The Blue Side: NYCFC Absorbs the Trolls, and Pressure

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

NYCFC logoHARRISON, N.J. — On many fronts, it was not a comfortable night for New York City FC. The trolling off the field and the pressure on it from the New York Red Bulls were inevitable. The response: Composed absorption.

The Brass Bonanza played during warmups, the CT Whale mascot toured the arena with the Red Bull press core more than enjoying the joke and the video board displayed facts about Hartford. All a concerted effort to remind NYCFC of the awkward week it had. Once the game began, City dropped deep and conceded possession as the Red Bulls pressed their backline.

Despite the pressure from the Red Bulls for the entirety of the first half, the Pigeons held them off, only conceding a near-score from Amir Murillo during stoppage time. A clinical counterattack early in the second half ended with David Villa slipping in Maxi Moralez who slotted into the bottom corner gave them an unexpected lead.

“It was a difficult game and we were catching up to it,” Moralez said. “They came at us but our defense played well and worked really hard defensively. We saw we were able to find chances and get a goal but let it slip from our hands.”

Gonzalo Verón equalized from the spot after Sacha Kljestan was fouled inside the area. Although replays showed R.J. Allen losing balance while challenging Kljestan, Coach Patrick Vieira thought Kljestan fooled Referee Jair Marrufo by falling over.

“It was really smart from Kljestan,” Vieira said. “It wasn’t a penalty at all and it was really soft.”

Both Vieira and Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch felt Marrufo and the Video Assistant Referee missed opportunities to reward their team a penalty. Vieira said he saw a handball committed during the second half on a Villa header. Ultimately, the officials were the only source of Vieira’s frustration as he was satisfied with his team’s ability to drop deep and stay compact even as they allowed New York to hold more than 61 percent of possession.

“Our game plan was to be really compact and not let them play in between the lines and we managed to do it well,” Vieira said. “Because of the quality of the teams, you have to concede chances but when you look at the 93 minutes, we did quite well.”

Similar to the game against the Chicago Fire, Vieira tucked his wingers inside to force the Red Bulls out wide to create chances. Center backs Fredric Brillant and Alex Callens held Bradley Wright-Phillips without a shot on target. Brillant had nine clearances all from within his own area while Callens had six clearances and interceptions. Callens said he had to simplify his game with City playing so deep in its own end.

“There were moments were I felt I wanted to do more but I needed to defend,” Callens said. “My job is to defend for us to play well and I needed to move the ball or else we could have gotten hurt.”

High-pressing teams look to pin their opponents within their own end turning the byline and touchline into defenders. That stresses the fullbacks, Ethan White and Ben Sweat in this case, but City was able to keep it simple and was content to chip the ball out of bounds or down the line to relieve pressure. White left the game after 30 minutes sustaining a non-contact right calf injury, but Allen was able to play error-free in possession as well. Sweat said the team felt comfortable playing more defensively than it liked.

“I was thinking not to dive in, not to do anything stupid, not to foul, not to do anything to give them any more momentum than they already have,” Sweat said. “I thought we defended really well as a team from David back to Sean.”

Although Kljestan was an effective chance-creator, the Red Bulls only managed three shots on target from open play. That was largely because of the ability of defensive midfielders Alex Ring and Mikey Lopez to close the space in front of the penalty area and close down any attempts to play through them. Ring said he felt the Red Bulls were not really harming them in possession.

“We’ll see many games where we won’t have the ball as much as we’re used to and some games where we have the ball more,” Ring said. “The last couple of games, we have defended well as a team and as everyone knows, good defense wins championship. So we still have time to work on our game going up front but everyone knows what happens when we get into our flow.”

There was a Whale-cake offered in the locker room and Marsch coyly acknowledged the Hartford Whaler mascot’s presence to end his news conference. The jokes do not obscure facts: City is eight points above the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings with eight games left. And as City silently ignores its neighbors, they finished an unbeaten August confident in the progress its made.

“The thing that I love about the team this year is that we are getting a better balance between playing well, trying to make the right decision, and taking risks,” Vieira said. “I think we’ve been less naive this year than we were last year. I’m understanding better the league and better what I want from the players. That’s why I believe we are a better team this year than we were last year. There’s still a part of the game that we need to work and we need to improve but I still believe that we are getting on the right way.”

The snarky tweets will continue and New York City will remain silent but for the first time in three years, New York is blue.