In the thick of playoff contention in its first MLS season, NYCFC can thrive with Andrea Pirlo at the helm.

By Bryan Pol

Only three months ago, NYCFC’s midfield dynamo Andrea Pirlo was in a Champions League final with the Italian club Juventus, their first time in such a match since 2003, when La Vecchio Signora lost to AC Milan 3-2 on penalties at Manchester United’s Old Trafford.

Ironically, Pirlo was on that i Rossoneri squad, a team for which l’architetto won two Champions League titles, appearing in the title game three times with Milan (losing to Liverpool in 2005, 3-2 on penalties).  

Despite losing to a superior Barcelona club 3-1 in the recent 2015 final, Pirlo featured on a Juventus club that made Serie A feared again, as a club from Italy’s premiership had not been in a Champions League final since Inter Milan’s 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the 2010 title match.  The competition, largely dominated by teams from La Liga, the English Premier League, and Bundesliga, was beginning to lose its Italian flavor until Juventus’s resurgence in 2014/15, supported by Pirlo’s five goals across all competitions (33 appearances).       

NYCFC, a product of a partnership between Manchester City of the EPL and the New York Yankees, who jointly paid $100 million to instill the club amongst MLS ranks, began its inaugural season in 2015, already cemented by the acquisitions of La Liga star David Villa, who catapulted Atletico Madrid to a league title and Champions League final appearance in 2014, and Frank Lampard, former Chelsea legend who captained the Blues to two consecutive European titles:  a Champions League championship match win over Bayern Munich in 2012 and a Europa League title in 2013.

By July, NYCFC would add another gem to its bunch:  the lauded Andrea Pirlo, dubbed il professore by his former Juventus support, coming to New York as the club’s third designated player without a transfer fee.  In six appearances, despite not scoring, Pirlo has readily factored into manager Jason Kreis’s midfield schemes, setting up a David Villa goal in a thrilling 3-1 victory over DC United on August 13.

Despite his age–he turned 36 in May–Pirlo fits nicely into NYCFC’s locker room.   The club is currently mustering a playoff run while positioned at seventh on the MLS table in the league’s Eastern Conference, tied with sixth-place Montreal Impact at 28 points, with NYCFC trailing them by four goals in score differential.

Having played 26 matches thus far, NYCFC, the second club expanding to the New York metropolitan area behind the New York Red Bulls, a testament to the league’s spike in popularity, spearheaded by David Beckham’s 2007 transfer to the LA Galaxy and his turn as an executive, looking to bring an expansion team to the Miami area in either 2016 or 2017, has eight matches left to overtake Montreal for the conference’s final playoff spot, remarkable considering NYCFC’s inauspicious 1-5-6 start to its first season in MLS.

Despite what the league has witnessed in Beckham, Thierry Henry’s tenure with the Red Bulls, and even David Villa’s current scoring tear (his 14 goals are third best in the league), the likes of Andrea Pirlo have arrived knowing what they are up against: lesser field conditions, longer travel obligations, and less-talented working mates on the pitch.

Even so, a Champions League and World Cup champion like Pirlo, and even Lampard and Villa before him, have a profusion of talent, experience, and insight to disperse.  Age-wise, a player like Pirlo is no longer in the midst of his prime, a humbling notion in spite of the gap in wages existing between designated and traditional players on the roster (midfielder Tommy McNamara, for example, earns $71,500 this season, a salary dwarfed by Lampard’s $6 million earnings in 2015).  Because of age, humility tends to supersede pride, even though droves of fans–NYCFC averages 29,000 fans a match in the spacious Yankee Stadium, third best in the league–flock to see a man like Pirlo perform on the pitch.  Case in point:  “They’re down-to-earth people,” said McNamara, “[and] they carry themselves humbly; it’s very nice to see that they view us as peers.”

Villa’s 14 goals, difficult to come by with the dearth of players properly providing him service in the attacking third, are certain to surge under Pirlo’s tutelage.  The maestro, a set-piece master still earning him accolades (France Football, a bi-weekly football magazine, recently named him one of the 10 best soccer stars in the world over the age of 36, and he was named to the UEFA Champions league squad of the season), can still star as a deep-lying playmaker in the mold of Bayern Munich’s Xabi Alonso, who, as the World Soccer‘s Jonathan Wilson describes, “[remains] focused on keeping the ball moving, occasionally raking long passes out to the flanks to change the angle of attack.”  While not particularly physical or capable of play-breaking tackles, a facet of his game that, for better or worse, serves to prolong his career, Pirlo sustains dynamic vision and a creative flair that is the stuff of legend.  Also a free-kick wizard, Pirlo left Serie A as the league’s most prolific scorer from the free-kick position, tied with Siniša Mihajlović, a former Lazio and Inter Milan star.

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Mix Diskerud, NYCFC teammate of Pirlo’s, marvels at the Italian’s abilities.  From a Ryan Wallerson Sports Illustrated piece on Pirlo’s MLS home debut, Diskerud noted, “There’s a calmness around him. You see that when he’s on the ball as well.  He doesn’t lose the ball and he sees everything. It’s like he has 360-degree eyesight.”

Diskerud, a youngster looking to make a difference with Jurgen Klinsmann’s burgeoning USMNT squad, aiming to make noise at the 2018 World Cup, can learn so much from Pirlo’s prescient playmaking ability, which would prove crucial not only for NYCFC’s short-term success, but also American soccer’s, either by Diskerud’s growth or MLS’s continued ascension.

Regardless of what he has accomplished in the past, Pirlo, at his age, does not boast nearly enough to take on MLS giants all by himself.  Despite star power in Villa, Lampard, and Pirlo, NYCFC was dismantled 5-1 by the deeper, more experienced Los Angeles Galaxy, the winningest club in MLS history sitting atop the Western Conference with a league-best 46 points.  Even with the loss of a retired Landon Donovan, the Galaxy can boast a 26 year old Giovani dos Santos, ten and eleven years Pirlo and Lampard’s junior respectively.

That said, the Galaxy have a former European star of their own in the newly acquired Steven Gerrard, a former Liverpool legend who, playing opposite to Lampard, dominated the EPL for more than a decade.  Like NYCFC now, LA were pioneers in landing European talent to construct a title winner, with Beckham and Robbie Keane, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur, toiling to lead the Galaxy to multiple championships.

For the MLS to succeed in the future, the league will eventually need to garner better development opportunities and interest with youngsters.

As for now, it can rely on its influx of European imports to boost attendance and allure, especially with those stars who love to play here, Andrea Pirlo included.

Thus far winless in every New York derby, by which NYFC was outscored 7-2 in three losses to the Red Bulls, NYCFC has an uphill battle with which to contend as the 2015 season draws to its conclusion.  Pirlo, Lampard, and Villa, 36, 37, and 33 respectively, provide no long-term solution with its trio of stars, although they certainly succeed as a business model behind the clout of an affiliation with the Yankees:  the club did set a single-game, merchandise record in its home opener, a 2-0 over the NE Revolution, whom NYCFC trails by six points on the table.  And that was without Pirlo, who has played NYCFC to a 2-1-3 record since his arrival, with two of those losses coming against the Red Bulls and Galaxy, perennial playoff contenders and super powers in the league’s recent past.

Even so, with four home matches in the remaining eight, three of them against Toronto FC, the Columbus Crew, and the NE Revolution, all of whom they trail in the conference standings, NYCFC, lead by Pirlo’s wizardry and prescience, are determined to make their first season a red letter one.

They have Columbus at home on Saturday to prove they belong in the hunt, with the seemingly ageless Andrea Pirlo in place to display his sorcery on the pitch.

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I am an English teacher, music and film aficionado, husband, father of two delightful boys, writer, sports fanatic, former Long Islander, and follower of Christ. Based on my Long Island upbringing, I was groomed as a Yankees, Giants, Rangers, and Knicks fan, and picked up Duke basketball, Notre Dame football, and Tottenham Hotspur football fandom along the way.