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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: New York City FC

NYCFC got deeper, but did they improve enough to take the next step?

Last year under Patrick Vieira, New York City FC ended up surprising a lot of people. Despite the star power on their roster, they looked like a top-heavy team that was built to put on a show more than they were to actually win games. Vieira’s dogmatic approach - his teams will build out of the back, will be attack-first, and will focus on possession - seemed a bit naive for an NYCFC team that seemed to need a more defensive approach to hide their weaknesses.

So much for that. While the Pigeons struggled out of the gate, they figured things out as the season went on. They became the kind of team that uses possession to protect their defense, and they couldn’t stop scoring goals. Vieira steered his team well enough that the heaviest loss any club suffered all of last year was followed with a 4-1-1 reaction. The days of NYCFC being a naive afterthought are over, and they sound confident they can make a run at the Supporters Shield.

Last season

Regular season: 54 points (15W-9D-10L, +5GD) | 2nd in East
Playoffs: Lost 7-0 on aggregate in Eastern Conference semifinals to Toronto FC

Putting aside the loud thud their season ended with, NYCFC started off very slowly under Vieira. Just like their competition for eyeballs in the Big Apple, the Pigeons won just once in their opening eight games (though four draws kept them in touching distance with the rest of the pack). An up-and-down run followed, with three straight wins followed by an 0W-2D-2L run as May became June.

From there, NYCFC won 11 of their final 19 games, a stretch that saw them pick up over 63% of the available points in their games. That’s a run of form that, stretched across a full season, would get them to 64 points (in other words, probably clinching the Supporters Shield over last year’s FC Dallas side with a week or two to spare).

While their reputation is that of an “offense first, defense maybe” sort of team, that second half of the season saw them mix victories powered by pure goalscoring ability (six of those final eleven wins involved scoring three or more goals) with the sort of wins they aren’t supposed to be able to pull off. The other five games were shutout wins of either 2-0 or 1-0, the kind of win you have to be able to deliver if you’re a real MLS contender.

Projected starting lineup

Vieira is a tinkerer, and he’s comfortable trotting his team in a wide range of formations. Last year NYCFC was mostly a 433 team, but they also played 4231, the 343/541 hybrid often associated with Costa Rica’s national team, 5221, and probably a couple things I’m forgetting. No team in MLS is more tactically adventurous than Manchester City’s American branch.

That also extends into choosing players. NYCFC upgraded in goal by acquiring Sean Johnson, but a) they didn’t improve by much and b) Johnson’s lack of comfort on the ball is a big issue for a team that will try to build out of the back in any conditions, against any opponent, in any venue. Peruvian international Alexander Callens has been brought in to compete with MLS’s only Luxembourger Maxime Chanot to start alongside Frederic Brillant in central defense.

We know Andrea Pirlo will remain a starter, but there are questions elsewhere in the midfield. Man City signed emerging Venezuela national team midfielder Yangel Herrera and immediately loaned the 19 year old to NYCFC just weeks after the Pigeons had signed Finnish international Alexander Ring from Kaiserslautern in Germany. Both are TAM-level players (though Herrera’s situation is an odd one) who have been brought in to take over for the retired Andoni Iraola.

NYCFC also signed Maxi Moralez as a Designated Player, and while the versatile Argentine can play several positions in this set-up, he’ll start the season as the #10...well, probably. We could see Tommy McNamara pulled back there with Moralez on a wing, or vice versa. McNamara could also start on either wing, but NYCFC is extraordinarily deep in that department. Rodney Wallace was a sneaky-good signing to add on the left, while Jack Harrison, Khiry Shelton, and Panama national team winger Miguel Camargo are all going to push very hard for starts as well.

Oh, and they still have MLS MVP David Villa up front, so this team is going to score a few goals.

Key signing: Maxi Moralez

The attacking midfield role with NYCFC is different because Andrea Pirlo pulls the strings from deeper. With chance creators like McNamara and Harrison available wide and Pirlo being Pirlo, they’ll create a ton of opportunities without necessarily needing a playmaking #10 who racks up 10+ assists. This is basically the Frank Lampard role, and say what you will about the former England national team member’s fitness, but the dude did that job well. Last year, in 1,280 minutes, Lampard scored 12 goals. That’s a potential Golden Boot-winning strike rate on a team that still has David Villa.

Moralez was brought in from Club Leon in Mexico to fill that spot on the field, but it’s not entirely clear he’s a Lampard clone. For one thing, he’s significantly smaller and thinner than Lampard, who was built for the physical play in MLS. He’s also simply not a particularly prolific goalscorer. Instead, his career points to being more of a 10 goals/10 assists kind of guy in MLS. Now, that’s a great thing to have, and worth a TAM or DP level investment. 10 and 10 is a hard mark to hit in this league. But is he the right fit for a team built around Villa and Pirlo?

Key player: Frederic Brillant

On a team with the league MVP, an international legend, a man with his own cult, and an outstanding group of young attackers, it’s a bit odd to talk about a nondescript center back of no real worldwide fame. Brillant is not an MLS Best 11 player, he’s never played for his national team, and the clubs on his resume are not exactly powerhouse clubs (all due respect to KV Oostende and the now-defunct Beerschot AC).

And yet, he is the backbone of a defense that has to improve if NYCFC is going to be more than an entertaining team to watch. The Pigeons gave up 57 goals last year, including catastrophic home losses (7-0 to the Red Bulls, 5-0 to TFC). Adding Callens may help, whether he displaces Chanot or simply adds competition. And even if Johnson is not a major improvement in goal, he is still indisputably better than Josh Saunders.

Still, with Vieira urging his fullbacks to attack, and both Ronald Matarrita and RJ Allen being better on that side of the ball than they are defensively, there will be major demands placed on Brillant and whomever ends up being his partner at center back. In a lot of ways, NYCFC’s hopes for the year hinge on just how good the Frenchman can be.

Overall prospects

Vieira has said he thinks his side is “much better” than last year. I’m not convinced. They’re deeper, for sure: Camargo is a current Panama national team player, and I’m not sure where he’s going to get enough minutes to help his career. They got younger at defensive midfield, adding some sorely needed mobility. Their goalkeeping situation is probably no longer the worst in MLS. The addition of Wallace was, in my opinion, inspired.

All that said, Villa and Pirlo are a year older. No one on the roster fits the Lampard role on paper, and the glut of wingers they’ve brought in may force McNamara away from his best spot on the field. The defense, meanwhile, needed more help than just Callens. They also spent a ton of allocation money to draft Jonathan Lewis, another winger, when there were a slew of right backs - a position they need to improve upon - available via a far less expensive move up the draft order.

I think the progress and the problems here balance each other out. NYCFC is comfortably going to make the playoffs, and I think they should finish in the top 3 in the East. However, they will get blown out a few times, and I think their inability to defend is going to cost them again in the postseason.