be on the field,” Vieira said. “Tommy, Fred, R.J. [Allen] …that is how we will find success as a team and a football club. Players need to understand that it’s tough, it’s difficult but it’s a competition at the end of the day. Wrongly or rightly, I have to make a decision. Sometimes, I make it right, sometimes I make it wrong.”

Whether Pirlo is going to be held to the same standard by Vieira as McNamara, Brillant, Allen or Shelton remains to be seen. Pirlo said earlier this season that he would not protest any selection decision Vieira made, but the hypothetical is quickly becoming practical. That will be a test of Pirlo’s professionalism but also Vieira’s man-management abilities. If he can assert his authority on one Champions League winner for the good of the team, he can do it again and again on the other side of the Atlantic.

What will ultimately influence Vieira’s decision-making will be if he feels that the rest of the NYCFC squad can execute his philosophy if Pirlo is not on the field. The final half-hour of Saturday’s game was an encouraging sign that the team could do it. How a team attacks, how a team defends is only part of the equation. When it comes to determining if a team is greater than the sum of its parts, it comes down to how they interact with each other throughout the game.

Alex Callens and Sean Johnson have played four games together and have known each other for about two months. They looked at each other after the opening goal, had a word and as Johnson said, knew that it all was for the betterment of the team.

“There’s a mutual respect,” Johnson said. “Once you take a group of competitors and you set the end goal as winning a game, then it’s whatever it takes to get to that point that needs to be done every game. Whether it’s having a go, patting someone on the back. If it’s like the second half where I make the save and [Maxime Chanot] is there to clean it up and clear it. It’s a group effort so everybody is going to be called upon at some point. We got to do a job to keep each other going and have each other’s backs at all times.”