Preview: NYCFC Relaxed Ahead of Tall Task

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cup logoThere was laughing and juggling among the New York City FC squad during Friday’s open training at Yankee Stadium. Of the past eight or nine weeks, it was probably the most at peace the team has been. The relaxed atmosphere, according to players, was not a sign of resignation but a sign of quiet confidence about doing something what’s never been done in Major League Soccer.

NYCFC need to come back from a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Crew when it hosts the second leg of its Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sunday (coverage begins at 5 p.m. Eastern; ESPN; WFAN.com, English; WADO 1280 AM, 96.3 FM-HD3, Spanish) . No team in MLS has been able to do this before. Jack Harrison had opportunities to score a vital goal for City in Tuesday’s first leg but left them begging. Harrison, like the rest of the team, spent Friday’s session working on his finishing.

“If you think about it too much, you’re only putting more pressure on yourself,” Harrison said. “With the relaxed setting, we want everybody to feel good going into this. We believe we can win and we believe as a team that if we can just carry on that way then we’ll be alright.”

The only person who is saddling himself with all the thinking is Coach Patrick Vieira. Vieira said he had yet to make any decisions on the lineup or how he will adjust the defense in light of the suspension of Alex Callens. Looking back on the first leg, Vieira said he was largely satisfied with the game plan except the execution and the result were missing.

“What went wrong is just the result of the game,” Vieira said. “When you look at the game itself, I think we created enough chances to score more than one goal and we didn’t do it. When you have a gameplan and you go to Columbus, we create our chances but we also expect to concede changes because of the team they are and the players they have in their squad. We gave them a good game but we created enough chances that we didn’t take and that was missing.”

Vieira reiterated his faith in Sean Johnson despite Johnson’s misplay on the Crew’s third goal saying that Johnson had a good game in the first leg. A first half goal would have altered the entire series, instead it was the misses, Callens’ red card and City’s exhaustion that did. By the 80th minute, the game had been stretched and the midfield worn beyond its tread. Yangel Herrera said the first leg had been a complicated game and the task ahead of the team for the second is also complicated and difficult.

“We are not feeling pressure because we have to score three goals and we know that it will be difficult,” Herrera said, “but we believe in ourselves and we know we are capable of turning this around.”

The dry run of form and the playoff struggles have taken their toll on David Villa who again did not speak with reporters Friday. In shades of 2015, Villa has found the limits of how far he can single-handedly pull this team, especially in the attack, and it has frustrated him. Yet the Pigeons have the faintest of chances thanks to his goal in Ohio. Vieira did not indulge the idea of Villa coming to life to save the team.

“It’s not just David,” Vieira said, “but we will need everybody to be at their best. That will give us a better chance to turn this around. We will need a big team performance to turn this around. We’re going to be at home, where we did it already and we know we can do it.”

Sunday will be City’s first game in Yankee Stadium since August and the team had been expecting a crowd between 20,000 and 27,000. A pregame light show with synchronized bracelets is planned. While it is easier to get bracelets to light up at the same time than to get humans like Rodney Wallace and Harrison to calmly take their chances, Vieira said it requires getting them to relax and be confident.

“In football, I always say that what is important is to create those chances then to score the goals, you will do it because of the quality of the players,” Vieira said. “We keep creating those chances and that for me is the most important. To put it in the back of the net, they will do it. They have done it before, they will do it again and they will do it tomorrow and they will do it next year. That is not the problem. What is important for us and for me as a coach is to put the team in a situation where we’re going to create chances to put the ball in the back of the net.”