Nine years before Manchester City Football Club was founded. A hundred years before the homeland of the owners of that esteemed club was formally established. And 143 years before the founding of New York City FC, a Prussian General by the name of Bernhard Graf von Moltke – the architect of the wars that ultimately unified Germany into the footballing powerhouse (and also nation) that it is today – made perhaps the most famous observation about war ever scribbled down:
“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”
Or, as Tommy McNamara said to me in the tunnel after NYCFC beat the Chicago Fire at Yankee Stadium, when I asked him if the Fire played them the way they expected. “Well we certainly didn’t expect to go a man down in the first ten minutes, so no.”
Or perhaps it did. For Chicago played the young Venezuelan like a fine instrument. From the moment Yangel Herrera did not get the Penalty Kick he felt he deserved, the Chicago Fire players hacked and shoved and annoyed him. They goaded him into the retaliatory actions that resulted in his early ejection. A smart move on the Fire’s part to be sure; focus on the young player who has so quickly become so crucial to NYCFC’s success. Attempt to take advantage of his inexperience. See if you can get him to make a rookie mistake. In spite of the fact that these tactics haven’t worked when other teams have tried them.
I asked other players about that afterwards. If they were going to offer any advice to Herrera about how to handle that in future. About adjusting one’s game if the ref was going to call it that tightly. But to a man they disagreed. You have to play your game, they said. You have to do what you do, otherwise you’re no good to anyone. And then you have to expect there to be consistency from the officials. Was there consistency today? They all shrugged.
But there was. If not from the officials, then from NYCFC. Every member of the club consistently worked harder than I’ve ever seen them work before. They swarmed in pairs on the ball when Chicago had it. And they covered acres and acres of pitch. And they barked instructions, encouragement and invective at each other to keep them all focused, to drive them all further. Each player had a moment when he saved the match. When he cut off a pass, when he made a key run, when he made a save, when he doubled back on coverage.
And they needed it. Because not only were they playing without two of their regular starting back line, and without Rodney Wallace, and down a man and facing off against the second best team in the league, but at one point they were down to only nine.
When Ben Sweat, who has been a stalwart of the backline with a goal and four assists, was led off the pitch at the half hour mark. And the game was tied at nothing and the sun was beating down from an angry sky. And when those lost points against Toronto – as well as the fatigue of a match only a few days earlier – began to rear it’s ugly head.
But that was also the moment I had been looking for.
“You would like to see” I said to Joe Amato and Anthony Scarcello on the Dudes in Blue podcast last week ”if there was a moment where things started to go sideways, [the team] all kind of pull each other together and say ‘hey, we’re pulling out of this tailspin.’ If they did that, win or lose, points or no points, if they demonstrated that kind of character, that would be a great thing to see going into the second half of the season. Because I think those were the kinds of things you didn’t see when they lost 7-0 to the Red Bulls and when they lost 5-0 to Toronto.”
Which is what happened when NYCFC beat the Chicago Fire.
And which is why David Villa talked about the character the team showed during the match. Why he talked about how every single player contributed. How everyone had to – not just today, but for the rest of the season. Like Jonathan Lewis contributing terrific ball-handling and then a beautiful cross to David Villa for the first goal. Like Sean Johnson with key saves. Or like Frederic Brilliant sacrificing the body (and potentially a second in-match head injury) to score what turned out to be the game winner. A sacrifice from a player who has struggled to get time on the pitch this season and who frankly needed a great match. And who had one when the team needed it most, as they attempted to climb a seemingly insurmountable challenge in the Bronx. When NYCFC beat the Chicago Fire.
But the fact is, the ultimate value of overcoming a challenge like that is very rarely the event itself. The real value is in the ability in future, when faced with something even more daunting, to look back upon this moment and remind ones’ self of the triumph. To take courage and inspiration from it. To tell oneself, “well, I got through that; I can get through this.” To recommit to success against the current challenge with renewed passion.
Now, does that old German general have some clever saying about how to do that when you’ll be without six players and you’re facing the top team in the league on their home turf?
I’ll have to get back to you on that.