Across the ditch (or across many large ditches) from Melbourne City FC’s Latrobe base is their sister club in the United States; New York City FC, playing it out with Pirlo, Lampard and David Villa (yep, that’s where he went) in America’s MLS. This week, TURF’s North America Correspondent, Samuel Patterson, shares some thoughts on NYCFC’s debut season.
Whereas the Premier League—or basically any other football league on earth—creates late-season excitement around its hapless squads with the relegation battle, Major League Soccer bestows on us the ‘playoff push.’ The season winds down, and squads on the other side of the Promised Land stress, obsess, and rekindle a sense of urgency that they should have had all along, like the all-nighter you pull before an exam, something easily avoided had you gotten your shit together sooner.
With its 2-1 loss on October 3rd to D.C. United, the thread clutched by New York City Football Club (NYCFC) snapped to plunge the team into the mathematically-eliminated purgatory of watching the postseason on the couch. NYCFC’s meagre 37 points from 32 matches will leave it among the minority of squads in MLS unable to top such a low bar. But just like for the other expansion squad in MLS this year, Orlando City Soccer Club (which will likely get its own mathematical elimination this upcoming weekend), 2015 was NYCFC’s growing pains year, the necessary prelude to what points to a dominant 2016.
From day one, NYCFC’s owners didn’t plan to just throw money at big-name, boutique, players to join their American holding. Well they did; they are, after all, owned by the City Football Group owned by the UAE United Group owned by the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. It’s holdings are valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars. They also own Melbourne City and Manchester City, of which NYCFC is derisively labeled the youth development squad for the larger, parent club. David Villa swapped Atletico Madrid for New York’s Upper West Side. Most-Interesting-Man-in-the-World-inspirer Andrea Pirlo arrived mid-season from Juventus. Once he was finally—and controversially—freed from his contract at Manchester City, Frank Lampard came to join the party too. With that attacking triumvirate, it felt like the City Football Group was recreating a particularly potent FIFA 2006 squad it had once assembled in manager-mode.
To complement its flashier, high-profile signings, NYCFC attempted to round-out the side with role players that could play in an attacking philosophy, all the more important on the narrower confines that City would play home games on, the repurposed grass at the New York Yankees baseball stadium. City brought in Mix Diskerud, an up-tempo attacking midfielder who had been on the US 23-man roster in Brazil. They obtained the rights for other grizzled veterans of MLS, guys on the other side of 30 with years of experience gritting it out in America, to provide defensive cover immediately on day one. Most importantly of all, City brought in Jason Kreis, a coach with an impressive MLS resume, to lead it to the playoffs on the back of a 4-2-3-1 formation focused on possession, passing accuracy, and an attacking build-up from the middle of the field.
At the beginning of the season, it didn’t work. City followed up four points from its first two games with an eleven match winless streak from the end of March into June. Having outshot and out-possessed the opposition in all but one of their losses in this period, City found itself penalized again and again by small lapses exploited by an improbable string of opportunistic squads. Perhaps it’s too much to say they found new ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but they did seem cursed, not by a big God but perhaps a smaller one from the pantheon. What they do indicate about City was City’s lack of quality possession and quality chances created. It’s not just enough to win at statistical categories.
Take for example the losses from the streak. 1-0 to Sporting Kansas City and 3-1 to Seattle Sounders: City holds its own in possession and the run of play. But five minute spurts of absentee footballing enable both squads to tally later in the second half. 2-1 to Portland Timbers: again they had the ball more, completed more passes around the field, and put more chances around the net. A deflected strike that goalie Josh Saunders was helpless to save proved the decisive moment. 1-0 to Chicago Fire: a howler by Saunders on the goal line leaves Fire striker David Accam with the ball ten yards from goal and ten more from the nearest City defender. In a pair of 2-0 losses to cross-river rivals New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake, the team Kreis jilted to join NYCFC, City put two and one shots respectively on target despite launching more than ten.
NYCFC languished in the Eastern Conference cellar at the end of the winless streak: seven points from thirteen games. Playoff qualification was as visible as the view in downtown Manhattan on a particularly smoggy day. The rest of the season, as Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard entered City’s starting 11, was the failed ‘push.’ A much more respectable thirty points from 17 games, though it’s clear Pirlo and Lampard still need time to adjust.
Notable bright spots emerged out of the push. David Villa has been NYCFC’s most prolific attacker, poaching and dribbling and passing his way to leading NYCFC both in goals (17) and assists (8). City’s bet on trading with Sounders for the 23-year-old Kwadwo Poku, the “slayin’ Ghanaian,” has paid out brilliantly. He’s second only to Villa for assists and contributed three integral goals to the playoff push’s August hopes. He’s just received his first call-up to the Ghanaian national team based on his play for NYCFC. Goalie Joe Saunders has made over 100 saves this year, putting him up there with MLS’s top shot-stoppers. Well, perhaps that’s not the best category to be at the top of.
Now mathematically eliminated with two games to go, NYCFC certainly regrets the missteps of the first half of the season. It’s unlikely, though, that anyone at Yankee Stadium is panic dialing the aging bodies of England’s or Italy’s benches. Coach Kreis’ system and the world-class pre-retirees he’ll have on the pitch go together like the elderly and early-bird dinner specials. Instead of being rushed onto the field with unfamiliar teammates in a quixotic domestic league and new tactical imperatives, as 2015 transpired, Lampard and Pirlo will have an entire offseason to settle. Next year’s playoff push should be a lot more fruitful.
Words by Samuel Patterson in NY, USA. Images from Where is Football