You might not have particularly fond memories of D.C. United’s last trip to Yankee Stadium. Leading New York City FC 1-0 and frankly doing so comfortably, a short-handed United side saw a huge error from stand-in left back Luke Mishu gift David Villa a 79th minute goal, and a game the Black-and-Red were quietly putting to bed instead became a raging hellion. Six minutes later, it was 2-1 NYCFC. Lamar Neagle then managed an extremely unlikely stoppage-time equalizer, followed by Villa attempting to punch Jalen Robinson and going unpunished, followed by Lampard scoring a 93rd minute winner.
That last sentence took about 110 seconds in real time. There are MLS games that don’t have that much drama in 90 minutes. I was heading to the beach that night once our recap was posted, and instead I was so frustrated that I didn’t leave until after midnight. I’m mad writing about it now!
And that kind of gets at the point: NYCFC home games are almost always thrillers, and with their attacking resources you aren’t walking off the field victorious until the final whistle. Sure, there are games where their always attack, always build out of the back philosophy has blown up in their face - the 2nd place team in last year’s East still managed to lose a home game 7-0 to their only rival, and then fell 5-0 in the playoffs - but it also means that you’d better be prepared for a goalfest when you step on their too-small field.
This season, with some new faces in the midfield, NYCFC is a bit different in their approach. Patrick Vieira has started the season in a 4231, with the distribution of responsibilities shuffled around. There may be a bit more patience in their midfield these days as a result:
Of course, this picture is a guess, because Vieira is more likely than any MLS coach to change formations from game to game. However, as we discussed with Hudson River Blue’s Raf Noboa Y Rivera on Filibuster earlier this week, NYCFC is probably going to stick with this for the first few games. They might not play it for 90 minutes, but they’ll more than likely set up in this 4231 at the opening whistle.
Still, keep things like 433 or 3241 (yes, you read that right) in mind. Vieira moved into the latter formation for a few minutes in Orlando, and that was before their final roll of the dice (Ugo Okoli partnering Villa up front in a 3142). NYCFC also played 3241 for a chunk of the 2016 season, so it’s definitely something they’re familiar with.
Sean Johnson has taken over in goal, which is an improvement over Josh Saunders. However, the Pigeons need a goalkeeper who is good at distributing, something Johnson has been notoriously bad at throughout his career. NYCFC can at least comfort themselves with the fact that Johnson is fast off his line, something that is necessary with how far they push up and how wide their center backs play in possession.
RJ Allen is still the first-choice right back, and he’s more than willing to get forward on the right. Allen isn’t the best defender in space, and if Patrick Nyarko lines up him 1v1, United should be able to create real chances. However, Allen’s work rate has to be accounted for defensively, even if he’s not the cleanest player on the ball.
On the other side, Ronald Matarrita is even more attack-minded. Unlike Allen, he’s a threat to create chances every time he gets forward, and there will be stretches where he’s more wide midfielder than fullback. United needs to make sure to punish that whenever possible by feeding Lloyd Sam (who should be hungry to bounce back after a poor season opener). Matarrita can be a field-tilting force of nature if he gets going, but when he’s kept busy defending he can tend to drift out of games. United needs to make sure it’s a quiet night for him.
After a preseason that seemed to point to Frederic Brillant as a sure starter while Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens battled to partner him, Vieira has instead chosen both Chanot and Callens. The result is a more technically gifted center back pairing, but it has also robbed NYCFC of their one defender who happens to be solid in the air. Last week, Orlando got their goal by hanging a cross up for Cyle Larin to attack; United will want to do plenty of the same here, because Patrick Mullins should win that battle (particularly against Callens, who doesn’t appear to be particularly physically strong).
Alexander Ring is a TAM signing for NYCFC, and the Finland international made two very distinct impressions in their opener. First of all, despite being the team’s defensive midfielder and Andrea Pirlo’s ball-winning assistant, he will roll the dice to burst into the box from deep whenever he sees the opportunity. The second thing to note is that he’s aggressive; based at least on this game, Ring looks like a candidate to get to 10+ yellow cards on the season.
Pirlo remains Pirlo, and he encapsulates NYCFC in a lot of ways. If he’s given time on the ball, and runners elsewhere aren’t tracked, he can pick you apart. If, however, he’s harassed for 90 minutes, you can make games against the Pigeons more about their lack of defensive solidity up the middle than they are about the Italian legend’s magical passing. Keep an eye on Jared Jeffrey, who will probably need to be the United player in Pirlo’s face more than anyone else.
Completing the midfield triangle is Maxi Moralez, a mobile and talented Argentine who has spent time in Serie A and Liga MX. Moralez is essentially Lampard’s replacement, but he’s not the same kind of player. He’s more of a set-up man who looks to combine on the edge of the box than he is a goalscoring midfielder, and it remains to be seen whether he was actually worth the Designated Player investment. The question isn’t lack of talent, but rather whether he fits in with this group (and if he does, is he better wide left or in the middle?).
NYCFC’s depth on the wings is fairly ridiculous, leaving Vieira with the luxury of intense competition for playing time as well as the ability to pick players based on specific match-ups. Last week, Jack Harrison and Rodney Wallace got the starts, which meant no room for Tommy McNamara. On a smaller surface, McNamara’s more technical game might be better for the Pigeons than Harrison (who relies mostly on direct dribbling at this point) or Wallace (who, though I rate him quite highly, can be a bit suspect when it comes to playing in tight spaces). United should also worry about potential sub Khiry Shelton, who has troubled the Black-and-Red every time he’s played against them.
Up front, David Villa is coming off an MVP season and seems to not be losing much of anything physically despite being 35. Last week, United’s center backs had to deal with the chippy, physical Dom Dwyer. With Villa, they’ll again be up against an unusually small #9, but Villa is far more cerebral. He’s not going to win physical battles, so he uses his brain and avoids them entirely by making good runs off the ball. Steve Birnbaum needs to be especially sharp, because Villa tends to drift left of center (thus lining him up against the right-center back). And please, everyone: no back passes that hand him a breakaway.
Off the bench, McNamara and Shelton are both game-changers in different ways. McNamara could play on either wing, or replace Moralez, or in the 3241 actually partner him as dual attacking midfielders. Shelton will most likely only play on the right wing, but NYCFC loves to use him as a target winger. Since he’s 6’3” and has a basketball player’s vertical leap, it tends to work pretty well. Okoli is another option if Vieira wants to add a second forward, though that would most likely mean pulling a defender.
That points towards how things may go in this one. NYCFC will - not might, but will - pull defenders for attackers if losing. They’ll also add a defender for an attacker if protecting a lead; don’t be surprised if they end up bringing Brillant in and moving to a back five (possibly the 5221 they spent some time in last year). That makes them a unique challenge, and United will need a full 90 minute performance to overcome that and get their first win at Yankee Stadium.