Notes from Florida

Five things we liked in group stage, and five things we never want to see again.

Two teams dropped out of MLS is Back before it even started, and there were times in group stage when it looked like NYCFC had made it three. But things weren’t all bad—outside of the disastrous start against Orlando, Ronny Deila’s men have been the better team more often than not—so we went around the table to talk about what’s working and what’s not.


Justin Egan

What to Build On: Although I still think that this tournament should not have been held, it does seem that since FC Dallas and Nashville were sent home, and despite some questionable safety practices, Covid-19 has been contained so far in the Disney bubble. All of the positive tests have come from faulty testing or players who contracted the virus before entering the bubble. That’s good news. But the fact that MLS and the NBA are burning through thousands of tests every week and getting results in a couple hours while the public health system is struggling to provide regular people access to timely testing is morally reprehensible.

What to Learn From: The 3-5-2 that Ronny Deila brought out for the first half hour of Orlando made me so mad I think my hairline receded a couple of inches. I can’t decide which was worse, the shape or the names on the teamsheet. The lineup featured seven players whose best position is in defense or defensive midfield, plus two attackers and whatever Jesús Medina is these days. Ronny’s selection of Gudi over Keaton Parks makes me wonder if he really did finally get around to watching NYCFC’s games from last year. When Maxi Moralez is out, Keaton is the only midfielder with the passing skills to link defensive and offensive phases in transition.  He may not be a No. 10, but neither is Gudi. The formation, which inexplicably flipped the traditional 3-5-2 midfield triangle and left NYCFC’s buildup in shambles, was also questionable. What was the point of going three at the back against Oscar Pareja’s generic 4-2-3-1? Whatever it was, it didn’t work, and the team played better after changing shape at the water break.

NYCFC’s passmap before and after the water break against Orlando.

John Muller

What to Build On: Coming into this tournament I still wasn’t sure what James Sands is, and the way Ronny Deila used him in group stage didn’t seem designed to clear that up. Sands started as a center back in a back four against Philadelphia, a right center back in a back three against Orlando, and a midfielder playing sometimes behind, sometimes ahead of Alex Ring against Inter Miami. There was a moment in the Miami game where he carried an intercepted clearance out to the wing, put the moves on the defender, and set up a Medina cross. There was a moment in the mess against Orlando when I remember typing in the chat “jimmy sands shooting from the six yard box everything is normal everything is fine.” But the performance that stuck with me was his lockdown shift against Philadelphia, when Sands’ stolidity looked like the perfect complement to Callens’ more adventurous play in a center back pair. More of that, please.

What to Learn From: The Orlando City goat rodeo aside, Ronny seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Time will tell how his vision of a simpler, more structured NYCFC will shape up, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt so far by explaining himself plainly and learning from mistakes. And yet one mistake just won’t go away: Jesús Medina has appeared in all eight competitive matches under Deila, starting six of them. Which, look, the first few games? I get it. You’ve got this high-dollar hole in your roster, the kid’s still youngish, he’s got some skills, maybe all he needs is a little time and trust to be the talent he looked like he was becoming before his sudden implosion two years ago. But even after Deila conceded that Medina’s not a winger and brought him into a more natural attacking mid role, Medina has kept being Medina, drifting in and out of games (mostly out), getting bullied off the ball any time a defender looks at him in a way that hurts his feelings, and just generally being the worst player on the team. Yeah, it sucks that City Football Group won’t buy the team three functioning DPs, but don’t force the issue. There’s talent on that bench. Use it.

Chris Campbell

What to Build On: Ronny Deila still has work to do learning the squad, who his best options are, and what combinations do and don’t work (see above re Medina, Jesús). But it appears in his quarantine-induced film study, he noticed how productive the Heber-Taty partnership was in 2019. The two South American strikers may not have brought their finishing boots to Orlando, but they’ve combined for 2.15 expected goals on 20 total shots in the two matches they’ve played together. It’s still up for debate how they best fit together, and Ronny is feeling his way through that as he tried Taty as a box-crashing left winger against Philly and a second striker against Orlando. When the partnership was broken in the third game due to a mysterious Héber injury, NYCFC only mustered 0.71 xG and Taty didn’t get a shot on target.

What to Learn From: As Maxi Moralez goes, so goes NYCFC. The last two matches have exposed the roster’s biggest weakness, the absence of a capable attacking midfielder to spell the aging Argentine. With so little turnover from last year’s Eastern Conference-winning squad, there weren’t many holes to fill and you might have thought finding a capable backup for Maxi would have topped David Lee’s agenda. Instead, Ronny’s been stuck between a marshmallow and a soft place trying to patch the No. 10 hole with Jesús Medina or the ghost of Gedion Zelalem. The ugly results speak for themselves.

Kevin Nelson

What to Build On: Ronny Deila’s defensive press continued to prioritize funneling possession into the midfield halfspaces in Orlando, a tactic that has proven to be high risk, high reward. It’s allowed NYCFC to launch quick counters off turnovers and attack with a numerical advantage, but the lack of ball pressure on opposing center backs can be invitation to slice through the defense. Inter Miami put together two dangerous buildups in the opening ten minutes when the press was activated, and Deila seemed to have a come to Jesus moment where his defense shifted to cutting off central passing lanes and forcing long balls. It remains to be seen whether the adjustment was evidence of Deila’s tactical acumen, but it’s a promising indicator that he can identify problems and change his plans accordingly. 

What to Learn From: Héber is one of the best strikers in MLS at dropping in to link up during the buildout. His movement and connectivity naturally distort opponent defenses, making room for all kinds of creative off ball runs. Unfortunately, NYCFC rarely took advantage of that during group stage, offering poor off ball movement in every stage of the attack. Each time Héber drops in to save the buildup, his only teammates interested in making short runs to offer layoff options are the fullbacks. The wingers, Alexandru Mitriță and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, like to come short and carry on the dribble instead of looking for runs into the space exposed as Héber pulls a backline apart. And things get even worse when you remove Héber from the equation, as we saw against Inter Miami. Considering this same roster didn’t have this problem last year, it’s not unreasonable to pin some of this on the new coach, though injuries and the general weirdness of the circumstances have probably played a part. Maybe Tajouri-Shradi’s goal against Miami, a rare example of good off ball movement, will remind the team what it’s been missing. 

NYCFC Tactics

What to Build On: Like Chris said, NYCFC has a Maxi understudy problem. But hark, the solution is on the bench: the Big Bird himself, Keaton Parks. In the Texan’s limited minutes so far in 2020, he’s been dynamic, looking to switch the field and attack the final third vertically instead of doing Medina’s shiftless sashay. If Maxi’s still not ready to start against Toronto, it’s time to give Keaton the microphone and let that bird sing.


What to Learn From: Taty’s scoring ability is stifled by his current responsibilities (or maybe regression to the mean is real). [Editor’s note: Our writer got sidetracked and the draft ends here. Seems that like Castellanos, who led NYCFC in group stage xG but came away scoreless, The Outfield just can’t finish.] ❧

Image: Henri Rousseau, The Repast of the Lion

Pigeon Post

A jumbo mailbag on NYCFC’s playoff prospects, season-end awards, next year’s CCL, and … pigeons carrying pineapples?

We asked for mailbag questions. You gave them to us. And since we’re still feeling good about that number one seed and you’ve got a whole first round bye week to read this, The Outfield staff decided to answer Every. Single. Question. The one about our best playoff eleven. The one about who takes a penalty kick with the MLS Cup on the line. The ones about … you know what, honestly, who can say what some of these questions are about. Y’all are weird.


Playoffs, Baby, Playoffs!

Should we be worried about the team having all that time off? And are we all Twins fans now? —Björn Bellenbaum

Yes and no. There are justified concerns that not playing a real match for 17 days might hurt the great form NYCFC has developed over the final stretch of the season. I was hoping that the club would set up a friendly with a USL or Canadian Premier League team for next week to keep the players in rhythm, but with no indication that’ll happen, we may have to settle for intra-squad scrimmages to keep everyone on their A-game.

That said, the time off is looking like more blessing than curse after Héber and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi picked up knocks last weekend. If we all cross our fingers and pray to the god of soft tissue recovery, this break could be just enough to get these two back for the conference semifinals.

And we are Twins fans no longer: they have failed us in spectacular fashion and now our allegiance must shift to the Astros or Rays. Let’s just get behind Houston, actually, since they have a much better chance of beating New York (sorry, Yankees fans, but this website has priorities). Either way, except in the unlikely event that the Yankees lose in the American League Championship Series in four or five games, we’re about to endure the saddest reminder yet that NYCFC doesn’t have its own stadium. —Kevin Nelson

Do you think the bye can actually end up being detrimental because our players will be out of form come their first playoff game? —NycfcFanatic

Like Kevin, put me down for yes and no. I’ve never put much stock in these types of things. If NYCFC loses its first playoff game, the knee-jerk explanation will be that players were rusty. If they win, we’ll say it was because they were well-rested. But this is really a player-by-player thing. Some guys may need the rest, some may need to compete a bit more to stay in form. It’s up to Dome to figure out who needs what.

The bye can be quite an advantage in other ways, however. The winner of Toronto vs. DC United could pick up a red card or lose players to injury. And our potential conference finals opponents on the bottom half of the bracket could lose a player to yellow card accumulation by the third round, whereas NYCFC cannot. —Chris Campbell

What’s the appropriate formula for determining the differences in results probability between playing a playoff game at Yankee Stadium vs. Citi Field? —JayH

For the 2019 season, Citi Field has actually been more favorable for offenses compared to Yankee Stadium. The ballparks are both in the bottom 5 for Ball Park Factor, a stat that compares home and away run-scoring differences in The MLB. So you should bet the under.

Oh, did you mean soccer? —NYCFC Tactics

How does your ideal NYCFC starting eleven compare to the average starting eleven for playoff teams, on a position for position basis? —LionNYC

Everyone knows this NYCFC squad is stacked—I don’t think a single position in the starting eleven is below average for the 14 playoff teams. That’s a testament to how efficiently Claudio Reyna has shifted the team’s budget down the roster, spreading it across a wealth of talented TAM players: only four playoff teams spent less on player salaries this season and only one distributed its salaries more evenly. Just imagine how scary this team would be if Jesús Medina still played professional soccer. —Dummy Run

What’s the ideal lineup and formation for this Audi Cup run? Does that change depending on who we face? How so? —jpena212

If you’re the kind of fan who obsessively watches pre- and post-match content for clues about what to expect from NYCFC—and who am I kidding, you read The Outfield—then you’ve probably heard Dome respond to reporters approximately 68 times now about picking his team based on the opposition, the performance “in the facility,” and the feeling he has before a match.

You’re also probably aware that Dome is a fan of keeping opponents on their toes, and as the season’s gone on we’ve been treated to a whole fruit basket of formations, from 3-4-2-1 to 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-2-2-2 to 4-2-4, often within the same match, based on the state of the game, the condition of the players, and probably whatever Dome had for lunch that day.

Call this response a cop-out, but I’d expect to see whichever set of players allows for the most tactical fluidity. Part of the joy this season has been that trying to guess what shape the list of names in any given lineup will take has become futile, almost irrelevant. We’re as much in the dark as opposition coaches are! Which augurs well for a deep playoff run and maybe even silverware. —Christopher Jee

We’re going to penalty kicks in the playoffs. Everyone is healthy. What’s your order of takers, from 1-11? —LionNYC

Here’s the thing about penalty kicks: they’re such a rare and arbitrary event that it’s extremely hard to know who’s good at them, to the point that the best answer to this question is probably “Whoever feels good about taking one.” (Except for Maxi. Maxi should definitely not feel good about taking one.) —Dummy Run

Who are our best and worst matchups for the MLS Cup playoffs? —ubersloth

NYCFC’s only boogeyman this playoff run is LAFC. The Western Conference Champions are formidable: they’ve got the Supporters’ Shield, the Coach of the Year, the MVP, and the best point total, goal differential, and expected goal differential in league history. Compared to that, the East looks easy. [Disclaimer: The Outfield is not responsible for any bad playoff juju accruing from our writers’ hubris. —Ed.] —NYCFC Tactics


End of BEST NYCFC SEASON EVER Awards

Who is most deserving: Dome for Coach of the Year, Maxime Chanot for Defender of the Year, or Héber for Newcomer of the Year (i.e. what should we be most outraged by if they don’t win their respective award)? —LionNYC

If I can take off my homer hat for a second, Bob Bradley and Matías Almeyda both have strong claims to Coach of the Year, and as good as Chanot’s been, there are other defenders who are just as deserving. Héber, on the other hand, not only put up better numbers than Zlatan and Josef; his arrival also slid NYCFC’s midfielders back into place and helped turn the team’s season around. What more could you want from a Newcomer of the Year? —Dummy Run

Is missing Héber or Maxi really that detrimental to our squad? We’ve won games without both of them. Who’s really our most valuable player? —Shwafta

Hard to argue missing either of those guys doesn’t hurt the team. Maxi finished the season with 20 MLS assists (and the most actual assists from open play) while Héber finished second in non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes played.

But even without Héber’s incredible efficiency in front of the net, NYCFC would have other options to fill the scoring void. Taty Castellanos can play the nine and is an aerial threat in the box. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Alexandru Mitriţǎ can bang in goals.

Minus Maxi, though, this MLS Cup-bound train would be missing its engine. Sure, we can get by playing Keaton Parks a bit higher up the pitch (assuming he’s healthy), but all roads to the final third run through Moralez, who can win a game in all kinds of ways. Maxi is absolutely the club’s most valuable player and critical to any postseason prospects.

As for second place, Héber’s certainly worthy, but I would have to give the edge to Anton Tinnerholm. Tinnerholm’s offensive production is unequaled among MLS right backs, and Dome has figured out how to really unleash him with long switches to his side.

Besides, what would we do without him? NYCFC doesn’t have any comparable options at right back. Eric Miller has been anything but exciting. Scally is still only 16 years old and has yet to play a regular-season minute. And while Ibeagha’s fullback cameo was wonderful, he isn’t exactly a chance-generating machine. It’s no coincidence that while Tinnerholm was out with a concussion, NYCFC’s play up his side dropped dramatically, from a season average of 31% of the team’s touches in the right third to 24% at FC Dallas, 22% against Atlanta, and 24% at New England, according to Whoscored. —Chris Campbell


This Guy vs. That Guy (Sometimes Literally)

Yangel Herrera was considered by many to be NYCFC’s most important player after David Villa last year. How has NYCFC overcome his absence in terms of changing shape, players, or tactics? —LionNYC

Oh man, that’s the kind of question you’d have to re-read a whole season’s worth of The Outfield to get a good answer to (and you should!). But I’ll say this: even though Yangel clearly earned his graduation from MLS to La Liga, NYCFC’s best run in 2018 came while he was out, so this wasn’t impossible to predict.

It helps that Keaton Parks, Tony Rocha, and especially Ebenezer Ofori are safer passers and get caught on the ball less often, leading to fewer dangerous midfield transitions. On the other hand, Herrera’s defensive motor would have come in handy this season for a team that often lined up with just two midfielders. NYCFC still has one of MLS’s best high presses but they’ve dialed the heat down a tad without the indefatigable Venezuelan and these days do a little more defending in their own half. —Dummy Run

Why are we so much better with Parks in the lineup than Ofori even though they have both scored just as many goals this year? —Sabo

Parks is a more offensively talented and ambitious player than Ofori, so his skillset is more useful when partnered with Alex Ring. Ofori’s defensive advantage over Parks is often redundant, since Ring is capable of cleaning up in front of the backline as the lone holding midfielder, and his conservative style sometimes persuades Ring to try to do more than he should offensively. (We all know how much trouble this team can get in when they’re caught on the counter with the captain upfield.) In general, Parks’ slightly softer defense is greatly outweighed by the value of having a second creative midfield presence alongside Maxi.

The stats bear this out, as Parks outperforms Ofori in every attacking metric, setting up twice as many shots per 90 while playing, on average, 12 yards closer to goal. Ofori may raise NYCFC’s floor, but the team looks better with Parks in the lineup because he raises their ceiling. —Kevin Nelson

Would you rather fight one Sean Johnson or five Maxi Moralezes? —mgarbowski

Critically important question but easy to answer. Just think about how this would play out head to head: the five Morali would use their speed to nimbly dodge the strength and power of Sean Johnson, surrounding him like lobos on the prowl. The alpha Maxi, recognizable by its markings being the most platinum blonde, would feign a head-on attack while the other four swarmed the hapless American on all sides, subduing him by each taking a different limb. —Justin Egan

Anton Tinnerholm is second in the team in assists. Is that because he’s a better player than our left-backs and/or because we play more through the right side of the field? —LionNYC

Well for one thing he’s played 700 more minutes than Rónald Matarrita, plus Mata’s teammates have sort of let him down by converting his 2.1 expected assists from open play into exactly zero goals. But Tinnerholm’s got the advantage in rate as well as volume: he generates more open play xA per 96 minutes than Mata or Ben Sweat, which is pretty impressive considering how much of NYCFC’s offense comes up the left.

NYCFC’s expected buildup by zone, attacking from left to right. Red indicates more total expected goals from possessions that passed through that zone (via American Soccer Analysis).

How does he do it? I’d chalk it up to both Tinnerholm’s quality and his tactical role as the free man when NYCFC overloads the left side of the buildup before switching play to the right in the attacking phase, which has been a regular feature of the team’s style this season. —Dummy Run


CONCACAFed

Super psyched to be in the CCL! When can we expect the schedule for it to be released? —Marcos Ochoa

Take it away, Dylan Butler:

How much risk will competing in CONCACAF Champions League present for NYCFC’s chances of winning the Supporters’ Shield next season? —Andy Mitchell

Historically, it’s true, playing in the CCL has negatively impacted teams’ regular season performance. We’ve seen a couple extreme cases lately, with 2018 Toronto and 2019 Sporting Kansas City going from top-tier elite teams to missing the playoffs the year they played spring CCL ball.

What’s the deal with the CCL hangover? It’s mostly about the collective bargaining agreement and roster rules. Although some clubs have invested in USL squads, roster rules prevent them from acting as a true reserve squad that could fluidly move players up to and down from the first team. Roster rules also limit clubs from signing more than 30 players to MLS contracts, and most teams don’t even fill that many.

This is the reality of being a salary-capped league: you’re incentivized to invest your cap dollars in the best possible starting eleven, with cheap reserves and homegrowns filling out the roster. Top-heavy squads aren’t built to cope with an overloaded schedule.

The good news is that, apart from wasting a DP slot on Jesús Medina, NYCFC has put together a pretty savvy and deep MLS roster. Dome did a great job this season dealing with injuries and international call-ups, and his decade of UEFA Champions League experience and emphasis on tactical versatility might make him better equipped than your average MLS skipper to deal with CCL rotation.

More importantly, the MLSPA’s CBA is about to be renegotiated, and one of the top items on the players’ agenda will be increasing the cap. The more money MLS allows teams to spend, the more well-run teams will be able to distinguish themselves.

As the Leagues Cup expands in 2020, more MLS teams are going to be playing in secondary competitions. We should be happy NYCFC is playing in one that matters instead of some dumb SUM cash grab.

Of course if the players strike over the CBA and MLS has to forfeit its CCL games, none of this will matter either way. —Justin Egan


“Yup, these are my readers.”

If you could have one NYCFC player show up to your bar mitzvah, who would you choose and why? —adam

I see three viable options on NYCFC’s roster depending on what you’re going for (I’m not Jewish, so apologies to all if I grossly mischaracterize what goes down at a bar mitzvah):

1. If you’re trying to maximize your gift haul, you invite Maxi Moralez. He has the highest salary on the roster and seems like the generous type. Added bonus: his height would make any 14-year-old feel like a man.

2. If you want a hype man, Héber’s your guy. I bet he’s comfortable in a room full of strangers and would be the type of friend who’d exaggerate how cool you are to everyone else there. There’s a good chance that he gets Grandma out on the dance floor, so factor in some hip fracture risk with this pick.

3. If you’re a fan of an innocent prank, you could bring Ring, Tinnerholm, Parks, and Gary Mackay-Steven but only allow one of them to be seen at a time. Make sure they wear the same outfit (maybe those suits the club is always tweeting about?) and keep them in rotation all night to see how many people notice they’re not the same person. To do this on hard mode, don’t even try to disguise their accents. —Kevin Nelson

What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? —FootyLovin

EXT. MLS HEADQUARTERS (WHICH FOR SOME REASON LOOKS LIKE A CASTLE) — DAY

WARSHAW: Halt! Who goes there?

DOME: It is I, Dome, son of Pep Guardiola, from the Pitch at Etihad. King of Catalonia, defeater of the Red Bulls, sovereign of all the East!

WARSHAW: Pull the other one!

DOME: I am. And this is my trusty servant Maxi. We have ridden the length and breadth of the MTA in search of footballers who will join me in my Pitch at Etihad. I must speak with your lord and master, Don.

WARSHAW: What, ridden on a train?

DOME: Yes

WARSHAW: You’re using pineapples!

DOME: What?

WARSHAW: You’ve got two empty halves of pineapples and you’re bangin’ ‘em together.

DOME: So? We have ridden since the snows of winter covered this land, through the kingdom of bodegas, through …

WARSHAW: Where’d you get the pineapples?

DOME: We found them.

WARSHAW: Found them? In the Bronx? The pineapple is tropical!

DOME: What do you mean?

WARSHAW: Well, this is a humid subtropical zone.

DOME: The pigeon may fly south with the sun or the cockroach or the rat may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land?

WARSHAW: Are you suggesting pineapples migrate?

DOME: Not at all. They could be carried. 

WARSHAW: What? A pigeon carrying a pineapple?

DOME: It could grip it by the husk.

WARSHAW: It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A thirteen-ounce bird could not carry a two-pound pineapple.

DOME: Well, it doesn’t matter. Will you go and tell your Master Don that Dome from the Pitch at Etihad is here.

WARSHAW: Listen, in order to maintain air-speed velocity, a pigeon needs to beat its wings 43 times every second, right?

DOME: Please!

WARSHAW: Am I right?

DOME: I’m not interested!

WIEBE: It could be carried by a Staten Island pigeon!

WARSHAW: Oh, yeah, a Staten Island pigeon maybe, but not a Bronx pigeon, that’s my point.

WIEBE: Oh, yeah, I agree with that.

DOME: Will you ask your Master Don if he wants to join my Pitch at Etihad?!

WARSHAW: But then, of course, Staten Island pigeons are not migratory.

WIEBE: Oh, yeah.

WARSHAW: So they couldn’t bring a pineapple back anyway.

WIEBE: Wait a minute—supposing two pigeons carried it together?

—Chris Campbell

What fruit or vegetable most looks like NYCFC’s best shape in terms of formation? —LionNYC

Oh my god …

Is it a pineapple? Is it a pinecone? Does a pinecone count as a vegetable? Has Dome been planning this all along? WE NEED ANSWERS, PEOPLE. —Dummy Run

Image: Alessandro Zuek Simonetti, Pigeon, Chinatown, NYC

Squabble: Should NYCFC Play a Front Two or Three?

On how to get the most out of an attack stacked with talent.

With Héber returning to the lineup and Taty Castellanos in impressive form, NYCFC’s got arguably the deadliest striker combo in the league heading into the playoffs. But do they have to play as a central pair? We put it to a Squabble: Should NYCFC play a front two or three?

The Arguments

Christopher Jee: At this point one thing should be clear: when they’re both available, Héber and Taty are in ridiculous form together. Just a glance at the top ten goal producers list that’s been going around should make it self evident that NYCFC is best with a front two. After the Cincinnati match, when we first saw the Pigeons in their latest tactical incarnation, Dome Torrent said it himself: “When you have two players that can score goals—twelve Héber, nine Taty—it’s better to play with them. It’s simply like that.”

I know what you’re going to say: this isn’t about a front two so much as the chemistry between Héber and Taty, regardless of their configuration. But here’s Héber after that same Cincinnati game, weighing in on the tactical shift that swung the match: “The first half I played like a winger; [the second half] I played close to the 18-yard box. We played with two strikers and I think this helped.”

We’ve had to resort to different looks to cover for Héber’s injury during the run in to the playoffs, but as he returns to training we should have our fingers crossed it won’t bring a return to a front three. True, when we shifted to the 3-4-3 back in April it almost immediately turned the season around. At the time it was a necessary adjustment against opponents who’d gotten savvy to the way we built out of the back in a 4-3-3. Nothing lasts forever, though, and teams eventually adapted to our buildup in the 3-4-3, too. The latest shift—to a 4-2-2-2—allows NYCFC to maintain the four-man midfield overload from the 3-4-3 but takes a man off the defensive line in favor of another outlet up front. With or without Héber, it could be Dome’s recipe for postseason success.

NYCFC Tactics: Héber is who we thought he was—or at least I did. But Taty’s emergence as a legit second striker moonlighting as a solo center forward has been the revelation of the season (outside of Hawaiian shirt night). Should both South Americans be in the starting lineup? The way they’ve been playing, I don’t think anyone would say no. But that doesn’t mean a front three isn’t the best shape for NYCFC.

With a roster this deep, the tricky part is figuring out how to get NYCFC’s best players on the field. Facts: Maxi Moralez needs to be in a playmaking role, Alexander Ring needs to be a defensive midfielder, and Héber and Taty need to be on the field.

Here’s where things get contentious: I don’t think Alexandru Mitriţǎ should be starting. His hero shift against Atlanta notwithstanding, his open play expected goals and expected assists per 96 minutes this season rank below Héber, Taty, Maxi—even Gary Mackay-Steven and Jesús Medina. Given how much the Pineapple Professor loves positional fluidity, Mitri’s limited versatility leaves him the odd man out.

When the chips are down, give me a midfield of Ring, Keaton Parks, and James Sands or Ebenezer Ofori. Defense wins championships, and those are the guys who’ll keep NYCFC’s stellar defensive record (second best in the league at 1.10 home-adjusted expected goals allowed per game) intact come playoff time. With the team’s best back four set in stone, that leaves three spots up front for Maxi, Héber, and Taty to rotate through the attacking roles in a 4-3-3.

Christopher Jee: If you flipped the calendar back to August, I’d be totally with you, but lately a couple things have changed. First and foremost, of course, is Héber’s injury, which will still have him working his way back to peak fitness as we enter the postseason. The good news is that Alexandru Mitriţǎ has finally caught fire, with superstar turns against New England and Atlanta. His expected goalchain per 96, which counts the xG value of all possessions a player is involved in, is up 22% since the start of July (and that’s not even counting the Atlanta masterpiece). He’s also turned himself into a filthy little nutmeg king:

A big part of Mitri’s growth has been our experimentation with the 4-2-2-2, which lines him and Maxi up behind two strikers, backed by a double pivot of Ring and Parks. Crucially, it gets Mitriţǎ off the left sideline more often, where he’s prone to dribbling into dead ends, and into more central areas where he can link up more effectively between the lines. It also gives NYCFC a four-man overload in central midfield, making it easier to control the game the way Dome wants. It’s the shape we were playing when Héber nutmegged Luis Robles to seal the Hudson River Derby, and it’s the system that produced Medina’s first goal against New England, when he was one of three (!) attackers streaking into the box to put home Anton Tinnerholm’s cross. It doesn’t hurt that most MLS defenses are used to training and playing against three-man forward lines, which makes the 4-2-2-2 a particularly tricky proposition to defend against.

NYCFC Tactics: Glad we agree that Mitriţǎ’s best position isn’t isolated on the left wing. Even his hat trick explosion against Atlanta United felt a little like getting a Sunday morning payout from a loose slot in Atlantic City after spending all weekend getting dispossessed of your chips at the blackjack tables.

It’s still my belief that NYCFC’s best lineup involves Maxi, Héber, and Taty as a flexible attacking trio that defend in a classic 4-3-3 shape. Instead of playing deeper where his production might suffer, Maxi can check into space to provide midfield superiority and the vertical passing that’s made him the league’s assist leader.

The bottom line for the front three argument is that Taty and Héber need to be in any lineup, Maxi is greater than Mitriţǎ, and Maxi is not a defensive midfielder—give me Ring and Parks in midfield for tactical flexibility come playoff time. For a team whose best weapon is possession, width and positional versatility should guide our choice of players and shapes, and we’ll get more of both with a three-man front.

Judges

Chris Campbell: Both of you make compelling arguments. No matter which way you shake it, if everyone’s healthy a very talented attacker will be left on the bench for critical games. But I have to give the edge to Jee on this one, and the main reason is Maxi Moralez. He’s been more effective playing as a true midfielder than a winger dropping back to facilitate offense. Either way, please please please give me more Taty and Héber together. Vote: Christopher Jee

Justin Egan: The truth is that the formation doesn’t matter as long as NYCFC can start both Taty and Héber. We’ve seen them combine successfully in both two- and three-man fronts.  While I do believe our best formation is a 4-3-3 when we can start a midfield of Maxi-Parks-Ring, I can’t get behind any suggestion that Maxi should be playing the wing on the regular. Shame on you, Tactics! Vote: Christopher Jee

Dummy Run: Actually think both sides wound up suggesting that Maxi should play a wide position, although Maxi on the wing in a 4-3-3 would inevitably turn into Maxi tucking inside, so it sort of feels like you’re both arguing for a front two. Still, I agree with NYCFC Tactics that a wide front line will help the possession game come playoff time—I think our best bet right now is a Maxi-Ring-Parks midfield and Mitri-Héber-Taty up top. That’s three, right? Vote: NYCFC Tactics

Image: Barbara Hepworth, Three Forms

Dallas 1-1 NYCFC: Tactics Chat

What happens when Plan A stops working?

Sometimes—okay, pretty much all the time—we have tactics nerd fights in The Outfield Slack. But Dome being Dome, just figuring out what formations we’re talking about, let alone how to fix them, can take some work. Here’s how the conversation went down the morning after the second-half collapse at Dallas.


Christopher Jee
did we talk about breaking down why we take so much pressure in the 3-4-3? I thought after recent runs in 4 ATB we might be done with it, but after yesterday I’m curious

There’s no question that our struggles started when Tinny got injured, but I’m curious why – perhaps the requirement for wingbacks to be very aggressive in a 3-4-3

NYCFC Tactics
i think its an unbalanced 3-4-3

mitrita was much more a winger while maxi was floating

Christopher Jee
But we seem to struggle in 3-4-3 generally and the underload in midfield looks like a clear culprit

NYCFC Tactics
tinnerholm allows for more drive on the right side

Christopher Jee
They tried to make Mitri a second striker after halftime

NYCFC Tactics
yup, post injury

Christopher Jee
I wouldn’t rule out some kind of adjustment in Dallas press or just Pomykal being more effective at exploiting the midfield overload

Dummy Run
we can’t just blame the 3-4-3 when we dominated in that shape in the first half

Christopher Jee
Right, at worst it’s bad in certain modes

However the way it fails looked very familiar

Also why I wonder if Dallas adjusted

Dummy Run
dallas adjusted in a big way at halftime, they moved their line up and man marked everywhere

from left to right: nycfc’s distribution with tinnerholm (1-23), without in the first half (23-45+7), and at the start of the second half (45-67)

Christopher Jee
Actually looks decent 23-45+7

Dummy Run
right. losing tinnerholm kept us from getting up the wing but it didn’t break the midfield, dallas’s defensive shift broke the midfield

NYCFC Tactics
so we think a rope-a-dope strat with the heat?

Dummy Run
i definitely think this was part of it

they gave us so much space in the first half and absolutely none in the second, it was wild

NYCFC Tactics
that would be a good question to ask Dome before playoffs

Dummy Run
what question

NYCFC Tactics
how would he react to a team “baiting” him with one shape playstyle in the first half

then pivoting to a different one in the 2nd half

is that solution solved better with substitutions or positional adjustments

Dummy Run
his answer is usually “both”

NYCFC Tactics
i know
but gotta keep asking

Dummy Run
i was surprised we didn’t make more changes yesterday

maybe there just weren’t enough players available

NYCFC Tactics
that wouldve been my guess

he seemed hesitant to bring Shradi on for Tinnerholm

which seemed far more the comp

Christopher Jee
I figured Rocha came on for his tactical flexibility
We shifted personnel around (to disastrous effect, arguably) at some point in the second half. Maybe from the beginning? (Miller to RWB, Ring to CCB, Rocha to midfield)

Shradi wouldn’t have been able to slip into the double pivot as easily
Although I thought Rocha had his worst performance in the center of the park in a long time

It seemed clear to me that we were outmanned in midfield 2 v 3 very often in the second half. Even if we dominated in a 3-4-3 in the first half, I still think a switch to a 4-3-3 in the second half might have solved the problem even with the tired legs

NYCFC Tactics
i would have liked a 4-3-3 in the second half

Dummy Run
at 45′? or after keaton came off? configured how?

Christopher Jee
Shortly after 45″ when it was clear we were undermanned in midfield

NYCFC Tactics
i think id have preferred mata pushing into midfield instead of rocha

and maybe keeping more of a top 3 full out with mitrita, taty and shradi as the trident

and maxi more in midfield with ring

Christopher Jee
Yeah. I mean even when tired, dome always says it’s best to keep the ball to avoid running around a lot

We weren’t set up to do that

I suspect Dome was a lot like Rocha as a player

Left footed, reasonably technical, not very athletic

Kevin Nelson
I feel like the 3-4-3 breaks down when the opponent has wide players running in behind and the wingbacks are concerned about getting beat over the top so they drop further than they should and is a problem if the wingers aren’t tracking back, I think that shape can work if that combination of things doesn’t happen

That shape can work in theory with the players we have but if they’re unaware of their tendency to do that it can break down

Christopher Jee
I would agree, with the addition that it fails when wingbacks don’t have the energy / ability to push those opposition wingers backwards when they have the opportunity

e.g. when we are playing in ridiculous heat

I’ve been lovefesting on Dome but I think this result was on him

Poor Ringy takes the blame but it was only a matter of time before someone made a soulcrushing error when we were taking that much pressure for that long.

NYCFC Tactics
yeah, i agree this one had the smell of institution failure

Christopher Jee
Yeah and another huge factor is what the other team is doing

If it makes sense that 3-4-3 uniquely gives us the capability to play against certain systems, then it should follow that it hamstrings us against other systems

I think

Based on the discussion above it sounds like Dallas made a half time adjustment that we failed to adjust to in turn

NYCFC Tactics
right, but the 3-4-3 with the full talent available is also a 4-3-3

its just i think we got hamstrung by what players were available

Christopher Jee
I mean it morphs easily into a 4-3-3

I think 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 are vastly different based on their various shapes in various phases of play

e.g. in a 3-4-3 your central CB is facing up the field in the build-up. In a 4-3-3 they are facing their own goal in the build-up.

In a 3-4-3 your two wingers are more like inside forwards. In a 4-3-3 they hug the line.

NYCFC Tactics
right, if NYCFC’s best 11 is playing there is little quality difference between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 in my eyes

Dummy Run
in (one of) (our) 3-4-3(s) our two wingers are more like inside forwards

same with the 4-3-3, it comes in different flavors

Christopher Jee
Yeah I think this also happens in-play based on whatever positional game we are playing in a given part of the field.

I think the way the center CB / CDM is facing between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 is almost invariant though because it happens in the “first move”

i.e. it’s not super dependent on what the other team is doing.

NYCFC Tactics
it has a lot to do with the static-ness of Mitrita

if maxi plays on the LW/LF spot, the flexibility is even more pronounced

Christopher Jee
Yeah but lack an outlet up front when Maxi plays LW

NYCFC Tactics
not if Heber and Taty are up there

its like a sliding door of a front three or a front two with a roaming number 10

Christopher Jee
At that point it’s kind of the 4-2-2-2 right?

NYCFC Tactics
yeah, but the attacking layer of 2 is asymmetrical depending on where the ball is

Christopher Jee
Mm

I think I know what you mean ❧

Image: Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing #340

Pigeon Post

What’s up with Medina and Parks? Is this our year in the Open Cup? And more from the mailbag.

Hard to believe, but we’re already a third of the way into the MLS season. Thanks to Dome’s Qyburn-level experiments bearing fruit and CFG loosening the purse strings to sign a human hang-loose emoji at striker, NYCFC has abandoned its quest to become the first team to draw all 34 games and now sits comfortably in playoff position. How the hell did we get here? The Outfield staff spent the bye week digging through questions to see what’s on your mind.

Even if he’s a lost cause, what are the weaknesses that make Medina so ineffective? And where might he still be able to develop? —@Dave_Neu

Given that Medina’s burning a Designated Player-sized hole into the bench right now in a massive misallocation of resources, this may be the most pressing question to ask. Medina has all the technical tools to succeed (you don’t generate a $4 million-ish transfer from nothing), but his play so far can only be categorized as disappointing. Depending on your capacity for optimism and your current state of sobriety, his possession stats might suggest potential to grow into an Ismael Tajouri-Shradi–style inside forward, but it’s clear he’s been unable to consistently to get on the end of attacks this year.

Touch %ChainsxBNPxG+xA
Medina8.526.30.500.24
Tajouri-Shradi8.528.10.710.41
Castellanos5.816.50.130.43
Mitriţă8.422.00.350.48
Moralez10.631.70.700.42
Héber6.619.70.290.68

Touch %: percentage of the team’s touches that the player makes while on the field. Chains: number of pass chains the player is involved in per 96 minutes. xB: expected goals per 96 minutes for pass chains in which the player is involved but doesn’t make the key pass or shot. NPxG+xA: expected goals per 96 minutes from a player’s key passes and non-penalty shots. Source: American Soccer Analysis.

Discomfort with the league’s physicality could be a factor here, as could NYCFC’s usual preference for attacking up the left side. But that hasn’t affected Tajouri-Shradi, who has outperformed Medina by any metric. Increasing his attacking work rate would be a good first step for Medina—getting on the ball more often might help him quit overthinking things and push past whatever’s been eating at his confidence. He’ll have more chances to get involved in the 3-4-3, which tends to pull the wingers into the inside channels. Héber’s drop-ins and Ofori’s diagonal switches to Tinnerholm will create space for Medina to run in behind if he can find a little hustle.

There’s not much of a case for starting Medina anywhere right now, but give him some time: the team’s new tactics suit him better than playing as a wide winger ever did. Besides, at his price tag, Medina’s probably not going anywhere soon, so it’s worth taking the time to help him get right. —Kevin Nelson

One burning question I have is how we maintain this system with the attacking options we have. Not sure how Dome plans to get Maxi, Isi, Héber AND Mitri on the field at the same time. In my mind, this only works in a 4-3-3. Any ideas? —@nycfcist

Yeah, getting all four of those players on the field at the same time will be a challenge. The only way I see them all on the field at the same time under the current 3-4-3 is if Dome tries out Tajouri-Shradi as the left wingback during one of Matarrita’s frequent absences. But as appealing as it sounds to play the team’s four best attackers at the same time, I’m not sure moving to a 4-3-3 would be worth bumping key players out of their best positions. One thing’s for sure, choosing between Isi and Mitri for the starting XI is a great problem to have, and whoever gets left on the bench makes for a nice safety valve in case NYCFC is chasing a goal late. —Chris Campbell

I’d love to see Sands replaced with a third forward going back to a 4-3-3. Do you think the defense could handle that? Would the extra attacker be worth one fewer CB? —@Jonquillo

Thanks to the veteran pair of Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens and a wealth of defensive-minded midfielders, NYCFC’s defense could definitely handle one fewer center back, but I’m not sure the offense could. Moving back to a 4-3-3 would keep the fullbacks from getting as far up the pitch as they have been lately. While Héber’s addition has been massive, most of NYCFC’s chance creation since the formation change has involved the wingbacks in some form or fashion, and it’s not clear an extra forward would be worth restricting the attacking freedom Matarrita and Tinnerholm have enjoyed. Besides, James Sands has arguably been one of NYCFC’s best players so far this season—I don’t think benching him would be in the the team’s best interests right now or for the future. —CC

Should Maxi Moralez, 32 years old, be replaced at the end of this year, since his contract will be up? And is there anyone on the current roster who has shown enough that he could potentially fill the void if he leaves? —@MarkJ525

Based on how nervous I got while reading this question, I don’t think NYCFC is prepared to be without Moralez just yet. The good news is he’s the kind of player who relies more on craft and guile than physical tools, which might help him hold out for a while, though MLS can take a heavy toll on the body. There should be a plan in place for life after Maxi, but this team is so dependent on him to be a creative force (see the table in the first question) that he has to be a part of the near-term future. There’s just no other player on the squad—and not many in the league—who can do what Moralez does. Mitriţă’s not going to be that guy; his distribution isn’t nearly where it would need to be to dictate an entire offense. Unless CFG’s scouting department can turn up a sure-thing DP-level creative midfielder, Maxi should be on this roster next season. —KN

Why doesn’t Keaton Parks get any play time? Where should he be on the depth chart? —@zzzana

To solve the Curious Case of Keaton Parks, we’re going to have to take a little trip back to the preseason. But before we get there, let’s do what Dome thinks we don’t and take a closer look at exactly what kind of player we’re talking about here.

This is a late-game, lead-protecting situation where both teams are playing direct. Keaton’s not afforded a lot of chances to show off the silky ball skills that get The Outfield Slack all hot and bothered, but you can see the talent. He controls the ball comfortably even in traffic. He finds the right teammates and makes the right runs. His defense isn’t very physical and can be a little loose—he sometimes reacts a split second slow or overpursues looking for an interception—but he’s mostly taking good angles, cutting off lanes, and keeping the team shape. This is the kind of center mid Dome can work with.

Just one little problem: NYCFC doesn’t have center mids. In the 3-4-3 that’s become the team’s default formation over the last month, two defensive midfielders help cover an exposed back line when the wingbacks get forward. That’s a gig where you might have to put a body on an opponent now and then to keep him from getting past you. For a pass-reading defender like Keaton, it’s not ideal. In front of the double pivot, one and sometimes two NYCFC forwards will tuck into the attacking midfield areas behind the striker, closer to where Parks likes to play, but frequent fast breaks mean those forwards sometimes have to pop out onto the wings and get downhill in a hurry. Again, not really his thing.

So if Dome knew all that from spending his Christmas bingeing Benfica B games, why’d we sign him? We don’t know whether Keaton’s disappointed in training, but we do know plans have changed since he was brought in on loan. In the 4-3-3 that Dome scrapped because he didn’t have the right kind of wingers, Parks could have been a natural midfield partner alongside Maxi Moralez. In the 3-4-3, his best bet is to become Maxi’s understudy in the linking role, as an inside forward who drops deep to help the buildup. Too bad finding yourself behind NYCFC’s most important and hardest working player is a surefire way to stay on the bench. —Dummy Run

I’ve been thinking a lot about the U.S. Open Cup this year. Based on the new U.S. talent do you think we’ll make a run this year finally? —@nycfcnews2

I really hope this is the year that NYCFC goes on a U.S. Open Cup run. While even a single win would be nice to break our ridiculous streak of flameouts, there’s a bigger opportunity here for a trophyless club. The Open Cup is by far the easiest to win of MLS’s three major competitions, as many teams don’t take it seriously until the end. To claim last year’s Cup Houston only had to win five games, and one of them wasn’t even against a MLS team. Simple, right? Let’s go win something already.

I wrote about our offseason roster moves this past February, and we did add quite a few young Americans as depth.  I don’t think these moves were made with the Open Cup in mind, but it’s a nice ancillary benefit.

It’s a little too early to predict a starting lineup for our fourth-round match in June, but unlike recent years where the squad was so short on domestic players that we had to fill out the bench with multiple goalkeepers, Dome can select from his full roster this year. Open Cup rules allow up to five non-domestic players in the gameday 18-man roster, and thanks to whatever hotshot lawyer’s been handling NYCFC’s green cards we’ve only got five internationals in the squad: Héber, Taty, Mitri, Maxi, and Ofori.

I don’t think anyone’s going to be too surprised by the roster we bring. If NYCFC gets matched up against an MLS team, like we did last season against the Red Bulls, look for Dome to bring a top-tier lineup featuring guys like Maxi and Héber. Against a lower division team, expect a lot more rotation and maybe even some cameos from Justin Haak and Joe Scally.

If you don’t already, be sure to check out the fantastic U.S. Open Cup coverage at thecup.us. And come join me on the Florida Soccer Soldier bandwagon! —Justin Egan

Image: War 1870/71 Franco-Prussian Balloons/Pigeon Post


I Followed Héber’s Career in Croatia—Here’s What I Learned

NYCFC’s new striker spent the last three seasons in Croatia’s top flight. Journalist Ivan Žeželj writes about how it shaped Héber as a player.

By Ivan Žeželj

The last time I watched Héber play was in early December, the final game of the Croatian First Football League before winter break. It was a comfortable 3-0 win for his team, HNK Rijeka, with Héber himself contributing a brace. His first was a header from a free kick in the 13th minute. But the second goal was the one that will stick with the four thousand people in the stadium that day.

Rijeka were 2-0 up with 15 minutes to go. Héber got the ball on the left touchline, almost at the center stripe, with a defender closing on him. That’s the moment the Brazilian brought a touch of samba to the field. He wheeled around the defender with a slick turn and played a one-two with a teammate off a heel chop. Héber slipped behind the defense and into the box, where another Ronaldo chop bought him space to shoot. He took a moment to scan the keeper’s position, and—bang: a right-footed curler off the far post and into the net.

It was Héber’s last and, in my opinion, prettiest goal for Rijeka. It was also the last time he’d wear their famous white shirt.

If NYCFC fans need an introduction to their new striker, I’d point to this goal: this is the player you’ve got. But don’t stop at highlights. A little backstory and a deeper look at his profile and stats will help you get to know Héber Araujo dos Santos.

Year One: A Striker Becomes a Winger

The first time Héber first left Brazil on loan, it was already obvious that he was destined for bigger things than the Armenian Premier League. Playing as a center forward for Alashkert, he was the country’s top goalscorer in 2015–16, with 16 goals and 7 assists in 26 games.

He was ready to move up, and his break came with Croatia’s NK Slaven Belupo. At the time the club was coached by Željko Kopić, the rare Croatian manager who kept up with modern soccer: high pressing, building from the back, etc. His teams overachieved with mediocre players and were always a black cat to the bigger sides.

It was a pivotal move for Héber. As he later told me in an interview, it was Kopić’s decision to change his position that brought out his true potential. The coach needed a strong central striker and thought Héber would do the job, but he soon concluded the Brazilian was best deployed on the left side as an inverted winger, or “inside forward,” as guys in Football Manager call it.

Slaven Belupo’s mediocre squad required Héber to get more involved in the buildup, frequently dropping deep to receive the ball and distribute to his teammates. Kopić recognized his forward’s smart movement and gameplanned around his off-ball runs that created space for teammates to move into. Despite all the extra chores, Héber finished 2016–17 with 10 goals and 2 assists—not league-topping numbers, but good for a midtable side. It was enough to convince HNK Rijeka to buy the Brazilian for almost half a million euros, one of the highest fees in their history.

Year Two: A Versatile Goalscorer

When Héber arrived in the summer of 2017, Rijeka was coming off a domestic double under manager Matjaž Kek, having won the Croatian Cup to go with their first ever Croatian First Football League title. But their best striker would be scooped up by Dinamo Zagreb the following winter, forcing Kek to find a new goalscoring threat. The burden fell to the versatile Héber.

Unlike at Slaven Belupo, Rijeka had a quality team supporting the attack, so Kek revived the old center forward Héber for a couple games until the team could buy a prolific new striker, at which point the Brazilian returned to the left side. The only constant was Héber playing good soccer.

Héber’s touch map last season as an inverted left winger and occasional center forward.

I admit that the best I’ve seen him is at left inside forward, but he does show a nose for goal and a knack for capitalizing on his teammates’ coordinated movements. Of the 15 league goals he scored in 2017–18, 12 were first-time shots inside the box. He scored every 97 minutes that season—an impressive record for a player who lines up on the left, not as a central striker.

Unfortunately, Kek also trained his team like a madman, sometimes pushing Héber to play through muscle problems. Héber’s time in Croatia has been marred by a string of short-term injuries, which may have ultimately kept Rijeka from selling him for more.

Year Three: A Complete Attacker

Fast-forward to this year. Kek left Rijeka early in the season and was succeeded by Igor Bišćan, a young Croatian manager with a solid résumé. In Bišćan’s system Heber again became an important link in the buildup chain. Although he sat out 2019 as the club prepared for a transfer, Héber showed quality in the first half of the season. Nine goals in 15 appearances this season might not sound particularly amazing, but stats suggest he’s been playing some of the best soccer of his career.

Consider: he was Rijeka’s leading offensive contributor with 0.75 goals and 0.58 key passes per 90 minutes, putting him among the league leaders for both finishing and creating chances. Although his preferred foot is officially his right, he’s almost equally proficient with both, scoring five of his goals this season with his right, three with his left, and one header. And he’s devastatingly efficient, placing 61% of his shots on target and converting 29%.

I’ll try to illustrate Héber’s chance creation abilities. One of his strengths is acceleration and pace. In the clip below you can see how he manages to win an aerial duel and burst forward into the attack, beating an opponent to get the assist.

This is a typical Héber assist, but it’s not the only kind in his attacking arsenal. Below you can see how efficiently he handles a 2-v-3 situation where he’s providing support for his squad’s natural striker.

This season Héber completed 4.23 throughballs in the opposition box per 90, another stat where he placed among the league leaders. He attempted 4.98 dribbles per 90, an average number for a Croatian First Division attacker, but that’s due in part to Rijeka’s style, which wasn’t overly reliant on Héber.

What makes him complete is not ignoring defensive tasks. Both Kopić at Slaven Belupo and Kek at Rijeka emphasized defense first and attack second, and Héber got used to carrying his weight off the ball. His 2.63 interceptions per 90 this season were a solid contribution for an attack-minded player, and he’s never had a problem tracking back on the opponent’s fullback or winger or running deep into his own half for a tackle, clearly:

Héber’s versatility has been key to every European system he played in. He’s sometimes been used to play in low-block systems where his only chances came on the counter, but he’s also comfortable in a system geared toward breaking down a defensive block, where his playmaking ability and off-ball movement can shine. He’s shown quality in various positions, including left and right attacking mid and center forward. This is something managers appreciate a lot nowadays—having one player for various positions, systems, and gameplans (see: Guardiola, Pep).

Did New York City FC get themselves a prolific goalscoring center forward? I can’t say. But with the right system and players around him, I’ve seen firsthand that Héber can do great things. ❧

Image: mollsie, Rijeka, Croatia

Squabble: Should NYCFC Play Different Formations Home and Away?

On the virtues of versatility, Yankee Stadium’s tiny pitch, and why the Red Bulls choked in the playoffs.

In week one, Dome Torrent trotted out a counterattacking 5-2-3 for an away game at Orlando, surprising pretty much everyone. With a tough home opener coming up against D.C. United, The Outfield has a burning tactical debate on its hands: Should NYCFC play different formations home and away?

The Arguments

NYCFC Tactics: Yankee Stadium is hysterically small. It is so small, it’s the opposite of a yo mama joke. The press isn’t allowed to go on the field to measure it, but that hasn’t stopped some opposing coaches. Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes is convinced it’s 106 yards long by 68 yards wide, making it the smallest field in MLS by 550 square yards. Talk about a bandbox of a stadium.

Playing on such a small field is something a team needs to adapt to. Atlanta United, in their preparation for last year’s playoff game, realized that their wingbacks couldn’t drive offensive pressure as effectively on such a field. And NYCFC has seen how effective the red team from across the Hudson is at bringing their tenacious high press to Yankee Stadium.

It’d be foolish to not adapt to your surroundings, especially when those surroundings are your own field. For NYCFC, adapting could mean playing a 3-2-3-2 at home, where width is less important. That formation is very close to Dome’s desired offense. Putting the five best attackers higher up the field, with less ground to cover, seems like a good way to take advantage of the, uh, blessing of calling Yankee Stadium home.

Dummy Run: Oh no you’re one of those. Look, Vermes is a great coach but he sounds like he stayed up till three in the morning watching YouTube videos called “The TRUTH about Yankee Stadium (the DEEP STATE doesn’t want yOU To know!!)” The actual attempts to measure the field I’ve seen confirm it’s within regulations—same as Portland’s Jeld Wen pre-remodeling and Atlanta’s Bobby Dodd.

But let’s say there is a vast conspiracy to cover up our tiny pitch: there’d still be no reason to believe Yankee Stadium fundamentally changes the game. You mentioned wing play and pressure? By PPDA, NYCFC had the toughest press in the league at home last year, yeah, but they also had the second-best press away. They allowed the fourth-fewest passes to the wings at home but third-fewest on the road. Successful 40-yard balls against? Middle of the pack home and away. There’s little sign a trip to Yankee Stadium is anything special except for the fact that a good team plays there.

Nobody is sure why home advantage is so strong across MLS, but one thing we know affects play is prophylactically altering your tactics. Dome Torrent, who complains that his team doesn’t defend high on the road, switched his formation and played bunker ball last weekend at Orlando. Guess what? We sucked.

Players need consistency. They need to understand their role down to the little things. Let’s get good at one formation before we start changing it up every week.

NYCFC Tactics: Ah, so you’re a Vieira stan. Holding tight to a formula no matter what you’re up against. Chasing some platonic ideal set by European teams with endless buckets of cash, but doing it in a league where heavy roster restrictions mean edges need to be found elsewhere.

Having a consistent formation from game to game produces a team that does well in the regular season. Like you said, the math works out. But when a club’s goal is to win the playoffs, they have to get pragmatic. In a knockout tournament you need the option to not only flex your strengths but nullify your opponents’ as well.

Case in point: would you rather be this year’s Los Angeles Rams or New England Patriots? The Rams consistently ran the same offensive formation, but the wheels fell off when they faced a team that gameplanned specifically for those tendencies. In the quest for the MLS Cup, NYCFC should get practice in pragmatism.

Dummy Run: You might be onto something about the regular season versus the playoffs. American Soccer Analysis data confirms that better teams had a more consistent shape last season, but Portland and Atlanta bucked the trend with eight formations each.

You know who else used eight formations, though? The Red Bulls, who choked away the playoffs (again) when Chris Armas decided a team that had won games by pressing like furious Ski Free yetis all season should do the exact opposite in their away leg at Atlanta. Oops.

The question we started with wasn’t whether it’s okay to vary our tactics sometimes—of course it is! everyone except Vermes does it!—but when and why. I’m saying gameplan all you want, but be consistent. Don’t get spooked by road trips or Yankee Stadium’s supposed voodoo powers. And for the love of god, don’t make me watch that Orlando game again.

The Judges

Justin Egan: You can’t teach multiplication and division before teaching addition and subtraction. Forget multiple formations, I don’t know if the players know what Dome wants in one formation. Vote: Dummy Run

Christopher Jee: I agree that NYCFC needs to learn to walk in one system before it can run free in a panoply of them. But if “Etihad Pitch” really is smaller than others by roughly ten times the size of my apartment then there has to be a way to make that even more of an advantage. Vote: NYCFC Tactics

Chris Campbell: Whatever you think about Dome Torrent’s tactical acumen, the team struggled to grasp it last year, and captain Alex Ring has hinted that sometimes the players can’t keep up. NYCFC needs to move forward with one formation for both home and away. Vote: Dummy Run

Image: Sol LeWitt, Distorted Cubes Bozuk Küpler

Meet Six New NYCFC Players Who Are Not David Villa

They’re good at soccer. But they’re not David Villa. But they’re very good, really.

By Chris Campbell and Christopher Jee

After a 2018 that started so brightly and faded so alarmingly, and with midseason coaching arrival Dome Torrent hinting that he didn’t quite have the lineup to play his preferred style of soccer, the stage was set for this to be a busy winter window. David Villa’s departure cast a long shadow and the La Liga call-up of Yangel Herrera—whose injury absence coincided with NYCFC’s least inspiring spells in 2018, and whose late-season return gave us a tantalizing reminder of his impact—left the front office with holes to fill. Although the club teased big changes with a flurry of declined roster options early on, the first half of the offseason was nothing but anxious radio silence.

Then players came! Several of them! With less than two weeks to go before the season opener, some of the most glaring roster questions have been answered (yes, NYCFC splashed out on a third designated player; no, it wasn’t Chicharito), while new questions have taken their place, such as “How many center mids does it take to make a pretty pineapple?”

The winter of our discontent is almost over and while the sun of York (an English striker perhaps? any kind of striker, surely?) has yet to appear, here are some new names to consider for the back of your bepigeoned 2019 jersey.

Alexandru Mitriță

With fans demanding a major signing to replace Villa, NYCFC’s front office gambled big on the $8.5 million acquisition of Alexandru Mitriță, making him the third-most expensive designated player in MLS history. A quick, technical, 5’5″ attacker, Mitri has inevitably been dubbed the Romanian Messi, and was groomed by the legendary Gheorghe Hagi (himself styled the “Maradona of the Carpathians”). He comes to New York hot off a league-leading 12-goal start to the season at Romania’s Universitatea Craiova, a hero’s farewell, and an epic Valentine’s Day. So what should you expect from this lightweight but heavily tattooed newcomer?

To judge from highlights and a sparkling birthday goal in his NYCFC preseason debut, Mitriță looks deadliest cutting in from the left side, dropping deep to pick up the ball and running directly at goal, though his pace also makes him an option over the top when necessary. He shares Maxi Moralez’s surprising ability to use his frame to protect the ball under pressure from more imposing opponents, and his acceleration and low center of gravity help him to unsettle center backs and put powerful shots on frame. If you squint and turn the Eastern European dance music up loud enough, you can sort of see what Dome’s talking about when he compares his new DP to Philippe Coutinho.

With a conspicuous lack of dedicated strikers on the roster, expect the club’s biggest signing to bear much of the burden of replacing Villa’s goalscoring. Torrent has hinted that we could see Mitriţă feature in various positions across the front line. So far Mitri’s impressed teammates, although followers of Romanian football have warned NYCFC fans to watch out for attitude (he’s got more career yellow cards than assists) and adjustment problems as the 24-year-old settles into an unfamiliar environment, much farther from home than he’s ever played before. —Christopher Jee

Keaton “Keaton” Parks

When Yangel Herrera’s loan expired and he jetted off to Spanish basement-dwellers SD Huesca, he left a gaping hole in NYCFC’s midfield—one bigger than an Eloi Amagat or Tommy McNamara type could fill. Enter Keaton Parks.

The 21-year-old American arrives on a season-long loan from Benfica, the centerpiece of Claudio Reyna’s recent shift toward hoarding young domestic talent. Parks spent most of his first year and a half at the Portuguese powerhouse with the reserves, edged out by Champions League–caliber competition. He needed first team minutes somewhere, and NYCFC has plenty to spare.

A versatile, attack-minded midfielder, Keaton has shown some defensive bite—not like Herrera, but enough to give Alex Ring a little breathing room. His slippery pirouettes should help in possession, and already this preseason we’ve seen Parks drop into the buildup and make the first pass to initiate the offense, freeing Maxi Moralez to play higher up the pitch. It doesn’t hurt that he’s 6’4”, adding some welcome height on set pieces.

There’s justifiable excitement around what Parks can bring to NYCFC this season. But Benfica seems to have him in their long-term plans, so expect another Herrera-type loan situation here. —Chris Campbell

Juan Pablo Torres

NYCFC’s midfield hasn’t always been a fountain of youth: 29-year-old Andrew Jacobson, 33-year-old Eloi Amagat, 36 year-old Andoni Iraola, and 2,938-year-old Andrea Pirlo have all earned significant minutes in years past. The club looked to reverse that trend this offseason by acquiring 19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres from KSC Lokeren.

Torres only featured twice for Lokeren’s first team during his year and a half in Belgium, but he did help the USYNT earn a berth in the 2019 U-20 World Cup, scoring 4 goals in the process. Finding club playing time and national team exposure ahead of the tournament appears to have weighed heavily in Torres’ move. Nothing on his résumé really stands out, but he looks technically adept and tactically versatile, able to fill in at any of the midfield spots. Picking up a young domestic player for depth makes sense for NYCFC, who will look to use their international spots in more valuable places.

In the preseason Torres has been defensively capable and calm on the ball, able to pick out the appropriate short pass option. And look, the kid is only 19. He’s new to top flight play, new to New York City, and not yet old enough to order a pickleback. This is a depth signing, but one with a future. —CC

Tony Rocha

Forgive fans who found themselves slightly underwhelmed with the first move of the offseason: NYCFC picked up Tony Rocha from Orlando City in exchange for a token fourth-round pick in the 2019 MLS Superdraft. Despite his lack of name recognition, though, there’s reason to hope Rocha might be another shrewd bit of business from a front office that has made the most of overlooked, budget-friendly American talent like Ben Sweat and Sebastien Ibeagha.

Advanced stats aficionados will like that Rocha completed 5.8% more passes than expected in 2018, second among MLS midfielders to Ozzie Alonso. He endeared himself to Orlando with his versatility, seeing time at all three midfield spots, left back, and center back. New Yorkers still hoping to see glimmers of Pep Guardiola’s genius in Torrent’s tenure as head coach will have been encouraged by Rocha’s low-key stint as an inside fullback in the preseason friendly against AIK, where his clever run helped set up a goal:

While Reyna has called Rocha a player that the club has “had [its] eye on for quite a while,” only time will tell whether he emerges as the next Sweat. At any rate he’s cheap, experienced, and should give Torrent reliable depth and positional flexibility in the push for a more tactically fluid roster. —CJ

Justin Haak

In late January, NYCFC signed Justin Haak as its third homegrown player, signaling a continued commitment to the club’s championship-winning academy (and an eagerness to play up his East Village and Bushwick roots). Those who remember Haak’s rapturous debut in Mexico last winter, which brought tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Edinson Cavani, will be eager to see whether he can find minutes along with fellow homegrown James Sands in a stacked NYCFC midfield.

Ca-va-ni! (Image: @NYCFCFan)

With a USDA U-19 championship and a U-18 USYNT call-up under his belt, Haak’s future looks promising. He’s been called a “prototype 6,” although he says he likes to get forward to the final third. What little video is available shows a well-rounded skillset (according Alex Ring, Haak “has everything”) but suggests he’s far from the finished product. With plenty of midfield options ahead of him, no preseason appearances thus far, and no USL reserve team to accommodate him, Haak may get most of his minutes this year with NYCFC’s U-19s. —CJ

Luis Barraza

When the news dropped mid-Superdraft that NYCFC was moving $75k in allocation money, it had to be for 6’4” forward JJ Williams, right? No chance the club would trade up for a goalkeeper a year after drafting one in the first round, right?

Oh, you.

Bucking expectations, NYCFC selected Luis “Huicho” Barraza out of Marquette. He was coming off a Big East Goalkeeper of the Year season, so the first round wasn’t out of the question. But it was Barraza’s ability on the ball that had caught Reyna’s eye—and soon everyone else’s, when he showed it off barely 10 minutes into his preseason debut. He might be the goalkeeper most comfortable with the ball at his feet in NYCFC history, a big deal at a club that emphasizes playing out of the back.

Why did NYCFC burn first round picks on keepers in back-to-back Superdrafts, especially when Sean Johnson is already entrenched as the starter? In the 2018 draft, Reyna and Vieira didn’t see anyone who would provide value in the first round, so they took a flyer on a goalkeeper in Jeff Caldwell. But Caldwell hasn’t locked down a backup role and veteran Brad Stuver didn’t impress in his spot minutes last season. Given the unsettled depth chart and his stylistic fit, Huicho’s got a shot to compete for the number two slot on day one.

If you’re looking for a player comparison, Nick Rimando’s distribution and penalty-saving skills seem like a reasonable fit. Luis spent his academy years at Real Salt Lake, where Rimando has been manning the net for what seems like forever.

NYCFC has never won a U.S. Open Cup match, going 0-4 in its first four seasons. Look for Barraza to get his first chance to prove himself there this summer. In last year’s Big East Tournament, Barraza saved three penalty kicks, which would’ve been handy during the tiebreakers that have ended the Pigeons’ Open Cup hopes twice. —CC

Image: Almax, Volti di Uomo