Unfortunately for D.C. United, they won’t have much film to use to New York City FC ahead of tomorrow’s game. The preseason features so much chopping and changing that you can only glean so much, and NYCFC’s first game of the season involved sitting very deep and playing a ton of long balls at a stadium that features a respectably-sized pitch. That’s much different from playing at Yankee Stadium, which features field dimensions more akin to a boxing ring than a soccer field.
NYCFC’s trip to Orlando did tell us a few things, if only concerning personnel. David Villa’s move to Japan has left Domé Torrent in need of a striker, while City Football Group opted to move Yangel Herrera from its American outpost over to Spanish club SD Huesca. It might have been a good idea to play a different formation without these two vital players, but Torrent hasn’t really altered things on that front (though he is willing to, as we’ll get to). Herrera’s move has seen Alexander Ring pushed into a ball-winner’s role, and homegrown midfielder James Sands got the start in the anchor spot last week.
Villa’s departure is the more complicated one, because NYCFC didn’t really go get a natural forward, nor did they keep the disappointing Jo-Inge Berget around. Instead, at least based on what we’ve seen early this year, Torrent has gone with an unconventional solution: Maxi Moralez, NYCFC’s attacking midfielder and not really a natural forward at all, has been pushed up top. Last week at least, he wasn’t even a false 9; he was just a center forward, mostly chasing balls played in behind the Orlando City defense. It’s not really the best usage of Moralez, but that’s the roster they have.
In terms of spending, Villa’s replacement is Alexandru Mitrita, a Romanian international who struggled in 2 seasons spent in Serie A before returning to his domestic league. However, as pointed out by Alexis Guerreros of the Cooligans on this week’s Filibuster, the gaudy transfer fee on Mitrita was one chosen by City Football Group, who also happen to have built up one of the world’s best teams in Manchester City. His resume might not indicate that he can replace Villa’s production (let alone his charisma and leadership), but CFG isn’t putting up nearly $10 million on some rando.
Torrent has occasionally tinkered, and last week he outright abandoned the normal NYCFC system. The preferred 433 was altered slightly, with the Pigeons playing a 4141 with Moralez very isolated up top. More importantly, though, was the prominent choice to play long balls to start attacks rather than to string together passes.
That’s probably not the approach for this game, as NYCFC’s problems last year certainly didn’t include getting wins at home (12W-4D-1L). Most likely, we’ll see a true 433:
Sean Johnson is the established starting goalkeeper, and despite what you may remember about him (including the mistake that handed United their only chance in a 1-1 draw that remains the Black-and-Red’s only point at Yankee Stadium), he has improved in terms of consistency. Johnson is quick off his line and can make spectacular saves, and NYCFC is willing to have him pass out of the back. However, while he has lowered the number of gaffes, he does invite high pressure and hopeful balls into the area for a good reason.
The back four appears pretty set. Anton Tinnerholm came over from Sweden last year and looked like one of the best right backs in MLS. Unlike last week’s conservative performance, look for him to attack with abandon unless United gives him a good reason to stay home. Tinnerholm ends up often being the fifth man in NYCFC’s attack, and his role is not dissimilar to Leonardo Jara’s with D.C.
The rest of the back four consists of center back pairing Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens, with Ben Sweat over on the left. Callens covers a ton of ground due to his overall athleticism, while Chanot is a more traditional (read: big, strong, not particularly fast) option. Sweat left last week’s game in the 78th minute with a possible knock, and was replaced by former Orlando utility man Tony Rocha. Ronald Matarrita missed last week’s game with a calf strain, and there has been no news giving us reason to believe he’d be back. NYCFC has no one listed on their injury report, but that was the case last week, so it could well be that they’re just not bothering to submit injury news.
In the midfield, another late substitution has opened up some possible shuffling. If everyone is healthy, look for Alexander Ring and Ebenezer Ofori to function as dual box-to-box options in front of Sands, who often drops very deep when NYCFC is forced to scramble by opposing attacks in transition. Sands was withdrawn in the 88th minute after a tough tackle, and when Keaton Parks came in, Torrent moved the pieces around. Ring dropped into the deep role (where he’s at his best), Ofori moved over to the right-center position, and Parks played left-center midfield. You might remember Parks getting a ton of hype a year or so ago when he was getting close to first-team minutes at Benfica, who have sent him to MLS on loan to get some seasoning.
The right wing is NYCFC’s least settled position at the moment. Jonathan Lewis got the first start, but he’s better on the left and didn’t really make much of an impact in Orlando. Jesus Medina, one of the club’s three Designated Players, replaced him, and is a more natural right winger. However, Torrent might also be tempted to get Ismael Tajouri-Shradi — more of a goalscoring threat than Lewis or Medina — on the field. He may be the best compliment to the players around him, though his finishing numbers last year were so far above his expected goals that one has to expect regression to the mean. Valentin Castellanos could also get a look, as Torrent went with him frequently last season, but it feels like he’s not necessarily in favor at the moment.
NYCFC’s attack really hinges on the remaining two players. Mitrita, no matter how much his transfer drew skepticism, can really play. His first touch is eye-catching, he has the ability to both spot and actually play difficult passes in the attacking third, and he’s got a knack for hitting knuckling shots with his right foot. Mitrita loves to tuck into the half-space to get closer to Moralez, and has plenty of freedom to roam, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see him with his heels on the touchline from time to time. Based on limited scouting at least, he’ll drift out there looking to drag his man into isolation before moving inside on the dribble.
Moralez is not a forward, but there he is leading the line. The idea here is that Moralez will drift around looking for pockets of space, making him awkward to keep track of. He’s not winning anything in the air at 5’3”, he’s not a speedster running in behind, and yet Orlando’s back three seemed mystified by his movement at times last week. Now, granted, that’s Orlando, the team with 2 wins in their last 26 MLS matches, and also Orlando vs. NYCFC was a game that seemed to fall into structureless, arrhythmic chaos for long spells, but still: Torrent’s crazy idea didn’t look all that crazy last week.
Of course, at home, we could see Torrent alter this formation. United struggled against a 442 diamond last season at Yankee Stadium, and the not-fit-for-MLS venue does seem custom-made for playing that formation. If that’s the case, I’d expect the midfield triangle above to stay intact, with Moralez completing the diamond by dropping a bit deeper. Mitrita would play as a second forward, probably alongside Castellanos. The downside to a diamond: NYCFC doesn’t have any depth in terms of out-and-out forwards. They’re not really built to play with more than one, which explains last week’s use of Moralez up there.
Torrent also made use of a 4231 last season, and could start someone like Castellanos up top at the expense of a central midfielder (probably Sands), moving Moralez into his natural position. This makes some sense, though it would possibly lessen their presence in zone 14, which is to say it could harm their ability to deal with Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta. Obviously 4231 can work against D.C. (just ask Columbus), but the way Torrent has set his team up in the past, I’m not sure he’s got the players for it. Having some kind of anchor presence makes more sense to me, though Torrent could surely take some lessons from Gregg Berhalter and apply them here.