MLS Really Shouldn’t Be Back

We don’t have to do this.

The MLS is Back tournament is right around the corner! Coming to you live from Orlando, inside a safely sealed bub—

*refreshes Twitter*

Okay, look, the bubble’s really more of a metaphor, but at least you’ll finally get to watch your favorite stars like reigning MVP Carlos Ve—

*refreshes Twitter again*

Let’s try this again:

The MLS is Back tournament is a moral travesty and it should be cancelled immediately.

For the last four months we’ve been trapped in an endless coronavirus-induced clown fiesta. Now, in the middle of the worst public health crisis since the Spanish flu of 1918, President Trump is urging sports leagues into action to show that everything is returning to normal (it isn’t) and that we’ve beaten the virus (we haven’t). MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been working with the White House on a restart plan since the early weeks of quarantine, and other league commissioners even sat on Trump’s committee to reopen the economy.

Why on earth are sports leagues agreeing to come back now?  The simple answer is money.

As an industry whose standard revenue model involves mass gatherings of people breathing loudly on each other, sports leagues saw the writing on the wall at the outset of social distancing and began to devise plans to play inside fan-free “bubbles.” For leagues like the NBA and MLB, I can understand—but still totally disagree with—the economic case for playing these games for a TV-only audience. The NBA earns $2.6 billion a year from broadcast rights; for the NFL, it’s $7 billion.  

MLS, on the other hand, makes an overwhelming share of its money from gameday attendance. The league receives a paltry $90 million a year from its TV deals with Fox, ESPN, and Univision—barely a drop in the bucket of the billion dollars of revenue Garber expects MLS to lose this year. 

It’s unconscionable for MLS owners to rush the league back into action for such a meager sum. Here’s who has to take a trip to the Magic Covid Kingdom for this thing to happen: young players trying to support a family on a league minimum salary. Here’s who can stay home in their mansions: a bunch of billionaires whose franchise values are skyrocketing thanks to expansion fees and SUM equity even as they happily “lose” millions of dollars in a good year.

Owners have already used the virus to wring salary cuts and other concessions from players. Though the league had agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement with players before the pandemic struck, owners saw a Machiavellian opportunity to reopen negotiations and try to jimjam an unfair force majeure clause into the deal by threatening a lockout. Players won the force majeure battle but lost the negotiating war, which is how we got this stupid Orlando tournament.

After the CBA deal was done, Garber held a video conference with reporters. On the topic of safety, Garber said, “What I will tell you is that everything that we do will be within the accordance of local health authorities, and we’re not going to do it unless we can assure the safety of our players and the safety of our team administrative staff and operational staff.”

The key phrase, of course, was “local health authorities.” MLS cherrypicked Florida to host the tournament because they knew Governor Ron DeSantis—who you might call a potato wearing a MAGA hat if only that weren’t so insulting to potatoes—was the brain genius who’d dunked on New York for its coronavirus caution and declared that his state had beaten the virus and was reopening for business. A few weeks later Florida is the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, yet DeSantis insists that Florida will not be closing back down, or even requiring statewide social distancing and mask wearing. Welcome to your new home, MLS players.

Instead of doing the responsible thing and pulling the plug on the tournament, MLS has doubled down on the bubble fantasy. Although teams will be confined to two Disney World hotels, the reality is that thousands of Disney employees will pass in and out of the bubble daily, and their union has sounded the alarm that park employees will not be tested.

Up until this week, we didn’t even know MLS’s own test results, as league policy didn’t require teams to disclose coronavirus cases before the tournament. Though NYCFC announced that a member of the front office tested positive in March, The Athletic reported that the club has since stayed silent about multiple cases among players and staff. When players complain about being forced to play through the pandemic, they know the risks involved. Fans are kept in the dark.

As MLS cases multiply and teams scramble to postpone their flights to Florida, the Disney bubble looks dangerously close to popping.  Three FC Dallas players who were coronavirus-free upon arrival have since tested positive inside the bubble, bringing the team’s current known cases to ten. Even as the entire squad has been put on isolation orders, the league continues to insist that Dallas will play in a tournament scheduled to start in five days.

These games do not need to happen. Forcibly mingling thousands of MLS and Disney employees is guaranteed to spread the disease even in the safest circumstances—and Orlando right now is anything but safe. Cancel the tournament. Send players home. Let owners take the L and start planning a safe return to play 2021. Playing this tournament just so that MLS can finally beat axe throwing and cornhole in the TV ratings isn’t worth the price. ❧

Image: Mac.Else von Berlin, colourful

NYCFC 4-1 Atlanta: The Fall of Frank de Boer

How Dome Torrent’s positional play beat Atlanta’s rigid gameplan.

If you were, say, a New York Times soccer writer parachuting in to cover your city’s team for the first time all season on the night they all but sealed their first Eastern Conference title, you might attribute NYCFC’s—oops, N.Y.C.F.C.’s—4-1 demolition of Atlanta United to Alexandru Mitriţǎ’s brilliant hat trick or Josef Martínez’s absence (never mind that the hosts were missing Anton Tinnerholm, Keaton Parks, and James Sands).

But the real story on Wednesday took place on the sidelines, where two very different coaching philosophies went head to head—and Frank de Boer’s lost.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of coaches. The first is the systems coach. This type believes a particular tactical set-up is the best way to play football, which means even when it’s not working, the gameplan doesn’t change. All a coach can do is sub off underperforming players and hope for some individual efforts to scratch out a result.

The second type is the principles-based coach. This kind of manager may prefer certain tactics or formations but isn’t wed to them, because what matters is less where players are on the whiteboard than how they play the game. As long as the team keeps its style, it can change its shape mid-game to counter the opponent’s gameplan and seek out advantages.

It’s obvious that de Boer falls into the first category. After Atlanta beat the Quakes last weekend, he went so far as to say, “With this system, especially against a team like San Jose, we understand what we have to do if we face them next time. If we change it’s just small details. You don’t have to really get into [Atlanta players’] minds. If you’re thinking then it’s always too late—then you are reacting instead of anticipating.” Which makes you wonder: was de Boer anticipating Mitri’s first half hat trick, or would a little more reacting maybe have helped?

Frank de Boer and Eric Remedi share a moment.

If anyone belongs in the second category, the principles-based coach, it’s Domènec Torrent. Entering the match, the big question was who NYCFC would play in place of Tinnerholm, who suffered a concussion over the weekend. In a surprise move, Dome called on natural center back Sebastien Ibeagha to man the right flank in a back four, sacrificing attacking overlaps for defensive solidity. Ibeagha’s conservative style kept numbers back and ensured NYCFC would build through the central rectangle of Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, Tony Rocha, and Alex Ring.

In the bigger scheme of things, this wasn’t just about replacing Tinnerholm: it was a deliberate adaptation after NYCFC had failed to break Atlanta’s press on the road in August. After that game, Dome had been upset at his squad for failing to abide by the team’s core possession principles by staying “brave” and playing through the press with short passes instead of opting for longball after longball.

With a third central defender at fullback, NYCFC was better able to absorb Atlanta’s aggressive wingback play, including the Argentine forward Tito Villalba lining up out of position on Ibeagha’s side. Drawing Atlanta’s front lines out helped NYCFC’s attackers find space between the lines and behind the wingbacks, leading to devastating four-on-three counterattacks. Ibeagha was excellent, coming up with big defensive stops and safely recycling possession. Although he admitted to not having trained much at right back, the move worked because, while the movement patterns may have been different, the defensive principles—a diligent offside trap and short passing out of the back—were the same ones Ibeagha was familiar with as a right-sided center back.

Dome’s flexibility was also on display in the positional play of NYCFC’s attacking unit, whose core tenet is that it doesn’t matter who’s executing which position as long as the basic patterns stay intact. This allows the team to adjust, not only from half to half, but on the fly as actions on the field drag them away from plans on the whiteboard.

Mitriţǎ’s first goal is an excellent example of how this works:

After Ibeagha strips an attacking Villalba, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi scoops up the ball in midfield, already in behind the recovering wingback. As Atlanta’s left center back Florentin Pogba shifts over to cut off the open lane, NYCFC makes two moves at once: Taty Castellanos flares out to the wing behind Pogba and Maxi Moralez, seeing the space Taty is vacating, makes a beeline forward from midfield. It’s an instinctive rotation of an NYCFC attacking triangle—Isi from right wing to midfield, Taty from center forward to right wing, Maxi from midfield to center forward—that leaves Atlanta scrambling to cover.

The result is that Leandro González Pírez is forced to defend half the field by himself and Mitri is NYCFC’s free man on the weak side. As Maxi’s run drags defensive midfielder Eric Remedi out of position, Isi finds a lane to dribble into the center and slide the ball to Mitriţǎ, who skins LGP one-on-one with a quick cut inside and hammers home a golazo from the top of the box.

While it’s easy to dunk on González Pírez for getting beat on Mitri’s first two goals, isos like that don’t happen if NYCFC doesn’t exploit the space behind Atlanta’s wingbacks with smart positional play. As you can see in the still below (thanks, tactics cam!), by the time that whole buildup rotation described above has happened and Mitri begins his dribble toward the top of the box, Atlanta’s two wingbacks have barely crossed the halfway line.

NYCFC exploited the space behind Atlanta’s wingbacks.

As talented as Atlanta is, this was an easy game for Torrent to coach, because even as his side mercilessly picked apart the tactics everyone knew Atlanta was going to run, de Boer made no significant changes. Over and over again wingbacks Villalba and Franco Escobar ran at NYCFC’s back line, pressed high to try to get the ball back, and wound up leaving huge gaps (funny how those can happen on Yankee Stadium’s postage stamp) for NYCFC to run into.

It all makes you wonder how much credit de Boer deserves for his team’s successes this season. Is the system working or is he skating by on a super-talented roster, relying on individual brilliance to rescue incoherent team play?

By the way, if you’re wondering what lessons de Boer took from this game, Atlanta beat writer Felipe Cardenas reported after Friday’s training that the coach, ever devoted to his system, will not be adjusting his tactics this weekend against Montreal. Throw my vote in for “fraud.” ❧

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

North Carolina Preview: A History of Violence

Five years in, NYCFC’s experience in the U.S. Open Cup has been nothing but trouble.

The U.S. Open Cup has been a brutal affair both on and off the field for NYCFC, who in year five are still looking for their first win in the competition. The tournament has turned into an annual nexus of despair, with some of the most embarrassing losses in NYCFC history coupled with some moments of embarrassing fan conduct.

In the club’s inaugural 2015 season, Jason Kreis infamously squandered a brace from Kwadwo Poku against the New York Cosmos and lost on penalties, thanks to great managerial decisions such as subbing in Chris “A Player You Build A Team Around” Wingert, a fullback, to play center back and having him take the first penalty because it was his birthday.

NYCFC showed up to that game, held at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium, with a whole host of away supporters. The club’s fans had already generated controversy that season with their use of pyro during the first Hudson River Derby in Harrison, which eventually resulted in sanctions by the Red Bulls. Worse, there’d been reports that there were “Latin skinheads” called Battalion 49 in Section 237 spewing “racial epithets, neo-nazi propaganda and general hate speech.” At Shuart, the Third Rail confirmed that more smoke bombs and trash were thrown on the pitch. There were also reports of fights with opposing fans after the game that resulted in emergency room visits, and a Cosmos fan arrested for mooning.

Kreis didn’t last long enough to manage another Open Cup game for NYCFC, but Patrick Vieira’s USOC debut in 2016 was more of the same. NYCFC won the draw to host and chose Fordham University’s Jack Coffey Field in the Bronx. Vieira put out an uninspiring lineup that couldn’t score against Jimmy Maurer and conceded a late header from Danny Szetela to give Giovanni Savarese and the Cosmos a second win in as many years, an especially painful result coming only a few short weeks after the Red Wedding.

Off the field, things were even worse than the first meeting. In the wake of the infamous 2015 sandwich board brawl, a number of far-right supporters were rumored to have been banned from Yankee Stadium. They took advantage of the temporary stadium and lax security situation of the Open Cup to reinsert themselves in the supporter section, where there were fights, sieg heils, and some insults to ya motha. In the aftermath of the first two years, Hofstra banned the Cosmos from hosting MLS teams in Open Cup games at Shuart Stadium, and NYCFC hasn’t been back to Fordham’s Jack Coffey Stadium.

Each of the next two years’ Open Cup draws sent NYCFC to visit the Red Bulls in Harrison, where an impotent attack netted zero goals over the two games, including a farewell 4-0 beatdown just before Vieira left for Nice in 2018. That game showcased the Red Bulls’ head start in building an elite MLS academy, as Tyler Adams and a litany of homegrowns gave them the domestic roster depth needed to succeed under Open Cup rules that only allow five internationals on the gameday roster.

By contrast, NYCFC’s emphasis on international talent and the gradual growth of the academy made Open Cup rosters a difficult proposition the first few seasons. In both games against the Red Bulls, the lack of domestic players forced NYCFC to roster three goalkeepers, and in 2018 NYCFC entered the tournament with only 17 players.

This year the club came better prepared, stockpiling green cards for internationals and signing a boatload of young American depth, but injuries and international call-ups have still left the roster thin. This year’s Open Cup roster will likely be missing Sean Johnson (Gold Cup), Alexander Callens (Copa America), Rónald Matarrita (Gold Cup), Maxime Chanot (Euro Cup Qualification), and Ebenezer Ofori (African Cup of Nations) on international duty, as well as an injured list that includes James Sands (broken arm), Ben Sweat (ankle), Jesus Medina (ankle), Alexander Ring (hamstring), and Joe Scally (hip surgery).

Dome Torrent is charged with making the best of what’s left, including the challenge of cobbling together something resembling a back line. With Anton Tinnerholm and Sebastien Ibeagha as the only healthy defenders, Tony Rocha is a lock to start. If Ben Sweat’s not fit, Rocha or Tinnerholm will likely have to fill in at center back. At training on Monday, Dome told the media that he only has 13 outfield players available and will be reaching deep into the bench to start Keaton Parks, Juan Pablo Torres, Justin Haak, and Daniel Bedoya.

NYCFC’s projected lineup for tonight features a lot of bench players and a dubious back line.

At least the fourth-round draw brought a sigh of relief, as NYCFC avoided the Red Bulls and New England Revolution to match up against the USL’s North Carolina FC. You may remember the Raleigh-based club from their former lives as the Carolina RailHawks, the partner in one of NYCFC’s first lower-division loan deals, before they rebranded in hopes of improving their shot at getting bumped up to MLS.

Now under pressure from a competing MLS bid out of Charlotte led by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, NCFC has recently drafted a new stadium plan, hired former USMNT caretaker manager Dave Sarachan, and gotten mixed up in several sketchy loans with Czech club MFK Vyškov, which is allegedly a front for skirting third-party ownership rules for large numbers of African players.

Fortunately for a hobbled NYCFC, it’s uncertain whether NCFC will field their starters either. The Carolina club is in the middle of a packed week, coming off a game last Saturday in Tampa, traveling to New York for the Open Cup match today, then heading back to home to Raleigh for another league game this Saturday. North Carolina is also dealing with its own roster problems, as leading scorer Marios Lomis has an injured ankle with no timetable to return and academy product and Celtic loanee Manny Perez has been mysteriously absent. Starting defensive midfielder Tommy McCabe was recently recalled by FC Cincinnati, which sent back former captain Nazmi Albadawi on loan.

The big question this evening will be whether NYCFC can break with its history. Underestimating a lesser opponent while trotting out a makeshift lineup could spell disaster. Dome probably would have been wise to keep his lineup closer to the vest, as Sarachan might have considered punting a game against a full-strength NYCFC in order to focus on the playoff picture in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. A game full of backups gives North Carolina a puncher’s chance and makes them dangerous.

NYCFC also needs to prove, after the 2016 Cosmos disaster, that they can provide a safe environment at St. John’s Belson Stadium. Far-right supporters have been spotted traveling to away games as recently as this April against D.C. United, and a New York game away from Yankee Stadium could give them an opportunity to slip through the cracks and cause problems. NYCFC’s woeful Open Cup history, on and off the field, should be a chapter the club is ready to turn the page on—but you know what they say about those who don’t learn from history. ❧

Image: Master of the Aeneid, Pandarus and Bitias Fight the Rutuli Before the Trojan Camp (Aeneid, Book IX)

June

The road trip is finally over, but the international absences have just begun.

In the before time, the team in blue got to play something that historians call “home” games. Instead of having to travel thousands of miles like a wandering group of grifters taking points from whomever they please, they set up their encounters to their advantage in a well-defended region of the Bronx. Prophecy says they may one day return.

This Saturday in Columbus, NYCFC will tie a bow on what could have been a killer five-game road trip. Don’t let the table fool you: NYCFC has multiple games in hand on the teams above it in the Eastern Conference, and according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections we’ve got a 91% chance of making the playoffs, a 26% shot at a first-round bye, and a 7% chance of winning the MLS Cup—the third-best title odds in the league, behind only an unstoppable, potentially record-breaking LAFC and a resurgent Atlanta.

FiveThirtyEight has NYCFC finishing second in the East and running third for the MLS Cup.

June, however, will be tricky. Thanks to various international tournaments, Dome Torrent will have to figure out how to rotate the roster in the absence of Sean Johnson, Rónald Matarrita, Ebenezer Ofori, and Keaton Parks.

Johnson and Matarrita made the U.S. and Costa Rican provisional rosters for the Gold Cup. Final rosters are due the first week of June, but both will likely jet off after this weekend to prepare for friendlies with their national teams. NYCFC could face some real issues if either player makes the cut for a team that goes on a deep run in the tournament, which doesn’t end till July 7.

Ofori could be out even longer. While NYCFC hasn’t provided any official notice on his international schedule, Ghana starts their pre-AFCON camp in Dubai on June 1, so it’s likely Ofori won’t be available for at least the first half of the month. Final rosters are due on June 10, and group stage starts June 22. The Black Stars are four-time continental champions; a run to the finals could keep Ofori out beyond July 19.

You’d think that with Ofori gone for a while, Dome might finally turn to Keaton Parks, but the young U.S. international is currently getting facetime with Gregg Berhalter with the U-23s. He’ll miss the next two games but might be available for a potential fifth-round U.S. Open Cup match on June 19.

The unfortunate moral of this story, as far as NYCFC’s June lineups are concerned, is that you should prepare yourself for heavy doses of Tony Rocha and Ben Sweat.

Columbus Crew (Away)

Saturday, June 1, 7:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 29% – D 28% – L 43%

The monthlong road trip ends this weekend in Columbus. The Crew have fallen hard out of the playoff picture, and it’s not just bad luck: according to American Soccer Analysis, their 1.17 expected points per game rank tenth in the Eastern Conference. What happened? The easy answer is that Caleb Porter is not Gregg Berhalter and Federico Higuaín, though still skillful at 34, is not the Pipa of years past.

Still, NYCFC will face an uphill battle, since road wins are hard to come by in MLS. Pedro Santos has been a threat on Columbus’s right wing, so it’s probably a good thing Matarrita will still be available. Ironically, this is also Zack Steffen’s last game for the Crew before he leaves for NYCFC’s sister club in Manchester.

FC Cincinnati (Home)

Thursday, June 6, 7:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 69% – D 21% – L 10%

NYCFC returns home to face the league’s newest and arguably worst team. Skipper Alan Koch barely lasted two months before going out in flames, complaining publicly that he didn’t have good enough players to compete in MLS. But he may have been right, and only New England and Colorado look like serious challengers in Cincy’s race for the Wooden Spoon. Unfortunately for NYCFC, this is the first game they’ll be without all four of Johnson, Matarrita, Parks, and Ofori. The big question will be who starts in goal between Brad Stuver, who struggled in Johnson’s absence last year, and rookie Luis Barraza, who flashed some modern-keeper midfield ball skills in the preseason.

U.S. Open Cup (TBD)

Fourth Round: Wednesday, June 12
Fifth Round: Wednesday, June 19

I wrote about the U.S. Open Cup a bit in last week’s mailbag. NYCFC enters the competition in the fourth round, along with the other MLS teams. The club’s first match comes June 12 against the USL Championship side North Carolina FC, which should be a great opportunity for homegrowns and other depth players to earn some minutes. If we advance we’ll face either New England or the Red Bulls the following week. NYCFC still hasn’t commented on U.S. Open Cup venues, but I’d wager that if NYCFC draws an MLS team we’ll decline to submit a bid to host and will play away.

Philadelphia Union (Home)

Saturday, June 29, 7:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 53% – D 25% – L 22%


This is the most interesting match of the month. Manager Jim Curtin and Sporting Director Ernest Tanner have converted the Union from the 4-2-3-1 they played for years into a 4-4-2 diamond that has them looking like a real contender. They’re understandably pretty excited about how the season’s going, but since this is Philly we’re talking about they express their enthusiasm in unconventional ways.

So yeah, um, anyway. The Union’s expensive new Designated Player Marco Fabian has been effective when not injured or on red card suspension, and the team has also been getting good production out of midroster players like Fafa Picault and Kacper Przybyłko as well as six (!) academy-produced homegrowns on the first-team roster, most notably midfield starlet Brenden Aaronson.

This will be one of the more interesting tactical matchups of the season, as both teams use unique systems not played by any other MLS side. Both the diamond and the 3-4-3 rely on outside backs to provide width, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dome change NYCFC’s shape to deal with the four central midfielders in Philly’s diamond. ❧

Image: Peter Stackpole, Untitled

May

Things are looking up, but an all-month road trip will be a tough test.

In a quick change of the wind, the story of NYCFC’s season has shifted. After going winless in the first six contests and teetering on the brink of desastre, the team picked up seven much-needed points in three matches last week. A five-game undefeated streak has us climbing back into contention, as FiveThirtyEight and American Soccer Analysis now give NYCFC a better than two-thirds shot at qualifying for the playoffs.

What the table didn’t tell you was that even in the middle of the early-season struggles, we’d gone punch for punch at home—without a striker!—against heavyweight MLS Cup favorites LAFC. Then again it also doesn’t tell you that during the upturn, NYCFC still has no answer when Maxi Moralez is out of the lineup, can’t seem to win games Ben Sweat starts in place of the fragile Rónald Matarrita, and continues to play down to the competition when weaker opponents bunker at Yankee Stadium.

This team’s narrative needs a solid dose of lithium, but lately the Pigeons have found some stability by dropping James Sands into the middle of a back three. The improved defensive shape saw NYCFC rank second in the league for expected goals allowed per game in the month of April, with three clean sheets in five games to show for it.

The question now is whether master tinkerer Dome Torrent can get the offensive juices flowing. Last week’s win over Chicago saw a disconnect between the back lines and attacking three, with our forwards playing too wide to be effective. Against Orlando City, Dome remedied the problem by playing Maxi and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi narrow behind the striker, but that left the wingbacks bombing in crosses to no one.

With Héber still settling in and Alexandru Mitriţă working his way back to fitness, the next few games will be all about finding a balance between solidity and creativity. But a month of away dates isn’t going to make it easy.

Montreal Impact (Away)

Saturday, May 4, 5:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 25% – D 28% – L 47%

NYCFC start off a four-game road trip this week against Montreal. Despite missing star winger Ignacio Piatti for seven games and counting, the Impact have gotten off to a swell start and are currently tied atop the Eastern Conference with D.C. United. Credit to Impact skipper Remi Garde, who has his side playing unspectacular yet very organized ball (more organized than their air travel, anyway).

Stade Saputo, which will hopefully be in better shape than last week, has one of the larger pitches in MLS, leaving room for NYCFC’s possession game to spread the field. This matchup should look different than last month’s dull 0-0 draw at Yankee Stadium, as Garde will have time to plan for Dome’s new three-back system. It’ll be interesting to see how each manager arranges his chess pieces in the return match.

L.A. Galaxy (Away)

Saturday, May 11, 4:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 26% – D 24% – L 51%

If you haven’t figured it out, the Galaxy are really leaning into the whole Zlatan thing. New hire Guillermo Barros Schelotto has designed his entire offensive system to fire cross after cross into the box for Zlatan headers, Zlatan tap-ins, and extraordinarily frequent Zlatan penalties. At least for now, with his team sitting second in the Western Conference, it seems to be working.

Zlatan’s quest to break every record in the league comes at a cost to, well, pretty much everyone not named Zlatan. The Galaxy’s second-leading scorer is center back Daniel Steres, who has two goals in nine games; no one else has more than one.

With Romain Alessandrini out till September and Ola Kamara gone to chase yuan at Shenzhen F.C., the Galaxy are left with Manchester City loanee (wut) Uriel Antuna and USMNT yeoman Sebastian Lletget as the main threats flanking—hang on, can’t finish a paragraph without saying his name—Zlatan.

The matchup to watch here is obviously going to be Zlatan vs. Sands (and Zlatan vs. NYCFC’s dubious set piece defense). If Jimmy can play lion tamer, the Galaxy are going to be in trouble. But if it were only that easy.

Chicago Fire (Away)

Saturday, May 25, 3:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 30% – D 27% – L 43%

Following the two-week May international break, we get the third game of the road trip and NYCFC’s second rematch of the month. In April the Fire played a 4-2-3-1 against our 3-4-3, with two very defensive midfielders, in Dax McCarty and Mo Adams, matching up against Ofori and Ring. While the defensive plan seemed adequate, they didn’t have clue how to break New York City’s three-man back line.

Just like the Impact game, we’ll get to see both sides’ adjustments when they run the matchup back. This is likely the most winnable game of May, but road points are always difficult to pick up in MLS. Could be another bumpy month for the narrative. ❧

Image: Mathieu Bories, La ventana de Villeray

April

Turns out March can be a cruel month too. Is NYCFC in for a stormy spring?

There’s an adage that good teams win at home and tie on the road. By that measure, NYCFC didn’t exactly have a great start to the season: the team dropped five points over the first four games, and only drew on the road by blowing a two-goal lead at Orlando City. (If it’s any consolation, across a season our rule of thumb would give you a full 2.0 points per game, a mark only six MLS teams have ever matched. Maybe it’s a little optimistic.)

March was an incredibly frustrating month. NYCFC needed to play well not only because of the congested back end of the schedule, but to exorcise the demons of a team that on paper should be one of the better sides in league but only has four wins in the last 19 matches. Instead we got some decent home games—but disappointing results—against top tier teams in D.C. United and LAFC, then looked like the tactical embodiment of a lost puppy dog on the road at Toronto.

While the bad news is that Dome Torrent still needs to prove that he can win, the good news is that the rest of the Eastern Conference decided to implode with us. Frank De Boer hasn’t won a game since 2016 and is steering Atlanta toward a Wooden Spoon; Brad Friedel wishes aloud that New England fans would beat up his players; and over in Harrison, the Kaku transfer drama has dragged into the regular season, leading Chris Armas to bench his DP over an angsty tweet while the Red Bulls racked up a couple losses.

It’s difficult to label games must-wins as early as April, but Dome needs to figure how to hold back the storm clouds, or the NYCFC season could be a step closer to being washed away.

Montreal Impact (Home)

Saturday, April 6, 1:00 pm

If NYCFC’s beatdown at Toronto sent you into hiding from the rest of the MLS weekend, you might have missed Sporting KC’s 7-1 dismantling of Montreal. Like NYCFC minus Maxi Moralez, Montreal’s lineup had an obvious hole: superstar Ignacio Piatti was out with a knee injury and will be unavailable again this Saturday—a bittersweet ordeal, as this would have been his last game ever at Yankee Stadium. NYCFC needs a home win here, and that starts with introducing our new striker and sorting out the midfield.

Minnesota United (Away)

Saturday, April 13, 5:00 pm

In an amazing troll job, Don Garber and company picked NYCFC to open up Minnesota’s gorgeous new stadium. While the Loons got off to a quick start with a couple wins, they reverted to form with a bad loss at New England that reminded you Adrian Heath is still their coach. It’s hard to know what to expect from this game. Darwin Quintero is obviously a factor you need to gameplan for, but Minnesota’s counterattacking strategy tends to revolve around waiting for him do something spectacular. Let’s just hope Dome decides to move away from his triple-defensive-midfielder road lineup.

D.C. United (Away)

Sunday, April 21, 4:00 pm

An early return to D.C. sets the stage for a pivotal road test. Not much has changed from last month: Paul Arriola has exceeded expectations and earned an extended look with the USMNT, but D.C.’s depth beyond the starting XI has not been challenged so far. Their table-topping March might be a little exaggerated, as no team has outperformed their expected goal differential by more, and just last week they needed a controversial foul call and generous free kick spot to beat Orlando City.

A couple interesting questions in this one: Can NYCFC exploit D.C.’s poor possession game? And what will Dome do to stop their dangerous set pieces? One thing’s for sure, bottling up Luciano Acosta and Wayne Rooney will be a lot harder at Audi Field.

Chicago Fire (Home)

Wednesday, April 24, 7:00 pm

The first midweek fixture of season is a gentle one, at home against the Chicago Fire. They’ve added ex-Atlético Madrid attacking mid Nicolas Gaitan to the roster as a TAM player, but he’s expected to become a DP next year when Bastian Schweinsteiger likely retires. By the time this match rolls down, Gaitan should be fully integrated into the lineup, but that’s no excuse not to win at home against an Eastern Conference bottom feeder.

Orlando City (Home)

Saturday, April 27th, 1:00 pm

Orlando City makes a return trip to Yankee Stadium to cap off the month. Although he hasn’t scored yet, Nani is a quality player who’s made his teammates better. The major question marks revolve around skipper James O’Connor, who like his New York City counterpart hasn’t won many games since taking over midseason last year. It remains to be seen if the former Louisville City coach is an MLS-caliber manager, but he’s shown more tactical flexibility this year, trying a 3-4-1-2 to complement his usual 4-2-3-1. The three-back system would make sense in the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium, but Dome should come better prepared this time. ❧

Image: Martin Johnson Heade, Hummingbird and Apple Blossoms

March

Why janky MLS scheduling means NYCFC needs a hot start.

With a fan base on pins and needles and a congested second-half schedule that could mean another bumpy fall, there may be no team in MLS that needs a strong start to the season more than NYCFC. March is a chance for a smooth ramp-up, with four single-game weeks and two home games before the Yankees start crowding us out. Win now and the team will have a gentle April to gel. But drop too many points early on and things could get ugly.

The Story Behind the Weird Schedule

At the end of last year, to much fanfare, MLS announced some big changes for 2019 schedule. The entire playoffs will be squeezed between the fall international breaks, starting on October 19 and ending with the MLS Cup on November 10. That means Decision Day, the last day of the regular season, falls on October 6, 22 days earlier than in 2018.

The ultimate plan is to start next season in mid-February (not ideal for the Bronx, but made more practical as the league expands to warmer climates in Nashville, Miami, and Austin). But since the CBA doesn’t allow a shortened offseason, 2019 has a compressed schedule. That means an increase in mid-week games, and no team was affected more than NYCFC. Constrained by the Yankees’ schedule and this year’s Gold Cup, NYCFC will play more than 40% of their home games on weeknights. No other team in the league is over 25%.

The upshot is that NYCFC will have to suffer through at least six double-game weeks this year, maybe more if the team actually wins a U.S. Open Cup game for once. And all but one of them are backloaded in July, August, and September. Like we saw last season, that means it’s important to have a good spring.

Orlando City (Away)

Saturday, March 2, 2:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 42% – D 25% – L 25%

To say that Orlando City was a dumpster fire last year is probably a little too polite. They fired coach Jason Kreis less than halfway through the season; Young DP Josué Colmán was anonymous; their best player, Yoshi Yotún, escaped across the border to Mexico as soon as the offseason hit; and to cap it all off, an incompetent sporting staff accidentally triggered the team option on Will effing Johnson.

The Lions are looking to rebuild behind coach James O’Connor, who they called up midseason from Louisville City. They jettisoned 15 players, including the versatile Tony Rocha (now at NYCFC) and—no, seriously—their entire backline. They also got a lot more Portuguese, trading for last year’s number one SuperDraft pick Joao Moutinho and luring big-bucks DP Nani from one catastrophe of a club to another.

The first game of a new season is always a crapshoot, but if NYCFC’s going to be a contender they’d better pick up valuable road points here.

D.C. United (Home)

Sunday, March 10, 2019, 3:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 59% – D 22% – L 19%

The Trash Pandas landed Wayne Rooney last summer around the same time they opened Audi Field, claiming the spotlight for a late run into the playoffs. Attacking mid Luciano Acosta raised his game to near-MVP levels as he and Rooney became one of the best duos in the league, and, even more remarkably, to near-PSG levels. The French giants’ surprise offer for Acosta fell apart at the eleventh hour of the European transfer window, leaving Lucho stuck in MLS against his will.

D.C. is looking like a playoff team again, but one with limitations. The club isn’t known for big spending apart from Rooney: third DP Paul Arriola could easily be a TAM player, and the only big offseason move was signing 21-year-old Argentine Lucas Rodríguez to replace Yamil Asad on the wing. Ben Olsen, a walking mediocrity who presumably has some kind of blackmail on team ownership that allows him to keep coaching this team forever, signed a new extension until 2021.

It’s the home opener. Three points are mandatory. Keeping Acosta from dribbling through six defenders like the last time these teams met is priority number one, but NYCFC will also have to watch out for Rooney dropping into midfield from the striker hole.

LAFC (Home)

Sunday, March 17, 3:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 55% – D 23% – L 23%

This is the tough one. LAFC’s 57-point debut broke the MLS record for an expansion club, as coach Bob Bradley shed his “Bunker Bob” reputation to craft a beautiful attack second only to Atlanta in goals scored. Year two should see LAFC cement its place as a contender in the Western Conference.

Like Acosta, golazo machine Carlos Vela (14 goals, 11 assists) drew headline-grabbing offseason interest from a Champions League power before Barcelona signed Kevin-Prince Boateng instead. He returns to lead a dangerous front three that includes Young DP Diego Rossi and one of two pretty good strikers, Adama Diomande or Christian Ramirez, at the tip of the 4-2-3-1.

One of the club’s big questions is who will take the reins at central attacking midfielder. Young DP Andre Horta had trouble adjusting after a summer arrival from Portugal, but LAFC rescued veteran Lee Nguyen from New England Revolution purgatory in case Horta falters. With Benny Feilhaber gone to Colorado, the team will hope Mark-Anthony Kaye can regain the sensational form he showed before his season-ending knee injury. Joining him at the base of the midfield is Eduard Atuesta, whose loan from Independiente Medellín was made permanent this offseason.

NYCFC will need their big-boy pants for this one, but it’s a chance to win a high-profile game against an opponent flying 2,500 miles to play an afternoon game three time zones from home (or does that really matter?).

Toronto FC (Away)

Friday, March 29, 8:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 28% – D 24% – L 48%

Ever since Michael Bradley’s moonshot penalty kick cost his team the CONCACAF Champions League Final, things have been going straight downhill in Toronto. While some (ahem) continued to insist they would turn it around, the 2017 champs nosedived from one of the best seasons in MLS history into one long, hellish montage of losses set to—who else from Canada is terrible?—let’s say Nickelback. (They missed the playoffs.)

So far 2019 isn’t looking any kinder to Toronto FC. Sebastian Giovinco split for Saudi Arabia after the club asked its greatest-ever player to take a paycut, and underrated playmaker Victor Vázquez was sold to a Qatari club. You will probably not be shocked to hear that Jozy Altidore is already injured.

Jonathan Osorio can handle one of those empty midfield spots, but the team is severely lacking elsewhere. Officially there’s no DP yet to replace Giovinco, although TFC may be on the verge of overpaying for Spanish midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo. They signed the oft-injured Terrence Boyd to back up oft-injured Jozy, which probably makes sense to somebody. Creaky center back Laurent Ciman is back in the league but looks like he’s lost a step defensively, troubling news for a club that traded up in the allocation order to land him.

Like Orlando City, this is the kind of road game where a good team needs to come away with a result. Finishing March with 8 points would be a terrific start to a season, putting NYCFC on pace to chase the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Anything less than 6 points could mean a long season ahead. ❧

Image: Maria Lassnig, At Night When Mice Scream

No, We Can’t Buy Down Jesús Medina

And other absurd rules that impacted NYCFC’s offseason.

The French writer Albert Camus, famously a fan of soccer, once said, “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” He would have loved MLS. Our league has some of the most complicated roster rules in sports. They’re bewildering, incomprehensible nightmares that only a lawyer or D&D dungeon master could love—and that’s just the rules that are made public. The real headbanger is that MLS reserves the right to modify, create exceptions, or rescind these rules at any time.

But to understand some of the moves NYCFC has made this offseason, you have to hold your nose and dive in.

Can the club buy down Jesús Medina’s Designated Player status?

The short answer is no, we won’t be getting any more mega-signings this season.

The basics of the 2018 Designated Player rule.

Most fans know that each team, unless they’re the LA Galaxy, is allowed three Designated Players. What makes DPs special is that teams can spend an unlimited amount of money on their salary and transfer fees without getting charged more than 12.5% of the “salary budget”—MLS language for the salary cap, which is set by the CBA at $4.24 million this season. A DP who costs $700,000 and one who costs $7 million will both count at most $530,000 against the cap.

It’s important to note here that a player’s “budget charge”—the number that determines his DP status—is calculated by “averaging all amounts payable over the guaranteed contract term.” In other words, if the total salary, bonuses, and transfer fee averaged over the length of his contract top $530k, he’s a DP by default.

Jesús Medina’s four-year contract, signed in 2018, came with a $4 million transfer fee, according to an executive from his former club. We know from the MLS Players Association that Medina earned $770,833 last season. If his contract comes with yearly pay increases, that will increase his budget charge, as would any option years that don’t count toward the average. But assuming the transfer fee claim was accurate, Medina’s budget charge in 2019 is at least $1.7 million, making him a DP unless NYCFC can buy down his budget charge using allocation money.

At its essence, allocation is league-given Monopoly money that can be used for a multitude of roster purposes, including the ability to bring a player under the maximum budget charge and free up his DP slot to add another star. There are two types of allocation, General Allocation Money (GAM) and Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). It’s not practical to buy expensive DPs down with GAM, because teams are only issued a base allotment of $200,000 each season and it has a lot of other uses. NYCFC did spend GAM to buy down Mix Diskerud, and that turned out to be a mistake that hamstrung roster moves for years.

TAM was created to allow teams to sign players whose cap hit is more than the maximum budget charge of $530k but not more than $1.53 million. Since Medina’s budget charge is at least $1.7 million, higher than the TAM limit, NYCFC can’t buy down his DP status in 2019. If his contract includes an option year in 2020 or 2021, he would be TAM eligible then, since the transfer fee would no longer count toward his budget charge.

But there would still be other costs to consider. Medina counts as a special kind of DP: a Young DP. Instead of the max budget charge, DPs between 21 and 23 years old only count $200,000 toward the salary cap. If NYCFC decides to buy down Medina in 2020 or 2021, they would also be giving up at least $330,000 a year in cap space.

This could all change next season depending on the outcome of the new CBA negotiations. The moral of this story, though, is that Medina will be a Designated Player in 2019, and there is no chance that he can be bought down—unless, of course, MLS announces some type of rule change. Which they would never do … right?

Why all the young Americans?

One of the big trends of this offseason for NYCFC, especially at the bottom of the roster, has been a shift towards young American players. Gone are the international players David Villa, Eloi Amagat, Yangel Herrera, Jo Inge Berget, and Cedric Hountondji. Domestic veterans who were not really cracking the starting lineup, like Tommy McNamara, Rodney Wallace, Andre Rawls, and Saad Abdul-Salaam, were jettisoned as well.

They were replaced almost entirely by younger domestic players: Tony Rocha, Keaton Parks, Justin Haak, Juan Pablo Torres, and Luis Barraza. In a break with NYCFC’s usual practice, Alexandru Mitriţă, the new Romanian DP, is the only new international signed so far this offseason.

Part of this is the natural development of the academy, which helps the club take advantage of homegrown player rules. Starting with James Sands in 2017, and more recently Joe Scally and Justin Haak, our academy has finally begun to produce talent good enough to be signed to the first team as homegrowns. This matters because only the first 20 roster spots—the Senior Roster—count towards a team’s salary budget. Homegrown players earning less than around $200k can be signed to the Supplemental (21-24) and Reserve (25-30) rosters, creating a load of salary cap flexibility.

An estimate of NYCFC’s roster situation shows the value of homegrowns and other domestic players.

Although the other new Americans, Rocha, Parks, Torres, and Barraza, do not come with homegrown benefits, the MLS economy in the TAM era has increased the value of domestic players generally. By design, TAM is mostly used to sign quality international players that the American system is not quite producing on a big enough scale. In the last two years NYCFC, leveraging CFG’s scouting network, has used TAM to acquire or re-sign the squad’s core: Alexander Ring, Alexander Callens, Ronald Matarrita, Ebenezer Ofori, Anton Tinnerholm, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.

The consequence of the league-wide international signing frenzy is an increase in the value of international roster slots. Whereas in the past you could easily pick up an international slot for $50–75k in allocation money, this January we’ve seen some monster trades: Montreal picking up a slot from Columbus for $175k GAM; Chicago getting a slot from Minnesota for $125k GAM and $75k TAM. The TAM-induced demand for international players and the inflationary pressure of introducing $1.2 million in tradable assets into MLS’s restricted economy are driving up prices.

As a result, there’s a tremendous value in adding a player like Parks or Rocha to the roster, since a comparable international replacement could cost nearly $200k more if you also need to purchase a international roster spot.

Are there any other weird single entity things that could get NYCFC some GAM?

Why yes, yes there are.

MLS has a single-entity business structure. This means that instead of the traditional model with private ownership of individual teams, all teams are owned by the league, and each “owner” is an investor-operator that owns shares in the league and has an exclusive license to operate their franchise. As a consequence, all player contracts are actually owned by MLS instead of their teams.

In the 2010 case American Needle v. NFL, the Supreme Court firmly rejected the NFL’s argument that their organization was also a single entity. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that the NFL could not be a single entity because the “teams compete with one another, not only on the playing field, but to attract fans, for gate receipts and for contracts with managerial and playing personnel.” To avoid a similar judgement, MLS uses perplexing rules to prevent the appearance that teams are competing for players.

One of these rules is Discovery Rights. Each team in MLS can submit to the league up to seven unsigned players on a “discovery list,” which grants them the first shot at signing those players. If an MLS club wants to sign a player on another team’s discovery list, they have to trade for the player’s rights.

Some 2018 rules regarding discovery lists.

So when NYCFC acquired $150k in GAM from Vancouver for the rights to first refusal for the Brazilian winger Lucas Venuto, it told us something interesting. To prevent teams from squatting on players’ rights, the league imposes a $50k allocation cap on discovery right trades unless the rights holder had made a legitimate attempt to sign the player. The fact that NYCFC was able to get more means that the club was interested enough in Venuto, Tajouri-Shradi’s former teammate at Austria Wien, to actually offer him a contract.

A similar rights-swapping situation can arise for out-of-contract players who do not qualify for free agency. To be eligible for free agency, a player must be at least 28 years old with eight years of MLS service, so Saad Abdul-Salaam, who is only 27 years old with four years of MLS service, did not qualify when his NYCFC contract ran out. Although Abdul-Salaam eventually left New York City, the club was able to retain his first refusal rights by offering him a bona fide contract. The upshot is that NYCFC could potentially be in for another GAM payday if Abdul-Salaam, who’s currently on trial with Seattle, is offered a contract by another MLS team.

Too bad that GAM still can’t buy down Medina. ❧

Image: Allan Grant, Destination Moon