NYCFC 1-0 Chicago + Orlando Preview: Ebenezer Unchained

Are we seeing another side of NYCFC’s least exciting midfielder?

Ebenezer Ofori dreams of being Marcelo. No, really. That’s what he told Swedish TV presenters when they invited this shy kid, barely 20 at the time, to talk about being named the Allsvenskan’s best midfielder of 2015. If you’ve never heard his voice, it’s exactly how you imagined it: faint but firm, his adagio tenor inflected only by a gentle Ghanaian accent and the syncopated rhythms of a speaker choosing his words carefully.

The interview itself is dull. What does he have to say about his season? First of all, he’d like to thank God. And about the surprise of being the best in Sweden? For him, it’s like: he’s steady. Which great footballer is his role model? Real Madrid’s Marcelo.

Wait, what. That Marcelo? The freewheeling Brazilian fullback, the guy who takes on defensive responsibilities by rabona nutmegging them and sprinting merrily away to join the attack, who helped redefine his position’s basic job description from “part of the back line” to “sort of like a winger, but also like that part in Pulp Fiction where they jab a needle full of adrenaline straight into someone’s heart?”

With no disrespect to Eben: Know thyself, amigo. Maybe life was different back in Europe, but for the last fourteen months Ofori’s been quite possibly the most boring player in all of Major League Soccer, the footballing equivalent of going over the instructions on the back of your 1099-R while you wait for the dermatologist to call you in for a mole check-up. This is a compliment! Defensive midfielders should be felt more than seen, and staying out of sight means rarely making a mistake. For every three tackles Ofori attempts—and he attempts more than any other NYCFC starter—he wins two. For every hundred passes, he completes 86 (a lower rate than in last season’s more cautious system, but still comfortably above what American Soccer Analysis’s passing model expects). His game is a model of quiet efficiency, as far from Marcelo’s style as Swedish Waffle Day is from Carnaval.

Like Ring, Ofori’s passing is longer and less efficient this season, but the Chicago game was much more vertical than usual. (Top: angle is pass direction, length is pass count, yellow is longer average distances. Bottom: angle is pass direction, center line is expected pass completion rate, blue is better than expected. From @etmckinley and @analysisevolved.)

Which is why it was kind of strange this week that people suddenly started noticing Ofori, not because of any particular blunder or even any memorable highlights, but for something more like a change in atmospheric pressure. He was just different. It was hard to put a finger on it, but some quirk of the new 3-4-3 seemed to be putting him in positions to make plays he normally doesn’t, or else to do them better, or—this is what it felt like against Chicago on Wednesday night—in a way that was just a little bit more Alexander Ring–like.

Actually, by the time of the Chicago game Ring and Ofori had pretty much switched roles entirely: when NYCFC’s defensive midfielders staggered between the Fire’s lines, it was more often Ring dropping back to help the center backs. Ofori stayed upfield, leaving him in position to counterpress and start plays in the attacking half like he’d done at D.C. It also meant Ring was the one with a mostly lateral passmap while Ofori pushed the tempo up the wing—the opposite of how they’ve played for most of their year-plus together.

Against Chicago, Ofori (left) passed vertically and defended high while Ring (right) did Ofori things.

Ofori’s verticality turned out to be the story of the game. When NYCFC scored the early goal by breaking forward off a Chicago corner kick, he led the charge all the way to the opposite box, nearly getting a toe on the cross Taty Castellanos drove home. When Maxi Moralez and Héber misread each other’s intentions on what could have been the prettiest dummy assist of the year, the play started with an Ofori longball. So did the sequence that led to the penalty, NYCFC’s only notable shot after the goal. Ebenezer Ofori, attacking playmaker: just imagine it.

The reasons for the Metamoforisis are bound up with why NYCFC looked so different—and, if we’re being honest, worse—at home against Chicago than on the road against D.C. United. As Dome Torrent explained, his three-back system takes on a different character depending on who starts at forward. “It’s different, because when you decide to play with Ismael and Maxi they can play in between the lines, like a box,” he said, recalling NYCFC’s attacking combination play against Minnesota. “But when you play with Taty, you play a little bit different … with a number ten and two strikers.” In the first scheme you wind up with a more possession-minded 3-4-2-1, in the second a counterattacking 3-5-2.

Wednesday’s gameplan was even more extreme than either of those. Yes, Taty played on Héber’s line, but so did Maxi for most of the game, swinging out of the ten spot to left wing, where he wouldn’t get isolated between the DM pair of Dax McCarty and Mo Adams. Without Maxi slowing the attack in Zone 14, NYCFC’s wingbacks got forward much less than against D.C. Instead, the idea was to get from back to front in three passes, like a big Z scrawled sideways across the halfway line: a center back splits lines to a forward checking back, the forward lays it off to an oncoming midfielder, and as the defense bites on the backpass, the midfielder—Ofori, more often than not—first-times it to a second forward over the top. (If that sounds confusing, there are plenty of examples in the video at the end of this post.)

So what are we left with. A five-man defense with James Sands in the middle, Ring and Ofori in midfield, and direct play up the wings: Dome’s tactics on Wednesday resembled nothing so much as Opening Day at Orlando. At the time that game felt like a one-off tinker job. Now it feels like the first draft of a plan whose whole outline is finally coming into view. Whether you’re as enthusiastic about the wide counterattacking 5-2-3 from Orlando and Chicago as the narrow, more controlled 3-4-2-1 from D.C. and the first half at Minnesota is a matter of taste (and of your tolerance for adjusting tactics to protect a lead). But it’s nice to imagine that we might be coming around the last bend on Dome’s tactical mystery tour, and that the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

We’ll find out Saturday when Orlando visits the Bronx. As Dome pointed out, James O’Connor’s been doing some experimenting of his own, switching from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 for a win over Vancouver last week, but in both shapes Orlando likes to cross from out wide. That’ll mean more opportunities to counter behind their outside backs. Let’s hope NYCFC’s newest attacking playmaker—our Marcelo in spirit, if not in style—will be ready. ❧

Video Review

Image: I Am Not a Witch