Is it Broke Yet? NYCFC’s Loss to D.C. United

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 08: D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon (14) nods the ball away from New York City FC defender Rodney Wallace (23) during a MLS game between D.C. United and New York City FC on April 08, 2017, at RFK Stadium, in Washington DC. DC United defeated New York City FC 2-1. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On my long drive through the mid-Atlantic night after NYCFC’s loss to D.C. United, I had the opportunity to listen to several New York City Football Club podcasts. Now,  I am too much of a gentleman to call out the specific predictions my friends made. But I would be remiss if I did not point out that, nearly to a man (no women were on the podcasts; more’s the pity), they all prefaced their predictions with the same observation:

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Don’t change the line up. Or the strategy. Or the substitutions, or the approach. The team are on a three-match unbeaten streak. Why mess with that?

Is it Broke Yet? NYCFC’s Loss to D.C. United

But after NYCFC’s loss to D.C. United, in which their winless streak on the road continued, against a team that had scored only two goals all season and that had a -5 goal differential (lopsided in part because of the pasting NYCFC put on them a month earlier), one must ask if perhaps now things are in fact broke. Er, broken. If the glitches we’ve seen were not merely bumps in the road, but, as the lady says, “an early clue to the new direction”.

The Case That it’s Broken

The shoddy defense that led to the goal against San Jose. That turned three points into one against Montreal. That gave up as many goals to D.C. United as they had previously scored all season. The concern that no matter who the team bring in, no matter what combination of players are used, no matter what formation is employed, the NYCFC defense compares unfavorably with Swiss cheese. As one fan said to me, “I felt like I was watching last season all over again.”

This is the case that NYCFC’s broke.

Add to that the dearth of goals scored by captain David Villa. Which is concerning on its face, but more worrisome when one remembers that the team will be without Frank Lampard’s sizable contribution this season.

And finally, that the formation the team displayed during NYCFC’s loss to D.C. United was, shall we say “curious.” Sometimes Maxi Moralez was on the front line. Sometimes he was not. Sometimes Jack Harrison was in the midfield. Other times it looked like he was on the backline. Sometimes Rodney Wallace was in the midfield. Sometimes he was not. As someone who has watched a confused and dis-spirited US Men’s National team conduct themselves this way, NYCFC’s performance is at least irritating if not actually alarming.

The Case That it’s Not

Orlando had one real chance in their match, and they converted. Montreal, essentially the same. And in NYCFC’s loss to D.C. United two mistakes resulted in two goals. Simple as that. Are mental errors acceptable? Of course not. But the point is, NYCFC are not being dominated. Quite the contrary; they’ve had more possession and better passing accuracy than the opposition in every game this season. And their biggest margins were in the two matches they lost.

Which all would seem to indicate that no, it’s not broke, that these are just bumps in the road. Disappointing bumps to be sure. But the kinds of unfortunate breaks of the game that happen to even the best of teams. If you’re dominating, if you’re making your passes and if you’re creating chances, then the wins will come. Especially when you have players like David Villa, Jack Harrison, Rodney Wallace, Maxi Moralaz, and Tommy McNamara on the pitch. And when you have Patrick Vieira on the touchline.

And when you couple that with the fact that, of NYCFC’s first five matches, two were against teams in the top third of their divisions – to whom they gave up a total of two goals and from whom they took three points – one has to be reassured about the state of the team.

What’s Next?

All that said, there would seem to be two options available to Patrick Vieira after NYCFC’s loss to D.C. United. One is that he uses the starting XI’s lackluster play on Saturday as an opportunity to make some wholesale changes. This would allow him to reward players who haven’t been able to get on the pitch. And to punish those who may have gotten complacent.

The other option is for him to ride herd on his team this week in training and then start his regular squad to see if they respond the way professionals ought to.

Either way, he has a tremendous opportunity to send a message to his team. And it couldn’t happen at a better time. Because not only does it come early in the season, when it can really do some good, but as NYCFC face ostensibly the worst side in the league. The Philadelphia Union are one of two winless teams left (Montreal are the other one). They are currently -4 on goal differential. And curiously for a team that calls the lovely Talen Energy Stadium home, they seem as woeful there as they are on the road.

And while after NYCFC’s loss to D.C. United it would be nice to take at least one point back to Yankee Stadium (especially as the team face the top two teams in the division in the next two weeks), I would still be satisfied with no points if I felt that NYCFC had used this episode to reforge themselves as the dangerous and unified fighting force we know they can be.

That would be the best result of all.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Attended the game in DC and did not see the same team that beat DC in NY. I saw Callen way up in the offensive half several times leaving Brillant and Chanot by themselves in the back. I thought that it was just a sign that NY did not respect DC’s offense. It was Wallace that I expected to see play box to box and did not see it. But I do think that when Callen, Brillant and Chanot are together they play a very good defense. I also saw on offense there was an extra effort made to always get the ball to Moralez in the middle and not play the ball up the wings. It did not work. Lastly, for whatever reason I did not feel like I was looking at a happy team.

  2. Can we please discuss the situation at right back for a second.

    I get that Viera wants to be flexible in his tactics and it appears that the reason White and Brilliant have started the last 4 games at right back is to shore up the defense. But is there actually any statistical evidence that we have been better defensively by starting natural centerbacks at right back this year or last (remember how good/not-so-good Hernandez was at right back?)? Our most dominate game statistically was the Orlando City game, the one game we started a true right back (RJ Allen). Yes, we beat DC United 4-0, but we also scored on all but one of our shots on target (4 for 5) while being out shot as well (13 to 9; DC had 4 shots on target). While we have been better defensively this year than last, we were also horrible last year (dead last) and a lot of that has to do with the superior defensively play of Ring, Callens, and Moralez over Iraola, Brilliant, and Lampard, respectively, not to mention (& certainly just as relevant) the play of Sean Johnson (saves, increased steadiness on the ball, & command of the box on set pieces). What is different from last year is our ability to score goals and finish as we started off last year as the best road team in the league by far, which makes sense given our style of play is more suited to larger fields (ie not Yankee Stadium). Playing centerbacks at right back or 3 centerbacks in the back limits the link up play on the right wing to the point where it’s non-existent. When was the last time (was there a time?) that White, Brilliant, or Hernandez were directly involved (counting MLS’s hockey assists) in an NYC FC goal (own goals don’t count)? There’s a reason why it’s so rare; because they are centerbacks not right backs. We went into the season supposedly quasi-deep at right back with RJ Allen and Shannon Gomez fighting for a starting spot. However, Allen hasn’t made the bench since week 1 and Gomez, who we bought in the offseason to make a permanent member of NYC FC due to his “promise” according to Viera, has not made the bench once.

    Meanwhile, Viera is obsessed with starting (inadequate-to-bad) centerbacks at right back for some reason. Jason Hernandez last year and now Ethan White (a little last year too) and Brilliant this year. From what I can tell, White was a decent centerback for Philly before he came to us but I can’t really confirm because he’s never actually played centerback for us. Brilliant was, at best, “decent” at centerback last year and at worst, very bad and prone to ridiculously laughable mistakes in the back. Why would one assume that a centerback of mediocre-to-bad quality would make a good right back especially with our style of play? White has looked better than last year, but that isn’t saying that much considering he was equally as shaky on the ball and defensively last year at right back as Brilliant was at centerback. And this is just defensively and in possession. Neither offered hardly anything going forward and certainly will not be dazzling fans with their amazing combination play with Jack “the Ripper” Harrison (which we could actually very much use as now he’s always on an island). Needless to say, these players are not natural right backs by trade for a reason. Why not give the actual right backs on the roster a chance to prove themselves?

    RJ Allen had some lapses on defense last season; certainly more than a top 10 right back in MLS. However, he definitely was more sound defensively than Brilliant was at centerback and White & Hernandez were at the same position. While that, in and of itself, should make Allen a more attractive starting option than White or Brilliant, it’s his contribution to our offense and efficiency in Viera’s style of play that should drastically set him apart from White & Brilliant. Last year, RJ Allen was at the top of all defensemen in assists (6; tied with Taylor Kemp, Saad Adbul-Salaam, and Fabinho) and led them all by a mile in assists per 90 at 0.31 assists/90 (due to only having 19 starts & 24 appearances) whereas everyone else is in the low 0.20s assists/90. RJ Allen, with his 6 assists and 1 goal, actually had a more productive season than Matarrita (5 assists and 1 goal) with 230 less minutes. Allen is obviously not as dynamic on the ball or down the field as Matarrita, but he probably is a better passer (& probably not much of a worse defender either) and the fact his stats are even comparable to Matarrita (who’s considered by many to be one of the best left backs in MLS and destined for a move to Europe in the short term) begs the following question.

    Why are we starting mediocre-to-bad centerbacks at right back when we seem to have a very capable, proven option already on the roster (with another we felt had such promise we were willing to pay a transfer fee for)!?

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