For the second time in as many seasons, New York City FC will open their campaign on the road, this time to a fairly rebuilt team in the Chicago Fire.
By Jeff Weisinger
New York City FC came within just minutes of their first win, in their first-ever game, in last year’s season opener at Orlando City.
After a less-than-spectacular scoreless first 70 minutes, Mix Diskerud scored NYCFC’s first goal on a curved rocket toward the upper-90, past then goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. The defensive third, for the most part, held their own against Orlando’s attack until a poor tackle near the NYC 18-yard box gave Kaka a chance at a late equalizer as the game headed into stoppage time. Kaka’s shot tipped off the chest of Jeb Brovsky and deflected its way into the back of the net, handing the Blues their first point and draw, instead of their first win.
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The rest, of course, is history that NYCFC looks to move forward from.
NYCFC opens their season on the road once again, this time at Toyota Stadium against the Chicago Fire, a team that struggled as much as the Blues last year, however finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table with an 8-20-6 record.
Both teams suffered from the lack of an attack and a consistent backline, although thanks to the tremendous effort of last year’s saves leader Josh Saunders, NYCFC won two more games than Chicago. Both Chicago and New York City allowed a league-worst 58 goals in 2015.
The Blues have yet to defeat the Fire in the short history of their franchise, losing their first matchup in late April 1-0 and pulling a 2-2 draw just a few weeks after on a game-tying goal by then-rookie Khiry Shelton in stoppage time, sparking a sort-of comeback attempt of their season.
This time, there’s much more on the table for both Chicago and NYCFC.
Much like the Fire have a new backline and a new manager, so does New York City. French international legend Patrick Vieira makes his MLS head coaching debut on Sunday, as does NYCFC’s new backline of Ronald Matarrita, Federic Brillant, Andoni Iraola and Ethan White – Iraola the only returning starter from last year, and also the oldest. Most of NYCFC’s signings this offseason were under the age of 25.
“Federico is a good passing defensive midfielder who can shield the back four,” NYCFC Sporting Director Claudio Reyna said about the former Boca Junior Bravo. “He’s also another young player that we’ve added to the team during this window. It’s been one of the focuses of our offseason recruitment to make sure we added some youthful energy into the squad.”
NYCFC finished the preseason with a comeback 2-1 win against KR Reykjavik – Andrea Pirlo and Mix Diskerud scoring for the Blues – and ended their preseason winning five of their six matches, with just one match against an MLS, and Eastern Conference foe in the Montreal Impact – a match that saw Patrick Mullins drill a late-goal for a 1-0 win in mid-February.
However, Vieira isn’t necessarily preaching winning matches right out of the gate. Instead, he’s using several themes to spread his message throughout the club. One of them, is simply doing the necessary things to push NYCFC to, what would be, their first opening day win in franchise history.
“I think before we think about winning matches, what is important for us is to try to do what we need to do well before we think about winning games,” Vieira said in Wednesday’s conference call with the media. “If we play the right way, if we do what we need to do on the field, we will give ourselves more chances of winning games.
“I think the first game will be a really good test for us to see where we are because we are paying against a well-organized team with some really good players. So that will give us a really good indication of where we are as a team.”
Where they are, or could be as a team could also depend on the formation that Vieira decides to put out for the opener. While most expect him to deploy a 4-3-3, he hinted at the possibility of using a 3-2-2-2, keeping just three defenders in the backline.
“I didn’t make a decision yet which system I will use for this game on Sunday, but there’s a possibility that we will play three at the back as well,” he explained.
While NYCFC looks for their first win of the season, captain David Villa will also look for his first goal against the Fire on Sunday. Villa scored 18 goals in his MLS debut season (fourth most last year), however didn’t score against three Eastern Conference teams, the Fire being one of them (Columbus, Red Bulls).
The Blues also look to get off to a solid start on the road, an area of which they struggled last year, recording just one win in the final eight games away from Yankee Stadium (1-6-1), a struggle that started in mid-July.
“The tea is doing well,” Pirlo said during the week. “We worked really well. There are just a few days before the game, but we are in really good condition and looking forward to it.
It would be important to start with a victory because that would really boost our morale and it would give the team motivation to keep going this way. We are doing our best to make sure that they have some difficulties to overcome when they meet us.”
The Blues open the season on the road, however begin a four-match home stand starting with next week’s home opener against Toronto (Sun. March 13, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2), meaning that a win would be huge going into an important early home stand for the club.
“We want to start the season right.”