New York City FC spent their first two years of existence as the most star-studded team in MLS. Their three DPs were World Cup winners David Villa and Andrea Pirlo and longtime English sensation Frank Lampard, and most of their role players were aging Europeans in the mold of Andoni Iraola. In 2016, they hired former Arsenal invincible and rookie first team coach Patrick Vieira as manager to go along with the oldest roster in MLS.
Their light blue kits intended to broadcast their affiliation with money-infused English super-club Manchester City, plus the fact that they play at Yankee Stadium in the heart of the Bronx, only magnifies their big-city superstar feel. The classic New York identity goes a long way toward infusing tensions into their rivalry with the Harrison, New Jersey-based New York Red Bulls.
When Lampard retired after an eventful 2016 that saw him injured, booed by the NYC faithful, and eventually loved again, a slight changing of the guard was signaled. Rather than relying on older Europeans like Pirlo, they invested more in guys from the Americas, like longtime MLS winger Rodney Wallace and Argentine creative midfielder Maxi Moralez, who were signed in the offseason. 26-year old Finnish international Alexander Ring was signed to replace Iraola at d-mid, and 19-year old Venezuelan livewire No. 8 Yangel Herrera arrived on loan from Man City.
One-time US international Mix Diskerud was gradually rotated out of the lineup and eventually went to Sweden, to be replaced by Moralez, Herrera and, sometimes, Tommy McNamara. This new-look roster compiles a first-choice starting XI that looks pretty formidable:
NYC have seen that look, or at least a version of it, take them to the top-tier of MLS clubs. While they remain in third in a competitive Eastern Conference behind the Chicago Fire and their home-heavy schedule, they have an argument for being the third-best team in the league. Their clever and flexible manager, tactical fortitude and talented attacking pieces are among the reasons why.
Let’s go through:
— Villa, who has gone directly against the old European stereotype in his magical two and a half years with NYCFC, is a goal-scoring machine. He has 51 goals in 75 MLS starts, which is ridiculous, and is putting himself in the category of MLS all-time greats. His tireless work rate, creative tendencies and leadership on the field kept them afloat during the expansion year and are now moving them into MLS Cup contender territory.
— Jack Harrison is a prodigy, and, at just 20, is playing himself into the ranks of the top MLS wingers.
Combined with Villa dragging defenders around and scoring with ruthless efficiency up front and full backs who are very willing to bomb forward, Harrison is able to consistently cut inside and take on defenders. He already has six goals and four assists this season after four and seven in 2016.
— Moralez’s penetrating passes from higher up the field allow NYCFC to play more direct in the attack third and confuse backlines even more. His activity in the final third allows Villa to play on the back-shoulder of center backs, and his advanced distribution is something they rarely had in their first two seasons.
That’s his passing map from a win against Philadelphia a couple weeks ago. The directness and willingness to get the ball wide early are apparent.
With Ring stoically sitting in front of the backline behind him and Wallace diligently tracking back from his wing position, he, Herrera and McNamara are able to be at their best higher up the field, dictating the game moving possession horizontally before eventually using the flank players to move it vertically.
— Vieira’s quick development as a game manager is impressive to watch. He was thoroughly outdueled by Toronto’s Greg Vanney in the postseason last year — where NYCFC were soundly beaten 7-0 on aggregate — but has continued to show flexibility and the recognition to adjust things during games.
Alongside Vanney’s TFC, Oscar Pareja’s FC Dallas and Veljko Paunovic’s Chicago, NYCFC are one of the few MLS teams that can be trusted to switch formations in certain situations and be able to continue smoothly. The preparation and foresight needed to adjust formation is something not all managers possess, as shown by the differences between Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena in running a three-at-the-back formation with the USMNT. Klinsmann’s was a disaster and resulted in a loss at home against Mexico, while Arena’s was compact, organized, planned out weeks in advance and did exactly what it needed to as the U.S. drew at the Estadio Azteca.
The same principles can be used to evaluate MLS managers. How do their adjustments — be it personnel, formation or otherwise — fare in a game situation, either before a game or in-match? Some managers, despite strengths in other areas, have not been great at this — Klinsmann being a wonderful example, and, to a lesser extent, even Jesse Marsch of the Red Bulls.
Vieira has switched to a three-at-the-back in the past, and has been willing to try players in different spots. Harrison played in the middle in a recent home win in a swamp against the Sounders (without much success, but it was a worthy attempt), and McNamara has seen a lot of success switching between wide midfield and central midfield. Trusting different players, such as young full back Ben Sweat, to perform in starting roles has helped NYCFC find diamonds in the rough and manufacture a level of depth out of a roster that has struggled in the area.
Vieira’s in-game adjustments have gradually improved over time as well, with a wonderful example being his addition of striker Sean Okoli as a substitute during the Seattle match. Okoli entered and played along the Sounders backline next to Seattle’s tight-marking center backs, pushing them back and opening space for Villa to score a late winner. It was smart, and it’s consistent in principle with other Vieira changes.
All of the above elements of NYCFC’s success have come with the notable exclusion of one player: Andrea Pirlo. The legendary 38-year-old Italian has mostly been out of the lineup for either injury, rest or simply because Herrera is a better option. And while Pirlo certainly provides some benefits when he’s in the XI — in the mold of Bastian Schweinsteiger, his world-class game-breaking passes are not found in very many other places in MLS, and those balls are perfect for NYCFC’s determination to play out of the back — his lack of mobility, athleticism and effort overshadow any ball skills he has left in the tank.
Trying to figure out how you leave a legend like Pirlo on the bench is tough for any coach. But it seems Vieira is deciding it simply needed to happen and the results are verifying that. NYCFC has picked up 11 of the last 15 possible MLS points, and outside of a 3-1 midweek road loss against Real Salt Lake, they’ve lost just once since April 23rd.
As they prepare to face the Red Bulls this weekend in the second Hudson River Derby of the season (the first was a 1-0 NYRB win in U.S. Open Cup play), Vieira and co. can have full confidence in an increasingly-balanced and increasingly-dominant roster, even if it isn’t as star-infused.