Previously, on New York City Football Club

MLS should cancel the Orlando tournament. We at The Outfield spend more time watching soccer than ought to be legally allowed, but we’ll be the first to tell you there’s nothing essential about playing fan-free preseason games at Disney World in the middle of a pandemic. What does matter is the wellbeing of players, coaches, staff, their families, and the Floridians who’ll come into contact with them. Please support players like our own Brad Stuver who chose to stay home, and urge the league to let everyone do the same without penalties. —John Muller

We’ve got a boss called Ronny Deila. Remember him?

MLS is back, sort of, at least for now, and if there’s a bright side to this utterly stupid tournament it’s that we’ll get a better look at NYCFC under Ronny Deila. Early returns from the Norwegian manager have been decidedly mixed, even if you throw out the Columbus match played pretty much entirely with ten men. If we’re being honest 362 minutes of full-strength soccer is nowhere close to an adequate sample size to evaluate Deila, but since the last time this team played feels like a lifetime ago it’s probably worth reviewing what we know.

What has Deila’s NYCFC looked like so far? The short answer is: not all that different from last season.  

Ronny declared upon arrival that he had no plans to make sweeping changes to the tactical profile of the best team in the Eastern Conference in 2019, whose stacked roster is mostly unchanged. The build-from-the-back possession principles that defined the Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent eras are alive and well under Deila, who recently told The Outfield that he thinks “the best formation that suits us is 4-3-3, and maybe 3-4-3.” How do you say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in Norwegian?

It’s clear that Deila does not view those two formations as mutually exclusive, and we’ve already seen him exploit the versatility of James Sands and Alexander Ring (and soon likely Cacha Acevedo, too) to move fluidly from one to the other on both sides of the ball. From a base 4-3-3, NYCFC likes to send the center backs wide when building out from Sean Johnson and drop the defensive midfielder in the middle to evade a two-man press. A rotating cast of NYCFC players will then take turns moving into the vacated midfield space to offer passing options to the makeshift back three. 

The defensive midfielder has a fluid role out of possession as well, alternately protecting the back line and joining it. Having an auxiliary center back on standby gives Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens freedom to pursue opponent attacks that drift wide, as we saw them do to try and contain elite attacking threats like Tigres’ Simon-Pierre Gignac and Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo.

In the attacking half, Deila appears to have loosened the positional rules for his front three, encouraging wingers to tuck inside, link up with the midfield, and interchange freely. That’s not to say he wouldn’t like to have more wingers who can play wide and offer a threat on the dribble. Like Torrent before him, Deila gave Jesús Medina an early run of starts before deciding the hapless young DP’s future isn’t on the wing “because he’s not the guy to go past people and go outside. He goes a lot of inside, so I think Isi [Tajouri-Shradi], Gary [Mackay-Steven], and Mitriță are more wingers suited for going outside.”

The unpredictability of the wingers’ positions and movements puts the burden on NYCFC’s fullbacks to read the situation in front of them and choose the right overlapping or underlapping run to facilitate progression. Luckily, Deila has two of the best outside backs in the league in Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm, who’ve been successful in using middle third combination play to launch breaks towards goal, though by the coach’s own admission those attacks can sometimes be so direct as to veer toward chaos.

One thing that’s definitely looked new under Deila is the structure of the press. Previous versions have functioned as a wedge, applying ball pressure high upfield to push opponents towards the sideline, but Deila’s press has been interested in funneling passes a little more inside, into the midfield halfspaces, where multiple players can collapse on the receiver. This press is activated when Héber spots an opportunity to shepherd a possessing center back wide. NYCFC’s strong side winger cuts off the outlet pass to the fullback, forcing the opposing ballcarrier to play up a central channel, where an NYCFC midfielder is ready to apply aggressive pressure before the pass even arrives.

Ronny’s press has created some counterattacking chances for NYCFC, but it’s also left them vulerable to center backs who are comfortable driving forward into the gap without direct ball pressure from a forward. We’ll see whether Deila sticks with the tactic in Orlando or if it was more of an early season experiment.

Deila’s tenure so far has been marked by a conscientious commitment to the status quo with some minor tactical tweaks around the edges. That’s not a bad thing given the success he inherited. The fun part will be seeing how things change now that Deila, whose hiring was announced just a week before preseason, has had time to actually watch video of his team. The chaos of the MLS is Back tournament may not be the best setting to get a feel for a coach, but it’s the best we have to work with for now. ❧

Image: Walt Disney, Steamboat Willie

What We Learned About Ronny Deila at the Florida Cup

Kevin Nelson reports from Orlando.

The stiffer-than-normal preseason competition at the Florida Cup, in the form of Brazilian titans Corinthians and Palmeiras, featured weird mascot antics and a halftime performance by a singer wearing a full winter jacket in mid-70s temperatures. All that would be interesting on its own, but the debut of new coach Ronny Deila was the real headline. With the relatively unknown Norwegian taking the touchline for the first time, supporters finally got some glimpse of an answer to the defining question of the preseason—what will Deila’s NYCFC look like? 

Luckily for Deila, he inherits a roster with ample continuity. Last season’s starting XI returns in its entirety and, barring injury, that same lineup can be predicted in pen going into the season. That familiarity should make the transition all the easier to whatever new tactics Deila throws their way. 

In the weekend action, following an initial academy runout against Corinthians, Palmeiras created chances with ease against NYCFC’s first-choice defense in the first half. But for the first team’s debut, we’re inclined to note this as a function of offseason rust rather than a symptom of larger tactical problems. Deila did not make any groundbreaking changes in defense, setting up his team in a 4-4-2 that looked quite similar to arrangements Dome Torrent flexed at times. Deila pushed the attacking midfielder forward alongside the center forward to address both Palmeiras center backs as they built out of the back, but geared down the press—possibly due to  early preseason fitness in humid weather—from the high octane badgering NYCFC usually puts forth.

On the other side of the ball, Deila’s attacking philosophy seemed to fit his roster well. He took advantage of the wingers’ preference for inverted play by encouraging Alexandru Mitriță and Gary Mackay-Steven to cut onto their strong foot toward the central areas of the field. As the attacking group collected in the inside channels, it set up a natural interchangeability, where positional rotation and combination play could form organically. Whether that’s a happy coincidence or a managerial adaptation to the players at hand is anyone’s guess.

There was no better example on the attack than Andres Jasson, who replaced an injured Maxi Moralez early in the first half. Nominally playing as a central attacking midfielder–second striker hybrid, the 18-year old had the freedom to roam throughout the opposition half, regularly popping up on either wing or dropping in to collect possession. Jasson made the most of his opportunity, drifting out to the wing to beat his defender 1v1, with a sly hesitation, and whip in a perfectly placed cross to assist NYCFC’s only goal. The young squab, our 2019 Academy Player of the Year, displayed enticing energy and movement in a performance that left fans wondering if a homegrown contract was on the way, but ultimately a grassroots revolution may be needed to convince the Yale 2020 commit that an Ivy League education is overrated (an absolutely ironclad position that nobody can doubt). 

The excitement from the youth ranks did not stop there. Fellow academy product Osaze De Rosario, son of MLS and Canadian legend Dwayne De Rosario, was on the other end of Jasson’s assist with a beautiful header. Seeing the teenager dunk on a Palmeiras center back was undoubtedly the highlight of the match, but De Rosario showed some hesitancy to get involved in the buildup to the extent we’d expect from a player like Heber or Taty Castellanos. This raises a question of how much this offensive system could improve with a center forward capable of dropping in to take advantage of the space created by his free-roaming teammates. An extra layer of fluidity could distort opposing backlines with a higher degree of efficiency than what we saw against Palmeiras and pave the way for outside-in runs from the wingers.

For attacking width, Deila relied on the fullbacks to get upfield on the flanks. Anton Tinnerholm and Ronald Mataritta (8th and 12th in xA/96, respectively, among MLS fullbacks) both have the skill set to thrive in this role, acting not only as a release valve when the defense compressed but also as an attacking threat up the wing. 

The weight the fullbacks may have to carry stresses the importance of depth at those two positions. There’s stability at right back with Joe Scally, a player so promising that Borussia Monchengladbach invested in him based almost entirely on his academy and USYNT showings. However, with the return of Ben Sweat to his natural habitat, there is a concern on the left side of this equation if Tony Rocha slots in as Mataritta’s primary backup. Although Rocha is a useful player, his talents don’t line up with what Deila needs from the left back, at least based on our Florida Cup–sized sample. Rocha’s stability in possession, lack of pace, and inability to generate offense up the wing make him better suited to an inside left back role, supporting the attack from deeper positions, and likely necessitated the signing of Icelandic international Gudmundur Thórarinsson.

In central midfield, whether deploying a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, Deila clearly favors a double pivot. With Gedion Zelalem and Justin Haak putting in promising  performances against Palmeiras, NYCFC must be quite really pleased with the depth available here. The pair replaced Keaton Parks and Alex Ring in the pivot as Deila made sweeping changes for the second half. Some struggle ensued with the youthful lineup, but Zelalam and Haak stood out for their composure on the ball and positional awareness, despite lacking some of Ring’s defensive bite.  Add James Sands to the mix (who did everything on the day either perfectly or terribly), and the holding midfield looks strong moving forward.

The first two matches of preseason are far from the full sample needed to draw real conclusions, but we can reasonably predict that Deila is a double-pivot and hard-working winger enjoyer who may not set the whiteboards on fire tactically. And with the academy pressing into the depth chart, we’ll be watching closely as he moves the club closer to its first competitive action, later next month, in the CONCACAF Champions League. ❧

Image: Odd Nerdrum, Sleeping Boy

Valentín Castellanos Is (Still) Better Than You Think

An appreciation of NYCFC’s 22-Under-22 forward.

Taty’s come a long way. In the uncertain summer of 2018, a 19-year-old Argentine named Valentín Castellanos showed up in New York a complete unknown, climbing the corporate ladder from City Football Group’s tiny Uruguayan club, Torque. At the time NYCFC fans worried—correctly—that he would steal minutes from Jonathan Lewis. What they didn’t know was how much he’d deserve them.

Yesterday, less than a year and a half after hitting the league, Castellanos was announced at number six on the annual MLS 22 Under 22 list. The only surprise was that it felt a little low. Number one on the list, Diego Rossi? Fewer goals and assists per 96 minutes than Taty this season. Number two, Ezequiel Barco? Playing for a lower Argentina National Team age group than Castellanos, who scored a hat trick in his debut for the U-23s last month. In a survey of MLS technical staffers, Castellanos was the only name that cropped up in the same conversations as Rossi, Barco, and Brian Rodríguez, the trio of high-profile South American prospects everyone expects to move to Europe for eight figures in the next year or two. Fans who once worried about Taty’s arrival now wonder how much longer NYCFC can hold onto him.

This year was a giant step in the development of the Argentine, who’s adapted to MLS better than anyone could have hoped, displaying improved strength and body control in his second season. While many young players struggle to adjust to the physical nature of the league, Castellanos seems to relish it, endearing himself to his fans (and pissing off everyone else’s) by throwing his body around with enough South American verve to get under opponents’ skin.

His physical maturation has gone hand in hand with a tireless workrate on both sides of the ball. Castellanos is a vital part of NYCFC’s high press, hounding backlines deep into the final minutes for a defense that allowed opponents to complete a league-low 78 passes per game from their own third. 

Taty’s linking play and hair-trigger shot helped him grow into the center forward role.

That energy carried over to the attack, where Dome Torrent praised Castellanos’ off-ball movement as fundamental to the way NYCFC distorts defensive shapes to create space in the final third. The fact that he could slot in at both center forward and winger made Dome’s life easier, as the offense looked its best on those too-rare occasions when Taty and Héber made the same eleven. But Taty could also hold down the striker spot on his own, and he proved it during a crucial September stretch that helped NYCFC cling to the top spot the East while Héber was hurt.

You want numbers? How about some fancy ones from American Soccer Analysis. Although Castellanos had the lowest touch percentage on the team at just 6.2%, buildups that flowed through him were incredibly efficient: he ranked seventh among MLS attackers in the percentage of his possession chains that ended in a shot (39.8%). Part of that was his much-improved hold-up play, but significant credit also goes to Castellanos’ skill at putting chances on frame without much time or space. Getting open play shots off at a rate of 3.0 per 96 minutes was good for seventh among MLS forwards, and Héber was the only NYCFC player who topped Taty’s 0.49 expected goals plus expected assists per 96 minutes. It’s not hard to look at the kid’s 11 goals and 6 (non-MLS) assists this season and still see room to grow.

22 Under 22? Definitely. But at this rate Castellanos won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday in New York City, so enjoy it while it lasts. ❧

Image: Marble torso of a boy

The Three Teams NYCFC Will Probably Have to Beat to Win the MLS Cup

And some others they probably won’t.

Three games. That’s it. Thanks to a first-round bye in the new single-leg playoff format, NYCFC only have three games of soccer standing between them and the club’s first MLS Cup. Here are the most likely opponents they could face along the way (with a lot of conditional statements sprinkled in to keep from jinxing anything).

Eastern Conference Semifinals, Oct. 23

Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: Toronto (75%), D.C. (25%)

Red hot Toronto FC enters the playoffs as the favorite to face NYCFC in the conference semifinals, thanks to a league-best 12 points over the final six matches. Greg Vanney’s tactics are unpredictable—he’s used 10 starting formations this season—but Toronto’s homestretch suggests a 4-2-3-1 has become the preferred shape. They’re a team that looks to control the ball, ranking in the top five for possession both home and away, with a cautious buildup that’s toward the bottom of the league for average vertical distance per pass. 

There are two key players in Toronto’s midfield. At the base is Michael Bradley, whose 80.2 passes per 96 minutes were second only to LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta this season. Bradley aims to channel possession in the direction of MLS newcomer of the year candidate Alejandro Pozuelo, whose early season hat trick against NYCFC still causes residual eye twitching among fans. The team is at its most dangerous when Vanney lets Pozuelo roam free in a central attacking mid role, where he’s put up some of the best shot-creating stats in the league. NYCFC’s defensive unit will have a tough task tracking Pozuelo without getting pulled out of shape; Dome Torrent’s best bet may be to man-mark Bradley in hopes of cutting Toronto’s offense off at the source.

If you didn’t think the 4-0 loss to Toronto could get any worse, wait till you hear this comp’s soundtrack.

All D.C. United needed to do to hang onto home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs was beat a nine-man FC Cincinnati. That they didn’t should tell you all you need to know about how to feel if NYCFC is lucky enough to get them in the semis. D.C. scrapes by on defensive heroics but constantly feels like less than the sum of its parts; there’s not much to suggest a long playoff run from a team that finished in the bottom four in the league for expected goal differential. If they meet NYCFC at Citi Field, expect the hosts to dominate possession while Ben Olsen’s team sits deep and hopes for Lucho Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Wayne Rooney to pull something out on the counter.

Eastern Conference Finals, Oct. 30

Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: Atlanta (54%), Philadelphia (28%), Red Bulls (11%), New England (6%)

If the Pigeons manage to take care of business in the semis, chances are they’ll meet the team that knocked them out last year, Atlanta United, in the Eastern Conference finals. NYCFC’s recent 4-1 drubbing of the reigning champs should give them some confidence, but both teams will look dramatically different than they did a few weeks ago (even if Frank de Boer’s tactics probably won’t). For one thing, Josef Martínez will be back—a name that speaks for itself. And Atlanta should also have Julian Gressel and Justin Meram returning to their all-important outside back roles, where they’re two of the league’s top three at the position for open play expected goals plus assists per 96 minutes.

With Anton Tinnerholm healthy again, it’s fair to question how NYCFC’s back line will handle de Boer’s wingbacks without Sebastien Ibeagha at right back this time—a sentence no one ever thought would be written. The matchup should come down to which side can attack behind the other’s outside backs, although a USMNT-camp injury to Miles Robinson may force de Boer to reconfigure his team.

Also returning to full strength are the Philadelphia Union, Atlanta’s stiffest competition for a finals berth, with striker Kacper Przybylko and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya looking set for their playoff opener. The conduit to Jim Curtin’s attack is Haris Medunjanin, an incisive deep lying playmaker (first among defensive midfielders with 8.3 progressive passes per 96 minutes) whose ability to play accurate balls behind the fullbacks has rattled NYCFC’s defense more than once this season.

Drawing the New York Red Bulls or New England Revolution would be a stroke of luck for NYCFC. Yes, playoff derbies are nuts, but New York has never been bluer and Dome Torrent should be familiar with what to expect from Chris Armas by now. Like the Red Bulls, Bruce Arena’s Revs play aggressively direct soccer, playing fewer and longer passes than just about any team in the league. But NYCFC’s increasing ability to bypass pressure with diagonals from the central defenders has helped mitigate the risks of playing out of the back and better prepared them for hard-pressing opponents like these.

MLS Cup, November 10

Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: LAFC (71%), Seattle (11%), Real Salt Lake (7%), Minnesota (4%), Portland (3%), L.A. Galaxy (3%), Dallas (3%)

If this speedrun gets all the way to the MLS Cup, the likely final boss is LAFC. Bob Bradley’s team is a juggernaut in every way and has a real case for being the best team the league’s ever seen. It’s hard to find flaws in a squad that embarrassed all competition with a goal differential of +48, more than double NYCFC’s second-place total. Their 4-3-3 knifes straight through opposing defenses, moving the ball through the central third a league-high 35% of the time. If you need another sign of how good LAFC is, before a minute of playoff soccer has been played bookies are already giving them coin-flip odds to win the trophy.

LAFC’s distinctive tactical features include square passes, throughballs in the central third, and scoring a shitload of goals.

Carlos Vela has had an otherworldly season, setting a new MLS record for nonpenalty goals, but Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, and Diego Rossi are all up there with him in the league’s top four for expected goal chain per 96 minutes. Potentially losing Kaye, who suffered a hamstring injury against the USMNT this week, would be a significant blow to LAFC’s midfield but probably wouldn’t change many gamblers’ minds. This team has shown it’s deep enough to cope with absences: when striker Adama Diomande missed the end of the season, Bradley casually slotted his new 19-year-old Uruguayan designated player Brian Rodríguez into the attack.

It’s unfortunate that NYCFC fielded its best team ever during the same season that LAFC became MLS’s version of the Monstars. (There’s always a chance the Supporters’ Shield winners won’t make it to the cup game, but there’s also a reason why we’re not bothering to cover any other team from the Western Conference here.) Could NYCFC pull off a historic upset? Sure, but it’d be just that—historic. Let’s hope that didn’t jinx anything. ❧

Image: Honoré Daumier, Don Quixote and the Dead Mule

Does Dome Play Pep Ball?

A stylistic investigation.

Like Alfonso Ribeiro and Carlton Banks, Dome Torrent may never be able to detach his reputation from his longtime role as Pep Guardiola’s assistant. That connection brings the weight of immense expectations, but the professional and personal relationship between Torrent and Guardiola is universally regarded as a positive by people who can put two and two together: some of Pep’s magic must have transferred to Dome simply by osmosis, right?

As Manchester City begins another season where they’re expected to crush all comers, it’s a good time to take a deeper look into Pep Ball and ask how attached Torrent has been to his old boss’s playstyle. 

What is Pep Ball?

A video’s worth a thousand words:

This team goal finished by İlkay Gündoğan embodies the ethos of their manager, who worships at the altar of possession. The 44-pass sequence gobbles up the space United’s defense concedes while taking only calculated risks.

Guardiola’s decade of success at the highest levels of European soccer is rooted in three critical aspects of his possession game: building out of the back, positional fluidity in the final third, and counterpressing.

  • Building Out of the Back 

Guardiola’s attacking style involves all eleven players on the pitch, which requires technically adept central defenders and a keeper who’s able to play like an outfield player. Hoofing it long is taboo; the team prefers to control the ball and pass through the press, leaving opponents scrambling to recover. Defenders look for line-breaking passes to stretch opponents vertically and create spaces for progressive transitions. The resulting style works against all types of opponents, and is as useful for breaking down a bunker as for exploiting more open games.

Central defenders have long been the engine of Guardiola’s rear-wheel-drive attack. Last season’s top four qualified Premier League center backs in attempted passes per 90 minutes are all on City’s roster, and Aymeric Laporte led all defenders in expected goal chain stats, which measure the value of shots from possessions in which a player had a touch. Pep’s teams have also long featured some of the best ball-playing keepers in the world: last season only Liverpool’s Alisson contributed to his team’s buildup as much as City’s Ederson.

  • Extended Attacking Sequences  

The ability to retain possession for long stretches allows Manchester City to be patient and fluid in the attack. Guardiola downplays the significance of the various formations he’s used in England (sometimes a 4-3-3, sometimes a 3-5-2 with Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker as wingbacks, often with a fullback tucking inside to create an asymmetrical 3-2-5 in attacking phases), and has famously referred to the numbers in his lines as “nothing but telephone numbers.”

The way his teams play in the attacking zone shows what he means, as attackers have freedom to interchange and explore all areas of the final third. Forwards and attacking midfielders become a creative, unpredictable collective that looks to overload one side to drag the defense horizontally and open up a quick switch to the weak side. This opens the necessary gaps for a break towards goal, when combination play heavy on flick-ons and passing triangles comes together to lethal effect. Last season Manchester City led the Premier League in passes in the opposing box and expected goals per shot—stats that speak to the persistence of their attack, as they investigate every avenue to get into dangerous shooting spaces. 

  • Counterpressing

Long buildups push defenses deep into their own half, allowing City to settle into an attacking set around the box. This puts Guardiola’s team in position to defend high upfield with a suffocating press that cuts out counters before they develop. The goal is to recycle the attack just as the opponent releases from its defensive shape, when it’s most vulnerable.

Staging the defensive front in the opposition’s half is a risky strategy, since it leaves a lot of space behind that teams who break forward quickly can exploit. Guardiola trains his team to push counters wide and extend the path to goal, buying the defense more time to recover. The aggressive counterpress works: last season City allowed the fewest opposition passes in the box and lowest expected goals allowed in the Premier League.

Does NYCFC Play Pep Ball?

Torrent inherited a team from Patrick Vieira already steeped in a possession-heavy ethos Guardiola would appreciate, yet the transition was far from smooth, as he struggled in a league very different from the elite clubs where he’d spent the last decade. Over the course of this season, though, Torrent has overcome his rocky start by adjusting Guardiola’s formula to his circumstances. 

NYCFC still build out of the back. Sean Johnson continues to improve with the ball at his feet and averages 35.6 passes per 96 minutes (third most among qualified keepers), most of them short and successful. But the talent gap between MLS and Manchester City means Torrent doesn’t always have players who can comfortably ping the ball through midfield pressure. To compensate, he’s added a healthy dose of directness to a team that nevertheless maintains 55.6% possession, second highest in the league.

Shifting the attacking phase deeper towards the halfway line leaves more room for quick, vertical transitions. NYCFC’s style often looks like a fast-forwarded version of Guardiola’s attacking flow, like in the above buildup against Montreal in May. While Manchester City’s patient, probing attack takes about 35% percent of its touches in the final third, NYCFC’s more direct approach tops out at 26%. Héber’s introduction to the squad has allowed for some textbook Guardiola-style positional fluidity, as his ability to drop in and push wide gives other attackers, especially Taty Castellanos, opportunities to exploit his striker space. On the pressing front, Torrent has dropped NYCFC down a gear to a still intense but more sustainable pace to survive routine cross-country road trips and other weird quirks of MLS scheduling.

In short, we might think of Dome Ball as a sort of bastardized version of Guardiola’s positional play—not for the worse, necessarily, but MLSified. A year into his tenure, Torrent’s transformation of NYCFC is still ongoing, as he continues to experiment with inside fullbacks, defensive midfielder-center back hybrids, a two-striker attack, and so on. We’ll never fully understand the nature of the Torrent-Guardiola relationship, but Dome’s ability to adapt their shared philosophy and make appropriate tactical adjustments to suit his squad suggests he may share one of Pep’s best attributes. ❧

Image: Edouard Manet, The Shadow that Lies Floating on the Floor

NYCFC 4-2 Philadelphia: A Good Day for Dome

How the coach’s halftime adjustment turned around a tough game.

Dome Torrent might just know what he’s doing as a soccer coach. In a halftime interview on Saturday after a bumpy first 45 minutes against Philadelphia, he promised changes to calm his team down, cut off the Union’s penetration, and get his wingers into open wide spaces. What he delivered in the second half looked like maybe the best team in the Eastern Conference.

But he didn’t turn the game around with subs, at least not until late. Torrent understood the problem wasn’t with his personnel but the way he was deploying them.

NYCFC’s starting 3-4-3 shape (slash 5-2-3 slash 3-5-2 slash whatever, you know the drill) dropped Alex Ring into central defense, where he looked to lob diagonals to advanced wingbacks in the buildup. It’s a tactic that’s been successful for Torrent in the past, but the Union were happy to check their press and focus on cutting off progress through midfield while inviting Ben Sweat and Anton Tinnerholm up the flanks to corral possession in non-shooting areas.

Off the ball, NYCFC’S defensive problems boiled down to the dreadful combination of a high back line and way too much space in the midfield. Keaton Parks desperately needed reinforcements in the no man’s land between the lines, and the problem only got worse as Maxi Moralez drifted upfield in response to Philadelphia’s early goals. The Union teased NYCFC’s press with deep possession that stretched the gap between the lines into an open wound—just watch Harris Medunjanin receive in midfield with time to turn, take a nap, and knife a ball through the exposed back line.

Philadelphia’s early dominance cued up that halftime interview where Dome promised changes, but it was really just one big change that turned the game on its head: switching to a 4-2-3-1 returned Alex Ring to his midfield roots, tugged the wingbacks into traditional fullback positions, and finally handed NYCFC control of the game.

NYCFC’s average positions by half, via @etmckinley.

Even the most ardent Keaton Parks truthers would admit he had an anonymous first half, but he flourished with a friend in midfield. The ruthless Parks-Ring double pivot solved the problem in the center of the park, freeing each other to defend more assertively—they completed a couple tackles each in the second half, compared to zero from Maxi and Parks in the first—and saving the center backs from having to choose between marking players running at and behind them.

Meanwhile, NYCFC’s attack mercifully pumped the brakes on the longballs (48 in the first half, 36 in the second) in favor of a more patient buildup through Maxi’s creative presence in the central channel. The play below is an example of the quick passing combinations that cut out Union defenders en route to the final third. The clearance that starts the move is the kind of ball NYCFC was losing in the 3-4-3 midfield gap but now had bodies in place to recover.

His miss here aside, there wasn’t much to complain about from Taty Castellanos’s night at center forward. His diploma from the James Harden Academy of Foul Drawing paid off with a pair of penalties and a permanent residence under the skin of every person in Philadelphia. (By the end of the game the Union were so frustrated it looked like Raymon Gaddis was about to square up with the referee, but I guess getting nutmegged by Ben Sweat will do that to even the mildest of tempers.) Oh yeah, and Castellanos also scored two goals of his own while showing off some rapidly improving linkup play to go with his phenomenal workrate.

But it was Dome’s tactical adjustment that sparked the comeback. About two-thirds of NYCFC’s non-penalty expected goals came in the second half, as the team’s share of possession climbed from 55% to 63%, and the defensive fix was so effective that Marco Fábian’s 20-minute sub appearance might as well never have happened. It was the kind of smart coaching move that shows how well Torrent’s starting to understand this league and his team. ❧

Image: Pineapple, for Allen & Ginter Cigarrettes Brands

NYCFC Really Shouldn’t Be This Bad Against Free Kicks

The line is too high. The keeper’s too low. And nobody can find their assignment in time.

Watching New York City Football Club defend set pieces has been an anxiety-inducing experience from the beginning. In its first two seasons, the team posted some of the worst set piece goals–conceded numbers in American Soccer Analysis’s dataset. (Is anyone getting nostalgic thinking back on the Jason Hernandez and Josh Saunders era? I didn’t think so.) Things got better after a defensive rebuild brought in Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens: in 2017 and 2018, goals and expected goals against off set pieces dropped to respectable levels, with a correlated decline in cardiac arrests per 96′ in Yankee Stadium.

Nevertheless, improving NYCFC’s set piece defense remained a focus this offseason. The problem areas were evident, especially when it came to defending against free kicks played into the box from outside shooting range. If the first six weeks of 2019 are any indication, that’s where this team still needs the most work, as opponents are converting non-shot set pieces into shooting chances at a near-record clip.

Expected goals allowed vs. shots allowed from non-shooting free kicks, 2017–2019. Source: American Soccer Analysis

The increase in shots from these situations can’t just be chalked up to allowing a lot of free kicks in the first place. NYCFC does commit an above-average number of fouls in the zone (say 30 to 50 yards from the center of goal) where you might expect non-shot free kicks to lead to attempts on goal, but other teams like Portland and Columbus foul more often there without letting opponents create shots from it at anything like NYCFC’s rate.

Small sample size disclaimers apply, but something doesn’t smell right here. Coordinating set pieces was a key part of Domènec Torrent’s job when he worked alongside Pep Guardiola, and his squad returned its entire defensive core this season. So what’s the problem with NYCFC’s set piece defense? There are two of them, actually: the dead zone and the matchup problem.

The Dead Zone

We’ll start at the very beginning with the dead ball set up. New York City tends to play a high line against non-shot free kicks, an effective yet risky method given the amount of space the attacking team has to run into. Playing a high line is fine in theory but is complicated by Sean Johnson’s uncertain command of the penalty area. According to American Soccer Analysis, Johnson ranked 16th out of 23 primary MLS keepers last season in aggression based on the number of successful crosses per claim or punch.

Together, a high line and passive goalkeeping leave a lot of room for error in the resulting dead zone, particularly on inswinging balls. As the distance the defenders have to track back increases, so does the chance of the defensive shape breaking down, making errors in communication far more costly.

In our first example, from last September, D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum scores an entirely preventable goal due to the combination of a high defensive setup and a keeper reluctant to come off his line. Either Ben Sweat has to track Birnbaum’s run better or Johnson has to claim that ball, though ideally both of those things would happen.

Fast forward to 2019 and the problem remains:

Chris Mueller’s free kick in the season opener originates in a wider position, forcing the defensive line back to the penalty spot, yet once again there’s a fatal lack of communication between Johnson and Chanot as each thinks the other will clear the cross (and let’s be honest, Mueller was most definitely trying to cross that). That seam where the defense and keeper can’t agree who’s responsible for the ball continues to be a major source of vulnerability for NYCFC—but it’s not the only one.

The Matchup Problem

Discussions about set piece defense often start and end at the seemingly eternal debate over whether a zonal or man marking system is better. Both systems can be successful with the right players, and Torrent has used elements of each so far with NYCFC. He’s generally preferred zonal marking for corners, with occasional hybridized schemes against certain opponents. But last season he leaned more toward man marking for non-shot free kicks, especially those taken toward the center of the pitch or against a higher defensive line, like the D.C. United goal above.

This season, NYCFC has moved toward a kind of matchup zone system for non-shot free kicks: each primary defender is responsible for marking a lane from the defensive line down into the six-yard box, while a couple teammates drop into the cutback passing lanes. Zonal assignments are determined by attacker positions in order to put NYCFC’s best defenders on the opponent’s most dangerous aerial threats.

The system itself hasn’t been the problem—it’s really down to the players to execute. But matchup adjustments could explain some early season struggles, as NYCFC have looked disjointed setting up their shape against free kicks from distance. They were beaten out wide on set pieces on several occasions against LAFC:

This ball is played as Ring is still trying to get his teammates organized, and Ronald Matarrita is caught flat-footed on the outside. NYCFC recovers well to regain control, but LAFC would continue to target wide areas on similar free kicks through the rest of the game.

Here LAFC overloads runners on the right side, pulling the NYCFC defense with them. Again, the main problem is NYCFC’s disorganization when the ball is played. LAFC’s objective is to open up the left flank, and Taty Castellanos lets Diego Rossi get in behind way too easily. Maybe whatever changes Torrent has introduced this year are contributing to the disorganization, but there’s clearly room for improvement on an individual level too.

What to Do About It

The interesting thing is that there are reasons to believe this team shouldn’t be quite so bad at these plays. Despite struggling against non-shooting free kicks, NYCFC is better than average for shots and xG allowed from corner kicks. True, defensive movements are less prominent on corners, but these stats suggest a team that’s capable in dead ball situations and in the air. In fact, NYCFC ranks seventh in the league for aerial duel win percentage.

Maybe Torrent is asking too much of his team, running a system he’s familiar with from Europe without considering his players’ skillsets. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a coach was too married to his preferred tactics. (Remember when Josh Saunders was forced to play out of the back? Sorry, I promise I won’t bring him up again.) Or maybe the system is fine and it’s just a problem of focus.

Whatever the source of the confusion, it does seem possible that this team would fare better against set pieces if Dome minimized the moving parts. You could start by pushing the defensive line a bit closer to goal, just to reduce the amount of ground covered. You could work with Sean Johnson on coming out to claim balls to further cut down the danger space. With more reps, maybe the defense will get better at finding their matchups before the ball is played. Again, we’re still early in the season—maybe this is an overreaction to a small sample, a blip on the radar in hindsight. But let’s hope Torrent’s coaching staff has been looking into the problem just in case it’s not. ❧

Image: José Guadalupe Posada, Chaos During an Earthquake