New York City FC may not look like the most imposing visitor for D.C. United, seeing as how they’re winless in 2019, but Domè Torrent has plenty of talent at his disposal. The real issue has been bringing it to bear, as NYCFC hasn’t once looked as good as they should on paper. Confidence seems low, and even when they look sharp going forward, they mix in enough defensive errors to undermine their gameplan. It’s going badly enough that our friends at Hudson River Blue are already calling for a coaching change.
Let’s get into what’s gone wrong:
Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson
Everyone is talking about Johnson’s latest, possibly greatest howler, and rightly so. It’s a disaster. However, for our purposes I think we should recall that the last time these teams met, he was the best goalkeeper in MLS for the week. The book on Johnson is the same as ever: capable of brilliance, also capable of unimaginable gaffes. Just a hunch, think he bounces back and makes it tough on United tomorrow.
Right back: Anton Tinnerholm
Tinnerholm might not be NYCFC’s best player, but he’s probably their most consistent. Torrent doesn’t get as much out of him going forward as Patrick Vieira did. Per American Soccer Analysis, Tinnerholm had 37 key passes in 2018, and has just 4 in 2019. Still, the Swede is a pretty good all-around player, and it’s hardly his fault the Pigeons keep giving goals away.
Center back: Maxime Chanot
If Tinnerholm has seen one portion of his game fall off a bit under Torrent, Chanot is one of several who have taken a full step back. It’s not that the French-born Luxembourger is outright bad now, but he’s no longer as solid and reliable as he was in his first couple of MLS seasons. That said, he might look better tomorrow thanks to the return of...
Center back: Alexander Callens
Callens has been out for a few games, but he’s off the injury report. That’s not great for United, as he’s the best center back NYCFC has on their roster by a healthy margin. That said, he hasn’t really been at his best form at any point under Torrent. Nonetheless, their defending inside the box just got better, and they’ve got one less error-prone player in their lineup.
Left back: Ronald Matarrita
DCU fans probably remember Matarrita from his outstanding performances for Alajuelense back in 2015, but it’s been an up-and-down couple of years for him in the Bronx. He’s recently won the starting job back from Ben Sweat, though with Torrent there’s always a chance this reverses for unclear reasons. Matarrita loves to attack, but has been a bit of a defensive liability, and might be better suited to being a wingback than a true fullback.
Right-center midfield: Alexander Ring
Ring has been arguably NYCFC’s best player this season, despite having to carry a bunch of things on his plate due to the issues around him. He’s their joint-leading scorer (2 goals, but still), he sees more of the ball than anyone else, and he’s generally done his best to be a force in all phases.
That said, Ring’s major weakness in 2019 is that he’s been beaten on the dribble an average of 2 times per game this season (that’s not great for a central midfielder). With Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez in the midfield, it’s something D.C. should focus on.
Left-center midfield midfield: James Sands or Ebenezer Ofori
Ring’s partner in midfield will determine what his exact role is, provided Torrent opts for the 4231. Sands has been more or less solid playing as a no. 6, while Ofori is more of a box-to-box midfielder. My guess is that Torrent, on the road, chooses the more defensively secure option of deploying Sands, but as with most things pertaining to Torrent, it’s a guess.
Right wing: Ismael Tajouri-Shradi
Tajouri-Shradi’s interesting. Swiss-born, an Austrian citizen, and a Libyan international, Tajouri-Shradi had an almost impossible strike rate last year, scoring on each of his first 5 shots on goal (and getting to 7 goals with 8 shots on goal). He has come back to earth since, going on a goalless run from the start of September last year until last weekend, where he produced 2 goals against Minnesota United.
Attacking midfield: Maxi Moralez
Moralez is NYCFC’s best player, but he hasn’t really gotten going this year. For a player of his caliber, 0 goals/1 assist in 4 games is disappointing. However, he’s putting in the effort, and United needs to make sure they track him at all times. In terms of speed and strength, Moralez isn’t a threat; it’s his brain and technique that make him dangerous. If United can always have someone on him and get some contact in before he receives the ball, they can probably keep him quiet.
Left wing: Alexandru Mitrita
Shoot first, shoot second, shoot third. Mitrita is clearly a hugely talented player, and he’s averaging about 3.5 successful dribbles per 90, but it all seems to be in service of calling his own number. United will really want to make sure to keep Mitrita on his less-favored left foot, but that’s easier said than done. Everyone knows he wants to dip the shoulder, cut inside, and have a go, but he’s pretty dang good at the first two steps of that process. He’s also shown in preseason that he definitely can find the corner with his shots...it just hasn’t happened yet. United needs to keep him frustrated, because he tends to fade out of games once he starts to lose confidence.
Striker: Heber or...someone else
Valentin Castellanos finally had an actual good game as a forward, but he’s questionable after an ugly clash of heads with Ike Opara that forced both players to be substituted late in last week’s 3-3 draw. Heber was brought in to be the last piece of the puzzle, but there are doubts that he’s fit enough to start just yet. If Castellanos is cleared to play, he probably gets the nod, but that seems fairly unlikely.
It could be Heber, who hasn’t really done enough in his limited minutes to give us a sense of what he’s all about, but beyond them it gets dicey. Torrent has used Moralez as a false 9 (which would probably mean either a 433 that we’ll get into later or moving Mitrita into the middle and bringing in Jesus Medina or Jonathan Lewis), but he’s also had Medina and Lewis both give that role a shot as well.
If he doesn’t start, Heber seems very likely to get 30+ minutes off the bench regardless of who ends up getting the nod up top. Medina and Lewis have really struggled this season, but both have played for their national teams, so they can’t just be dismissed out of hand. Ofori could add some range to the midfield while allowing a shift of formation (Torrent loves to tinker in-game, so expect a formation change at some point). Similarly, defensive utility player Tony Rocha could come in if they want to go to a back 3 or back 5.
In terms of playing style, NYCFC would prefer to dominate possession. They’re a technical team rather than an athletic team, and they want the ball on the ground at a tempo that is somewhere south of track meet soccer. However, at least once this year, they’ve been willing to just dump it long and let their front three/four go chase it down, in hopes of some individual brilliance. We could see that today, but I’d expect them to at least give the possession game a shot first.
Torrent’s variations come in formation. We could easily see them play a back five like they did last week, which would see Rocha or Ben Sweat come in as a third center back. That could mean a 532 or a 5221. We could also see a 433, with Ofori joining Ring and Sands in what would be a more combative midfield than it is creative. In that case, Moralez might end up as a false 9, often swapping spots on the fly with Mitrita (who would be nominally the left forward).