NYCFC 4-0 North Carolina + D.C. Preview: Open Auditions

NYCFC’s first ever Open Cup win was a talent show for its all-American backups.

Last week, NYCFC finally won a U.S. Open Cup game, cruising past the USL’s North Carolina FC to secure tonight’s fifth-round date against D.C. United. With a depleted roster and positions up for grabs, the moment was ripe for Dome Torrent’s fringe players to step into the spotlight and make their case.

Like any good boy band, there was the blonde bombshell, the hometown kid, the shy guy with long locks, and a heartthrob best known by his initials. Before tonight’s encore, let’s play Simon Cowell to New York City’s young Americans and break down their battle with the artists formerly known as the RailHawks.

With Sebastien Ibeagha the only available center back, NYCFC’s preferred back five was untenable, but switching to a nominal 4-3-3 didn’t stop Dome from pushing his fullbacks upfield in the buildup. New midfielders Tony Rocha and JPT (yes, 19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres has a name; no, it doesn’t sound as cool) killed it as makeshift outside backs. Sure, the USL opponent helped, but their commitment to getting up the wing and playing high-quality crosses drove the attack, leading directly to the own goal that put NYCFC ahead in the first half and Keaton Parks’ back-post header in the second. The verdict: promising versatility on both flanks, and encouraging to see that fullback overlaps aren’t limited to the 3-4-3.

The fullbacks’ attacking pressure was made possible by 17-year-old homegrown Justin Haak’s play as a deep-lying defensive midfielder. The Brooklyn native provided needed cover in front of Ibeagha and Anton Tinnerholm, who filled in out of position at center back. With deft knockdowns and feints, Haak helped retain possession and limited counterattacks. His short passing at the pivot helped unlock the front five without dragging him out of position. Judges’ review: a solid performance in the style of Season 3’s Homegrown Idol winner James Sands.

Hometown kid Daniel Bedoya, playing to a friendly crowd at St. John’s University, was the weakest link of the four Americans getting their shot. To his credit, his workrate in midfield was high, he was unafraid of contact, and he covered well for teammates, but he also hung them out to dry with hospital balls and generally overexcited passing. Every team’s got a place for a bench guy who’s passionate and committed to outworking the opponent, but Bedoya’s first minutes for NYCFC didn’t move him up the pecking order, and he probably won’t see more unless injuries hit hard.

Every talent show has a breakout performer, and last week’s was Keaton Parks. The Texas kid (by way of Benfica) has had a frustrating first few months on the bench, but he seized his moment—outside the magician Maxi Moralez, he was the best player on the field. As usual, Keaton’s body positioning and guile helped him keep possession under pressure and avoid costly mistakes. His first goal took full advantage of his 6’4″ frame, showing off an aerial threat that sets him apart from, well, pretty much every other NYCFC player. But it was pure hustle and skill that earned him the brace, as he sprinted three quarters of the field in the 76th minute, zooming past at least ten players, to calmly slot the ball home with his instep for NYCFC’s cleanest goal of the year.

Stick around for Keaton’s 3-0 goal in the 76th minute.

There were other performers on stage that night. Designated Players Moralez and Jesús Medina got to show some tactical fluidity as they ventured out wide, in the channel, and deep to build passing angles. Thanks to consistent support from the overlapping fullbacks and flexibility from Parks and Bedoya, Medina had his best game this year. He still had some unproductive possession and silly mistakes, but it was nice to see the Paraguayan put in some positive minutes and get on the scoresheet after a rough winter had landed him on the bench.

Taty Castellanos, playing the frontman, didn’t get in on the goalfest but still rocked out. The young Argentine was a wrecking ball of energy and constant pressure, bullying opposition center backs on and off the ball and consistently finding room to shoot. If it wasn’t a one-off, NYCFC might have a quality backup striker for Héber after all.

The competition gets fiercer tonight against D.C. United, who eliminated Philadelphia last week while showing off some young talent of their own in homegrowns Antonio Bustamante, Jalen Robinson, and Griffin Yow. With quite a few starters still out, a few of Dome’s young reserves should get a curtain call in the, ahem, hunt for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. As NYCFC works to develop its first star, the U.S. Open Cup marks an important opportunity for the club’s long term development as the kids get their chance to shine. ❧

Image: Allan Grant, Ricky Nelson

What Is James Sands?

Sizing up NYCFC’s versatile homegrown teenager.

James Sands is special. At 18, NYCFC’s first homegrown player has already laced up his boots with World Cup winners and marked Manchester United’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney into the ground. He’s talented at aerial duels, good on the tackle, and quick enough to cover opposition speedsters. Under pressure he’s composed, completing more than 86% of his typically short passes, and his ability to read opponents’ transitions gives him a dominant positional sense. There’s a reason NYCFC looks best when the Rye native is on the pitch.

On offense, Sands is a reliable cog in the middle, guiding the direction of the buildup and showing Pirlo-level calm receiving passes in his own defensive third. He’s not a one-v-one artist but he has a deft touch and positions his hips and plant foot well. And while he’s yet to show much of a goalscoring threat, final third production isn’t really his responsibility.

Still, there’s the nagging question that follows any positionally flexible young player: he’s great, but what exactly is he?

Position

Defensive Midfielder: This is Sands’ most transferable role, the position that, if he masters it, could make him a global hot commodity. He excels at a defensive mid’s bread and butter: tackling, intercepting passes, and playing short. But he doesn’t have the offensive output to become a box-to-box midfielder like his former teammate Frank Lampard. Ultimately, as Sands grows into his 5’11” frame, his ability to play this position may be decided for him, as any drop in speed could force him to shift to a role that suits his profile better.

Sands’ first MLS start, in September 2018, came as a defensive midfielder. (Credit: Knuckler)

Central Defender: Long term, this role suits Jimmy the best. It rewards his aerial ability, his knack for being in the right place at the right time, and his unnervingly calm short passing. Physically, he’s already shown he can handle most MLS strikers one on one in the box, an impressive feat for an 18-year-old. He’s been deployed as a right-sided center back for the youth national team and looks very comfortable in the center of NYCFC’s back three, where he should continue to get minutes as the club looks to develop its future spine. Center back is a position that rewards experience and skills honed by repetition, so for a young player already succeeding there the future looks rosy.

Sands has looked comfortable in the middle of NYCFC’s back three this spring.

Inside Fullback: Sure, this one’s a longshot, but it’s a possibility Sands and Dome Torrent have raised in the past. While fullbacks who tuck into midfield have become an important tactical wrinkle for Gregg Berhalter’s United States Men’s National Team, finding the right Americans to plug into the role has been difficult. Could Sands’ international future be at the position that’s lately been manned by Nick Lima and Tim Ream? His experience as both a defender and a midfielder puts him in the conversation, but playing as an inside fullback would limit his aerial usage and his distribution in all phases from the center of the field, where he’s thrived for club and country.

Outlook

Promising young hybrid defenders don’t always come good. Take Reece Oxford, who made waves as a 16-year-old wunderkind out of West Ham’s highly regarded academy (where he played under new NYCFC academy director Liam Manning). He was lauded for his positional flexibility, playing both defensive mid and center back at a high level thanks to his imposing physicality and ability on the ball. But after injuries, pressure, and a drop in form derailed his meteoric rise, Oxford landed on loan at FC Ausburg, where his ambiguous position is now considered a liability in his struggle for minutes. There are drawbacks to not committing early to mastering one position.

Still, if we’re talking possible futures for Sands-style hybrids, Oxford would be a pretty decent floor. And if you were to stand on the floor and look up, you’d see Bayern Munich’s stalwart Javi Martinez looking down from the Sistine Chapel ceiling of defensive versatility. The Spanish international can dominate as a lone defensive midfielder, in a double pivot, or—as he often did under Pep Guardiola—at center back. Like Sands, Martinez has great timing in his tackles, aerial prowess, and a strong short passing game. Perhaps Dome Torrent sees some of Martinez in Sands. After all, he did coach Martinez in Munich.

Sands’ best position is what he’s currently playing for Torrent, as a center back in a back three with the option to push into the midfield. His physicality is an asset on the defensive end, especially with the healthy weight he put on this winter, and his fearlessness distributing the ball allows his team to build from the back with confidence. If NYCFC sticks with the 3-4-3 long enough for Sands to find some stability in the role, his breakout season should continue to develop him for long-term success. ❧

Image: NASA, Mars Odyssey All Stars: Arabia Dunes

How Héber Could Reshape NYCFC

An active, versatile striker can free his teammates to be the best versions of themselves.

The gaping hole at center forward has been the bane of Domènec Torrent and Claudio Reyna’s press interviews for months now (and if they think the interviews have been rough, I hope for their sake they’re not active on Twitter). But the hunt is over: last week, NYCFC bought Héber Araujo dos Santos from Croatia’s HNK Rijeka as a $3 million quick fix for its striker problem. What qualities drew them to Héber, and what might inserting him into the starting eleven mean for the team’s tactics?

The man moves very well off the ball. He’s a willing runner from wide and central positions, bending his runs to suit the pass he’ll receive and the space he’ll exploit. I’d bet my bottom dollar that he ends up leading NYCFC in offside calls—which, in the right dosage, is a sign of a great player pushing the limits of his chance creation potential. Pace is important to his movement, but don’t discount the cerebral side of these runs. He’s got a knack for picking out just the right moment (and defender) to pounce on and create danger.

Héber’s line-leading runs create space behind him that Maxi Moralez can take advantage of.

On top of pace, Héber has also shown the ability to play with his back to goal. Using his body position and guile to hold off defenders, he creates chances for his teammates as they run onto him. As is tradition for NYCFC strikers, he’s great in the left halfspace and comfortable playing slick passes on both feet. It’s easy to imagine him tucking in a ball to the penalty spot for an onrushing Maxi or Ring, but he’s also shown the agency to look to the corner flag, playing in a winger or fullback for a deadly cutback. That’s an underrepresented skill on this roster.

Due to a roster-building philosophy that favors smaller and more technical players, NYCFC has never been very good in the air. At 5’11”, Héber has been known to score with his head, and while he won’t overpower opponents, well-timed runs and an ability to absorb contact could make him a legitimate aerial threat. Ben Sweat may finally have found a head to bang his errant crosses off of.

Our Pineapple Professor has very few constants. Dome is willing to change team shape, player selection, and even his facial follicles for mysterious purposes. But he holds to at least one truth: tight passing and positional versatility are the tenets of a good squad. And guess what, the bald Brazilian can play in multiple spots. Héber’s so good on the left wing, in fact, that people are worried he might not be the right fit at center forward. I see that versatility as a positive and a prime reason he’ll have a shot at locking down the number nine spot.

But what will he do with the role? Will he operate as a stouter version of Maxi Moralez’s false nine? Will he embody the bygone Jo Inge Berget’s baffling lack of cohesion with other forwards? Or maybe he’ll be a more tactically astute version of Jona Lewis?

Héber’s skillset could allow NYCFC to play a 4-2-4 (left) that stretches to open a central pocket for Moralez to operate, supported by Ring pushing up and Matarrita tucking inside (right).

My dream is that adding Héber to the starting eleven will stretch NYCFC’s shape into an amorphous 4-2-4. Dome’s postmodern double pivot of James Sands and Alex Ring allows for all kinds of tactical variation in the midfield, and we’ve already seen Sands holding down the six while Ring pursues his grand experiment at becoming a box-smashing number eight. Add the wrinkle we saw last week against LAFC where Matarrita slides into the defensive midfield line as an inside fullback, and you’ve got the most flexible defensive unit since Adoni Iraola was patrolling Yankee Stadium.

How does Héber’s inclusion open up all those possibilities behind him? First, it pushes Maxi into a more tactically flexible role. Having a vertically aggressive center forward in front of him stretches the space for el hombre araña to work between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines, the role in which he put up MVP-caliber numbers last year. Moralez is talented enough to fill in as a false nine or a shuttling eight, sure, but it’s generally a good rule of thumb to play your best players in their best positions, and Maxi was born to be a ten.

A multimillion-dollar center forward should also relieve some pressure on newcomer Alexandru Mitriţă to be the focal point of the attack—a boon for the talented Romanian winger, who’d rather pick his moments than dominate touch counts. Once the system’s had time to gel, Héber’s positional flexibility ought to allow Mitri and Maxi to float into whatever space seems advantageous, trusting that Héber will help cover their role and track back in transition.

All that said, there’s still risk. The Brazilian could be a bust if he fails to get on the same sheet of music with our jazz-loving coach. Héber’s scoring ability could fade away for the City like a sunset during Manhattanhenge; a blight could be cast upon our people and our whole attack could go infertile. Whenever a new player comes into a team, there’s bound to be disruption. But right now it feels like NYCFC needs to harness that disruption and see where it leads. ❧

Image: Kano Tsunenobu, Album of Hawks and Calligraphy

Domènec Torrent’s Many Formations, Graded

Or some of them, anyway—you know how he is.

Back in the heady days of the pre-pre-season, The Outfield’s Justin Egan tweeted some formations we’d seen from Dome Torrent’s NYCFC last season and might again if the wind was right. Now that preseason is over and we’ve seen how the new pieces fit, let’s size up our wealth of tactical options.

4-3-3

Since the Patrick Vieira days this has been NYCFC’s default shape, so consistent that the YES Networks graphic department routinely mashes the starting lineup into it without a second thought. It’s looking like multimillion-dollar newcomer Alexandru Mitriță will start primarily at left wing this year, which means the center forward spot is wide open—“Jona” Lewis had a run at it against Nashville SC but didn’t lock down the position. Fans can keep hoping for a last-minute spring transfer, but expect non-traditional strikers to get minutes in this formation at the beginning of the season.

The 4-3-3’s upside for NYCFC is flexible player selection, distributed defensive responsibilities, and potency in various gamestates (a fancy analytics word that usually just means “scorelines”). It encourages connectivity between the attacking and midfield lines, especially with Maxi Moralez and Keaton Parks as hybrid central-attacking mids.

If there’s a problem with this formation, it’s that it can cause a lot of wing traffic, especially if Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm are aggressive about getting up the touchline. Also, it’s a shape that NYCFC’s played a lot of, making it easier for high caliber opponents to game plan against and win that battle of inches. Without a sure-thing center forward, even our best formation can’t quite eke out an A. Grade: B+

4-2-3-1

Dome warmed up to the double pivot when he ran into player selection issues, affording Ebenezer Ofori a lot of play next to new team captain Alexander Ring. The difference between a 4-3-3 and this formation is the formalization of Maxi’s role as a trequartista instead of a concrete member of the midfield three. It’s his best role, allowing him to float between lines as a catalyst in the final third without having to focus too much on defensive responsibilities.

The 4-2-3-1’s advantage is that it puts Maxi in a position to succeed. It also encourages Ring to be more offensive, able to move forward to cut out counterattacks while counting on his defensive mid partner to keep the back line from being exposed. There’s potential for Parks to be a full-fledged box-to-box midfielder in this formation, putting his own twist on the role Yangel Herrera left behind.

The formation’s weak spot is the pressure it puts on the wingers. NYCFC’s wingers are not exactly highly competent defenders—Lewis, Medina, and Mitri don’t inspire a lot of confidence tracking back. And as we saw last year during Maxi’s MVP-caliber season, opponents will try to mark him out of the game as a central attacking midfielder, forcing him into more and more challenging positions to receive and build the attack. Grade: B-

4-1-4-1

Do you like all-out attacking soccer? Do you think defense is for wimps and cowards? Have you already become a convert to the School of Inside Fullbacks? This is the formation for you. In the 4-1-4-1, possession is as much a defensive strategy as an offensive one, and high pressing is a must to limit free runs at the back line. It also tends to require at least one fullback to tuck inside to provide midfield cover alongside Ring.

That advanced line of four puts a ton of pressure on the opposing team. Marking three positionally fluid DPs is no small task for your average MLS team. It allows the wingers to play up the touchline and drive deep to deliver low crosses across the goalmouth or cutbacks to the penalty spot. Having a formation that facilitates the most dangerous passing angles in the sport is very good.

But it puts a lot of stress on Ring and the fullbacks to stifle counterattacks. Matarrita, despite his minutes as a center mid last year, doesn’t seem to offer what Dome’s looking for as an inside left back. Ben Sweat is better in the role, and this preseason even Tony Rocha has earned minutes as an underlapping left back. If you’re going to play a 4-1-4-1, it helps to be sure about who your best best player is at one of its pivotal positions. Grade: B

4-4-2 Diamond

The ghost of Jason Kreis likes this formation very much. It’s defensively compact and hard to break, relying on the tight midfield four to dominate central possession. In doing so, though, the team sacrifices width. Thankfully diamonds aren’t forever: after an international-break-induced flirtation with the formation in September Dome mostly retired it, and it’s probably the least likely option for this season.

Like the 4-2-3-1, the diamond keeps Maxi central, with runners in front to play balls into. This formation encourages Tinnerholm and Matarrita to get forward often, relying on the midfield three of Ring, Ofori, and Parks for coverage behind. The striker pair could also free up Mitriţă to roam and find matchups that suit him best.

The drawback with the diamond is that it doesn’t really have a place for Jesús Medina. After going through the Pirlo-Lampard-Villa logjam, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to field a formation were one of your DPs is unlikely to see the field.  Grade: C 

Image: Charles Francis Voysey, The Pilgrim