Although New York City FC is certainly improved on paper as they prepare for Sunday’s season opener in Chicago, the Blues’ biggest theme in 2016 is that of “togetherness.”
By Jeff Weisinger
“We are one.”
NYCFC finished their preseason on Saturday night with a 2-1 win over KR Reykjavik FC at the IMG Academy in Florida and if there’s anything that is noticeable about the club, at least throughout the preseason as they prepare to embark on their second year in Major League Soccer, it’s the fact that they’re a lot more together than they were in the mess that was last year’s inaugural season.
The theme of togetherness and chemistry on the pitch, however, starts off of it, thanks to new head coach Patrick Vieira.
“I got feedback from last year and some things were not a problem to keep doing,” he said in a recent interview. “But some things I wanted to change. In my experience it is easy and normal to have everyone start the meal together and finish the meal together.
“For me, it is quite important for everyone to spend time together, to know each other. In football, we are going to go through a difficult period and one of the things that can help us is our togetherness — how can we be really open to each other to say the truth to each other. This is the way I want the players to act.”
The theme of togetherness goes from the pitch to as far as meal time for the club — they don’t eat until everyone is seated, and don’t leave until everyone is finished, literally everyone, players and staff alike — to ice baths and traveling. This is an attitude that Vieira brought from his experience under his former manager at Juventus, Fabio Capello.
“Capello is about team spirit and togetherness. That collective is more important than the individual,” Vieira commented on the new club culture.
Ice baths, together. Fun.
— Mikey Lopez (@MLopez12_5) February 28, 2016
However it’s something as small and potentially tedious as keeping everything and everyone together that could help push NYCFC above the red line for the first time later this Fall. What should also push the Blues to their playoff debut in their second season is their improved roster and play on the pitch.
NYCFC is a much-improved team defensively — fitting considering that Vieira and Sporting Director Claudio Reyna went out and imported a brand new, fairly international group of defenders during the winter and training camp.
In fact, the only former MLS’ers on the roster are former Sporting Kansas City midfielder Mikey Lopez and former Philadelphia Union defender Ethan White. The rest of the signings this year are all from abroad.
The Blues held a 359-minute shutout streak throughout the preseason until FC Cincinnati scored a pair of goals in a wild win in stoppage time to give NYCFC their first loss of the preseason last week. The Blues rebounded with the 2-1 comeback win over RFC — highlighted by Andrea Pirlo’s first NYCFC goal and Mix Diskerud’s match-winning header — to finish the preseason with an impressive 3-1-0 record, outscoring opponents a combined 7-2.
But that was the preseason, against fairly lesser talent. The season opener against Chicago should be different.
One of the big questions is where Pirlo fits in Vieira’s preferred 4-3-3 formation. With Frank Lampard limping his way into the regular season with a calf injury — one that forced him to miss almost all of the preseason minus the club’s scrimmage against Florida Gulf Coast University — Pirlo looks to be the starting central midfielder on Sunday, defensive liabilities and all, even though Vieira says that he’s not worried.
“My worry is not about that,” Vieira added. “The way I want to play the game and in my mind, we have to control the game. We will have the ball and when Andrea has the ball at his feet, we will create more than we will concede.
“In the 4-3-3, you can commit five players around the box and this will give us more opportunities. This is a system that I like because it gives you different options and flexibility — a back can move into the midfield or a midfielder up front without changing anything else.”
NYCFC was a lot more aggressive in both the defensive and attacking thirds of the boxes during the preseason in the 4-3-3. Besides the attacking front led by captain David Villa, the Blues were able to use the wings to open up opposing backlines, creating more attacking lanes than they were able to in the 4-2-3-1 last year. A big reason for the success of the 4-3-3 in the preseason is Costa Rican newcomer Ronald Matarrita, whose versatility and solid technique has been a welcome addition to the club. Matarrita, who should be the club’s starting left back on Sunday, brings in the attacking element from the outside back position that the Blues were hoping from Angelino last year, but only got in mere spurts.
Vieira could also deploy a 3-2-2-3 formation during the season, something he experimented with against FC Cincinnati last Wednesday. The altered formation, only leaving three defenders in the backline gives Pirlo a much-needed sense of support, allowing for more effective possession. If Pirlo and NYCFC struggle in the 4-3-3, expect Vieira to make the switch to the new formation.
“My staff and I want to give the team a clear identity of how we want to play,” Vieira added. “Of course, this is a change, but the players love to play that way as well.”
“When you hear and see our players — especially the players on our team that have been to some of the big clubs and get their feedback — it’s clear to see that we are working in the right way.”
Another question, surprisingly enough, could be within the net. All signs point to goalkeeper Josh Saunders, last year’s MLS saves leader, opening the season in the box. However, if NYCFC somehow struggles early, especially inside the 18, don’t be surprised if Vieira makes the switch to Eirik Johansen, a product of Vieira’s Elite Development Squad back at Manchester City. Johansen had a stellar preseason, especially against Montreal where he made numerous key saves and kept the flow of the game going. Saunders’ distribution with the ball last year backfired at points after he cleared the ball right back to the opponent, who scored on the following counter.
It’s worth noting that both Saunders and Johansen have a much better backline compared to the one they had in 2015.
With the additions made and with a year under their belt, there should be no reason this team doesn’t make it into the playoffs. This, on paper, can be around a 13-15 win team, if they can stick together and, more importantly, if they can stay healthy.
The second chapter of this new set of 34 pages for NYCFC begin Sunday in Chicago.