All Quiet on the Western Front: NYCFC’s Last Four Matches

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Remember August? Man, August was great. Three wins and a draw. And then four straight games against the Western Conference, which in past years would be daunting. But this year? This year the Eastern Conference has four teams that have at least as many points as the West’s top side. So the future looked bright, didn’t it? I wish I had a dollar for every fan who thought we’d take at least as many points in September as we had in August.

But NYCFC’s last four matches didn’t quite pan out that way did they? A win, a loss and two draws. And that win looked like a draw until the 84th minute, didn’t it?

So what the heck happened?

All Quiet on the Western Front: NYCFC’s Last Four Matches

Pleased to meet you – what’s my name?

Did the fact that Patrick Vieira had 15 different players starting over the course of these four matches negatively impact the outcome? Setting aside for a moment why he had to fiddle with the lineups so much, did the fact that each line saw some element of change over the course of NYCFC’s last four matches have as much to do with getting a less satisfactory result from teams like Colorado and Houston? Sure, sure, they’re all professionals and they all train together – and they will tell you to your face that it doesn’t matter who’s on the pitch. But Alex Ring and Andrea Pirlo are fundamentally different kinds of players and players have to adjust to those differences – and sometimes that adjustment creates opportunities for opponents to steal points.

One is the loneliest number.

Three goals in NYCFC’s last four matches. In this side’s past FIVE matches they’ve failed to score more than one goal. These are the same guys who scored more goals than any other team in the league last season. This is the side that has last season’s MVP and this season’s potential golden boot winner. And they only manage to score four goals in five matches? Against Portland, who have given up 47? Against Colorado who are worst in the league and have given up 42? Against Houston who have given up 40?

Squirrel!

I swear, sometimes this team plays like it needs a healthy dose of Adderall. Against Portland, Pirlo gets knocked down and raises his hands to the ref (or the heavens, I wasn’t quite sure which) and so everyone stops… except, of course, Portland who go on to score. Against Houston, two players go down, referee Allan Chapman blows his whistle, and NYCFC argue the call. Meanwhile the Dynamo have restarted play and score. And against Colorado, NYCFC give up a goal in the 88th minute. Look in the dictionary under “Losing Focus” and you will see a picture of that goal.

That’s why in NYCFC’s last four matches they took only five points: inconsistent personnel, scoring drought and focus.

On the other hand

Look, no one likes to lose. But when you lose to an Eastern Conference rival, the pain is doubled. Because not only do you NOT get points, but someone you’re directly competing with for a playoff spot does. But dropping points to Western Conference sides – while annoying as hell – is less damaging. At worst, it’s a wasted opportunity to gain ground, not actually a self-inflicted wound that helps your enemy.

So if you were going to go through a stretch where you took only five points out of a possible 12, frankly, NYCFC’s last four matches was the time to do it. Great, Colorado gets a point – they’re still at the bottom of the league. Terrific, Houston gets a point; maybe they’ll make the playoffs. Imagine how much worse to have taken only five points in August, when NYCFC faced three conference rivals – including the Red Bulls twice.

And on the other other hand

Now let’s remind ourselves what the roster looked like over NYCFC’s last four matches. No Yangel Herrera. David Villa out for two and a half matches. Alex Ring out for three. Ethan White out for all of September. Rodney Wallace still working the rust off. And of course, still no Ronald Matarrita, Maxime Chanot or Miguel Camargo.

That’s a lot of quality players not in the starting XI. A lot of players who NYCFC really rely upon on every line.

In other words, it is entirely possible that Patrick Vieira looked at his injuries and then looked at this schedule – a schedule against Western Conference sides where the risk was somewhat mitigated – and said “if I can give some other players an opportunity, rest some of my key players, and still be in second place – I’ll take it.”

And what has happened over NYCFC’s last four matches? Villa, Hererra, Ring have all gotten some much needed rest. Harrison has dialed up his aggressiveness, as has Khiry Shelton. Tommy Mac has taken more of a leadership role on the pitch. Andrezj Sturna got his first MLS minutes, as did James Sands.

And NYCFC is still second in the East.

You want proof that this is what he was thinking? I don’t have it. Though I will point to Vieira’s consistent contention that Toronto was going to win the Supporter’s Shield as an indicator that he was viewing these games differently. That if he thought he couldn’t catch them that he should adopt a different goal. And maybe this was it.

Four down, four to go.

And now NYCFC head into their final four matches of the season. Last year, NYCFC went 3-1 in this stretch. In 2015, they went 1-3. This year, for the first time, the matches are all against Eastern Conference rivals, two of whom are likely to be in the playoffs and two of whom are fighting for a shot.

In other words, this is the perfect time to have a well-rested and comparatively healthy side.

Hmmm… maybe NYCFC’s last four matches weren’t so bad after all…

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