Ruling Out the Shield, NYCFC Builds for Playoffs

Aug 20, 2017; New York, NY, USA; New York City FC forward Jonathan Lewis (17) celebrates his stoppage time goal against the New England Revolution during the second half at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

NYCFC logoPatrick Vieira ruled out a run for the Supporters Shield after New York City FC‘s win over the New England Revolution. Making up the four-point gap on Toronto FC over the final nine games, in his eyes, is too much to ask from his budding team.

“It was important to win because I believe it’s always good to get close to Toronto, but I believe Toronto are already the champions,” Vieira said. “I think all the other teams are going to fight for the second spot and Toronto will win the league. I think you see it last night [vs. Chicago] they are quite really strong and I don’t think anybody will catch them.”

Vieira’s comments drew comparisons to Jose Mourinho and the mind games he is known for playing throughout a regular season but finishing first in Major League Soccer is not as important as finishing first in England, Spain, Italy or Portugal. The endgame in MLS and for NYCFC is the playoffs.

City is an injury away from fielding a rookie, teenager or out-of-position player on its backline, something Toronto does not have to worry about. Ronald Matarrita will miss another month recovering from his broken foot while Maxime Chanot underwent hernia surgery and will be sidelined until the final week of the regular season.

The Pigeons have to trust their young players to to build their depth. Vieira and his staff are well suited to do this from their past experience with the Elite Development Squad, but the challenge this year is different. City need to show it is not just an upstart team that can exit the playoffs with their heads held high but one that can reach the conference final or MLS Cup final, which it would likely host if they maintain their current form. They took a positive step on that end with their come-from-behind win on Sunday.

Compared with Toronto, NYCFC has the more difficult slate of games to end the regular season — seven of nine games will be against current playoff teams. Both teams have a rivalry week game this weekend with Toronto playing the first of three games against the Montreal Impact while City can complete a sweep over the New York Red Bulls on Friday in New Jersey.

“It’s important for players to understand that we are all together and we have the same objective,” Vieira said Sunday. “Today, everybody showed it because it was a positive message to show to the ones who didn’t come on. Tonight it was about Jonathan [Lewis], Khiry [Shelton] and Ugo [Okoli] but the other time it was some other players. Players, starting or not starting, need to know that the eleven starting represent the 23, 24 players on the roster.”

Lewis has earned a role in determining how far NYCFC goes in the playoffs. As has Mikey Lopez who could make a second-consecutive start Friday with Yangel Herrera suspended. Barring unforeseen injuries or drops in form, Lewis and Lopez will probably not be regular starters this season, but both will be relied upon to either get a result or defend one.

“We find ways to win and it’s becoming a culture at our team,” Lopez said. “It’s been one of the things that’s become a part of our culture here this year, more than last year that we just find a way to win.”

To ultimately win MLS Cup, teams need to show that they have the depth to remain competitive despite injuries and fatigue while also not losing the collective thinking required to solve problems within each game. New York City showed both traits with their second-half rally Sunday. Shelton, Lewis and Okoli combined well with each other and helped expand City’s attack to where it opened up space for them to create the chances that led to both goals. Lewis said the team showed charisma and intuitiveness to figure out the Revolution’s defense.

“When we’re on the field together, sometimes we can’t communicate to each other right away,” Lewis said. “So you see one player do something, you can see what’s working and what’s not. I think you see those gaps and if someone is able to expose those gaps, you try to follow suit. Whatever is working, we try to follow suit.”

Shelton, Lewis, Okoli and Jack Harrison are young attackers whom City will rely on to support David Villa even as he takes aim at an MLS career-high and potentially the goalscoring record. Yet Villa has created 27 goals with them, the same as he did last year. Witnessing their ability to come together and find the solution to score the goals Sunday, Villa observed that the current approach of developing talent and depth was the best for NYCFC going forward.

“I have been here for three-and-a-half years and it is difficult to sign players here,” Villa said. “I think the best way for the clubs is to build players, young players, believe in your players and build your stars. …We always believe in the players that come from the college draft. Jonathan is one of them and we try to help them because it is the best way to create a star.”