Toronto Preview: Running Through the Six

A conversation with Kieran Doyle, Assistant Coach and Data Analyst, Women’s Soccer, University of Toronto.

Dummy Run: Kudos to the club you follow, Toronto FC, which took its sweet time but eventually found the firehose and blew away D.C. United in extra time, 5-1, to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They’ll face NYCFC in Queens on Wednesday night.

This was not unexpected! Nobody in the league had a stronger homestretch than Toronto, who clawed their way up from the playoff line to a four seed by closing out the regular season on a 10-game unbeaten streak, matched by a sharp upswing in their underlying numbers. (Although as Kevin Minkus at American Soccer Analysis pointed out, the contrast with their summer low probably had something to do with losing key players to international tournaments.)

This viz is stolen directly from ASA’s Toronto playoff preview, which you should read.

So maybe a good place for us to start is: how did TFC turn it around? Has Greg Vanney finally fixed whatever’s been ailing this team ever since their 2017 MLS Cup title gave way to a year and a half of mediocrity? Just how nervous should NYCFC fans be about catching this team in the playoffs?

Kieran Doyle: I guess the best answer so far is that they probably haven’t turned it around … yet. Omar Gonzalez made a big difference to this team, as well as Marky Delgado picking up a lot of midfield slack to let Pozuelo be a little bit more free. Richie Laryea has also become the second coming of Dani Alves, but Toronto as a whole is still not as convincing as they could be.

Like you said, TFC didn’t sail smoothly in last weekend’s quarterfinal against D.C. until extra time. The xG was pretty even during regular time, but Quentin Westberg made some huge saves and Bill Hamid didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.

In terms of how nervous NYCFC should be, I’d say the answer is very. TFC has historically been excellent at Yankee Stadium, and even though they’ve been very up and down this year, their up is one of the top three teams in the league. From a Toronto perspective, how much trouble is Michael Bradley in if he’s sitting on his own?

Dummy Run: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about how TFC is a uniquely tough matchup for NYCFC, by which I assume people mean they’re uniquely good at playing this team during weeks when Jesús Medina and Ben Sweat are in the starting lineup and Maxi Moralez and Héber are not (twice this year!). But it’s also true that Toronto’s lineup when these teams met in the Bronx last month looked pretty different from the one they played against D.C. in the first round, so I’m reluctant to suggest the regular season can tell us much of anything about what to expect Wednesday night.

There’s no doubt that Vanney’s team has both the payroll and the talent to be one of the best in the league on a good day (and NYCFC had the misfortune to catch them on a very good day for that 4-0 spanking back in March). What we know will carry over from the September pass network above is that Alejandro Pozuelo’s wallet will continue to be the one that says Bad Motherfucker on it and Michael Bradley will be his trusty Vince. The Outfield’s Kevin Nelson suggested in last week’s playoff preview that Dome’s best bet might be to cut off Toronto’s offense at the base by manmarking Bradley out of the game, and given how easy the Canadian National Team made that look last week (in Toronto, no less) I’m inclined to agree.

Problem is, sitting back and shadowing the opponent’s six isn’t NYCFC’s style. They’re one of the league’s most aggressive pressing teams by any metric, which means that when the forwards jump a press trigger it falls on the midfielders to step up a line. And Keaton Parks, for all his sexy sangfroid on the ball, is not the guy whose tackling ability you want to pin your playoff hopes on.

On the other hand, with Maxi back in the squad NYCFC should look like a different team in possession, and defense isn’t exactly Toronto’s forte: they were shockingly easy to pass through this season and middle of the pack for goals allowed. They are—no offense—a little Berhalterish in their insistence that it’s possible to play possession soccer without an aggressive press to back it up. Why does Vanney prefer to defend that way? If you were tasked with breaking down this team’s defensive block, as the, uh, hosts will probably spend most of their time doing at Citi Field, where would you probe for weak spots?

Kieran Doyle: I think Vanney’s defensive choices come down to personnel up front. When you’re looking at a striker group of Jozy Altidore, Jordan Hamilton (before he left for Columbus), and now Patrick Mullins, you aren’t going to see a whole tonne [This is too cute to convert to house style. —Ed.] of pressing from the front. While all of those guys do a great job of getting shots in good areas (an area of particular focus this year thanks to the analytics department), they’re extreme minus defenders. Combine that with Bradley’s waning mobility and it becomes very difficult to press at all.

But Jozy Altidore is half-fit at best heading into Wednesday night, and TFC’s attack was on point with Pozuelo floating freely as a striker against D.C. Putting Pozuelo up top gives you a lot more mobility, and Delgado and Jonathan Osorio reverted to the shuttling roles they played in 2017, when TFC’s press was significantly more dynamic. Add in TAM winger Nicolas Benezet and Tsubasa Endoh as ultra-mobile wide attacking midfielders and you get whatever that D.C. match was. TFC were much more active defensively in the opposition half than normal, but you still saw moments when the press was broken and Bradley was forced to gamble.

Herein lies the hope for NYCFC: while they may not be a particularly transition-y team, if they can play deep and draw Osorio and Delgado too far forward, it becomes really attractive to catch TFC off balance through your wingers. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Dome is Pep Lite, but that’s something Guardiola’s teams have always been devilishly good at. Bait the overcommitment in the press and all of a sudden it’s Messi-Pedro-Henry or Ribery-Lewandowski-Robben or Sane-Agüero-Sterling running three-on-two with no defensive midfielder in sight.

My guess is Toronto will line up the same way, maybe with Gonzalez or Laryea returning for Laurent Ciman and Auro respectively. But Vanney is no stranger to tactical curve balls, especially for knockout matches. Don’t be shocked if they swap to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 to match up with the NYCFC wingers straight up (which scares the life out of me).

Dummy Run: They wouldn’t be the first opponent to switch to three at the back to mirror NYCFC’s shape (and they’ve certainly got more experience with it than, say, the Galaxy did). But I think Dome’s actually more Guardiolaish than Guardiola when it comes to those fast breaks you just described: his team loves a slow juego de posición buildup but goes direct once they cross the halfway line. The idea is you still control the ball and the tempo and get to pick your moments, but you arrive rapidly enough to catch the opponent’s defense off balance.

NYCFC plays slow, then fast.

Or maybe it’s simpler than that: playing most of the season without wide wingers has basically forced NYCFC to play quickly in the attacking half, since they don’t have that safe outlet on the touchline that can buy the attack time to move forward as a unit. However they arrived at the style, it’s been effective, and it’ll be particularly dangerous if Alexandru Mitriţă can carry his recent form into the playoffs.

A lot of what I just said assumes that NYCFC will play the three-back system that saw them through some of their best stretches this season, but the truth is that with James Sands still working his way back to full fitness it’s possible Dome will decide to roll with the 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 he preferred toward the end of the regular season, sacrificing that third-CB anchor to get more of his talented attackers on the field at once.

Sounds like the big takeaway here is that it’s hard to know what to expect from either coach. So here’s my closing question for you: What does Toronto’s absolute best-case scenario look like for how this game might play out, and what’s the competing timeline where NYCFC just totally steamrolls them?

Kieran Doyle: I think the worst case is TFC rolls out a throwback performance from those mediocre 18 months and gets evaporated by a very good NYCFC team. Something like Ciman, Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta in a back three; USMNT Michael Bradley instead of MLS Michael Bradley; slow, plodding possession for Toronto; and transition after transition for NYCFC. In other words, a reverse of the 5-0 game at Yankee Stadium a few years back. (Conversely if Osorio and Delgado don’t cover the kind of ground they have recently to snuff out transitions, we could see Mitri running one-on-one against Ciman like a re-run of the Omar Browne debacle.)

If TFC come out and really zip the ball about and play with the tempo they have in the past 11 matches, it’s hard to see how they don’t advance. The best case looks something like lots of broken NYCFC presses and Pozuelo and company getting a free run at Sean Johnson through a scrambling back line, especially if Keaton Parks and Alex Ring are off their game.

Ultimately I think a lot of how this game will go comes down to who’s crisper in possession. If Toronto is slow, predictable, and negative, we’re in trouble. But if Bradley is breaking lines and stretching the field, it will become very difficult for NYCFC to find their rhythm on the ball. For New York City, if they can draw Toronto out then break quickly, game over. If they’re off their best and Marky Delgado gets to run around and kick people high up the field, they’re going to have a bad time.

Stylistically, I think this will be the most fun playoff match of the round. Two teams who do similar things in possession, who are absolutely going to punch each other in the mouth. All the best! ❧

Image: Roman, Red Jasper Ring Stone (Serpent Carries Off the Child Opheltes)

Atlanta Preview: Dueling Presses

A conversation with Tiotal Football of Dirty South Soccer.

Dummy Run: If anybody’s going to knock NYCFC off the top spot in the East, the smart money’s on your team, Atlanta United. An upset win tonight would put you guys in legit contention for the number one seed, and FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index thinks Atlanta’s a slightly better team overall. But as a contributor to Dirty South Soccer and American Soccer Analysis, you follow this team pretty closely, and you’re not optimistic about their chances at Yankee Stadium. What are you worried about? What’s Frank de Boer’s Atlanta United vulnerable to?

Tiotal Football: I have a few worries. The first one is something that I know you have little patience for, but I’ve never watched Atlanta United play a game at Yankee Stadium that looked like any other Atlanta United success. Mostly this is because there’s only been the one “victory”: that first leg of last season’s playoff tie where both teams pressed the crap out of each other for 90-plus minutes in brutally violent fashion and Atlanta grabbed a set piece goal. I’ve just never seen an Atlanta team that actually wants the ball look anywhere close to comfortable on that field.

Second, Josef Martínez is maybe the only Atlanta guy who was born to create havoc on that field, and I suppose he’s gone for a bit now after Saturday’s knock.

Third, I have no idea who is coaching this team. Following some extremely vocal-and-explicit-in-the-press-and-on-the-sidelines objections from the South American players, de Boer’s Louis van Gaal–flavored “cautious, spare-man-at-the-back, move the ball with superiority in numbers into the final third and then let your creators create” 4-3-3 of the early season has given way to an insanely more open and high-pressy 3-5-2 than we saw at any point last year. It resembles neither Tata Martino’s 3-5-2 stuff nor Frank de Boer’s Clockwork Oranje career. It’s very possible the inmates are running the asylum in Marietta, Georgia.

Fourth, I think Eric Remedi is a one-man turnover machine in midfield, and in the Bronx, that’s not a recipe for success for an away team. I would love to see Jeff Larentowicz steal a start for this one, even if he’s prone to intentionally getting ejected in chippy games against New York teams.

Having said all that, I don’t have a great feel for what New York City does, how it approaches games at home this year. I know they put up great PPDA numbers and have amazingly high possession figures for playing on a smaller field. Those two things seem very good. What should I expect? Who are these new very good guys you have this year?

(Also I just looked at Maxi Moralez’s bar chart and almost lost consciousness.)

Dummy Run: Whoever’s running the asylum, it’s working. Since switching to the 3-5-2 in mid-July, Atlanta’s got the highest goal differential per game in the league (1.09), third-highest expected goal differential per game (0.69), and, as you’ve written about, a scary high press. Julian Gressel’s at wingback again, kicking ass and laying in crosses. Josef is scoring again (these may be related). And that game in Atlanta last month was the most dominant any team has looked against NYCFC since Héber arrived this spring.

You asked about the new guys, and it seems safe to say Héber’s been the biggest difference-maker so far. He’s a well-rounded striker whose linking and holdup play were sorely missed when Dome Torrent decided to rotate him in Atlanta, and he’ll probably be missed again for most of tonight—he’s coming back from an injury and expected to play 25 minutes tops. But in Héber’s absence Taty Castellanos and Alexandru Mitriţǎ have continued to grow into their roles in this offense, and with Maxi Moralez healthy again firepower shouldn’t be a problem. The big question—as it always is with Dome—is what shape those players will take.

Speaking of shapes, I want to talk for a minute about the very first sequence from the last time these two teams met, because I think it shows us some interesting things about how their preferred three-back formations match up. Here’s the clip:

So the first thing you’ll notice is that NYCFC is pressing super high from the whistle. Nothing too unusual there—like you mentioned, they’ve got some of the best PPDA and expected pass score against numbers in the league. But because Atlanta is playing with three center backs and two defensive midfielders, NYCFC’s press, which against league-standard 4-2-3-1s is usually more zonal and focused on channeling play toward the sideline to force longballs, naturally becomes more of a man-marking scheme: Taty on Leandro González-Pirez, Maxi and Mitri on the outside center backs, wingbacks marking wingbacks and so on. As Eric Remedi drops into a channel for Brad Guzan, Alex Ring is pulled way upfield to mark him, leaving tons of space behind.

The whole thing is wildly aggressive, and for a minute it looks like it’s going to work. NYCFC forces some risky passes and wins a couple balls in Atlanta’s half that look like they could lead to something. But when Mitri gets caught on the ball, as Mitri is prone to do, we see the weaknesses of the 3-4-3: Ezequiel Barco takes advantage of the empty channels on both sides of NYCFC’s narrow two-man midfield to lead a quick counter, Gressel has plenty of time on the wing to lay in a cross when Rónald Matarrita is slow to close him down, and we’re barely a minute into the game when Josef gets his first big chance. Lather, rinse, repeat: Atlanta’s transition chances from out wide would become a motif for the rest of the game. It was not fun.

There are good reasons to expect a different look from NYCFC tonight. Whenever James Sands is out the three-center-back thing has never quite clicked, and there’s been some grumbling around here that it’s time to get another body back in midfield. Besides, Anton Tinnerholm is unavailable due to concussion protocol, and the thought of sticking both Tony Rocha and Eric Miller in a back line against Atlanta United makes me physically ill. I’d be thrilled to see the team line up in a more assertive 4-3-3 tonight.

What about Atlanta? If Josef can’t start tonight, how will that change de Boer’s approach? What do your true loves Tito Villalba and Emerson Hyndman have to offer, and how might one or both change how this matchup plays out?

Tiotal Football: So, I think you’re going to see a 3-5-2 again, and I think it’s going to be the same neo-high-press we’ve been seeing, and while I think a Tito-Pity front two would be awfully fun, something tells me we’re going to see Brandon Vazquez.

It’s a shame because I do think Josef has grown to be the type of player who thrives in the chaos that I expect we will see from this game. If de Boer takes a page from Tata’s 2018 playoffs gameplan, I think we see a really messy and violent draw with more than a remote chance of a sending off somewhere.

But I think more likely he’ll try to play it straight, perhaps even too open in the midfield, and while there will be some give and get as both teams try to break each other’s press, NYC is going to be the more dangerous team. Sometimes you get lucky and Miles Robinson hero defends for his life and Brad Guzan comes up with three very big saves, but there are other universes where it gets bad really quick away from home, and there may be more of those universes collapsing upon Yankee Stadium tonight.

Dummy Run: Last question. What will you be watching for tonight with an eye on a potential rematch in the conference finals?

Tiotal Football: I’ll be watching to see which team is the most comfortable dealing with pressure. It seems apparent that they’re on a collision course towards a very disruptive high-pressy contest, with neither team allowed to play out of the back on goalkicks and that sort of thing. Perhaps we’ll see tonight whether one team blinks and changes its approach against the other’s press—that could set up a very different kind of playoff matchup. ❧

Image: He Sen, Monkey King on the Peach Tree

Colorado Preview: What We Talk About When We Talk about Jonathan Lewis

Revisiting a dream that never quite worked out.

Raymond Carver wrote about destroyed souls. His characters were beaten to disarray, stuck in unhappy places in their marriages, their careers, and usually themselves. Take Marge, the narrator of “The Bridle,” who spends her isolated days daydreaming of exotic places while managing an apartment building and working a side job as a not-so-busy hairstylist. One day she’s fixing the hair of a new tenant, Betty, who tells her about a long ago conversation with a high school guidance counselor:

“‘What dreams do you have?’ this woman asked me. ‘What goals have you set for yourself? What do you see yourself doing in ten years? Twenty years?’ … Now, if anybody asked me that question again, about my dreams and all, I’d tell them.”

“What would you tell them, honey?” I have her other hand now. But I’m not doing her nails. I’m just holding it, waiting to hear. …

She sighs and leans back. She lets me keep the hand. “I’d say, ‘Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from.’”

Raymond Carver, “The Bridle”

I think of that passage when I think about Jonathan Lewis’s struggles at NYCFC, his two years spent bridled on the bench, stuck like a Carver character in a world that was and wasn’t chosen for him.

It’s been more than two months now since the club traded Lewis to the Colorado Rapids, and so far it looks like a near-perfect deal for both teams. NYCFC received a boatload of Garber Bucks for a castaway, while the Rapids got another weapon for the Conor Casey quasi-revolution. And Lewis, who’s finally been given a chance to play, has produced enough to make you wonder.

With sports you always have to take a step back and look at things in retrospect. Since the trade, Lewis has scored three goals in just 354 minutes. He’s yet to play an entire match, but tonight he’ll likely set a new career high for starts and minutes played in a season. Fittingly, it’ll come against NYCFC.

Figuring out exactly where it went wrong with his old club remains complicated. Lewis passed the eye test whenever he took the field for NYCFC: his ability to run at defenders and create one-v-one chances was unlike any other winger in the squad. He was chaotic, which was entertaining against tired defenses. He made things happen. More than anything, he made you wonder how Rodney Wallace held down the left wing for nearly an entire season despite going goalless for 15 months.

Lewis’s youth and lack of playing time destined him to become a fan favorite in the Poku mold. His 0.77 expected goals and assists per 96 minutes last season were the highest tally in club history by a player not named David Villa, according to American Soccer Analysis, but those tantalizing 2018 numbers came on just 296 mostly substitute minutes; in his 234 minutes for NYCFC at the start of this season his xG+xA slid to a dismal 0.09.

The promising flashes weren’t enough to convince coaches and management. Patrick Vieira questioned his technical abilities, and just when it appeared that Lewis was about to break through Vieira jetted to Nice. Dome Torrent brought new opportunities, but despite pleasant early overtures, things quickly went sour. Lewis was banished to places beyond the bench, and had to broker his own USL loan to Louisville City FC to try and figure out how to defend the way Torrent wanted—and to show everyone else he really could play.

He showed enough to convince Gregg Berhalter, the new United States Men’s National Team coach, who’s given Lewis five caps already this year and a spot on the Gold Cup roster. But NYCFC’s response to the national team interest was muted. Claudio Reyna offered backhanded praise, commenting on Lewis’s maturity. Torrent infamously said he needed to do more than two great things a game, which sounded like a lot for a player getting limited minutes.

Like Marge and Betty, Lewis was stuck. And like in any Carver story, we never really got the full picture of why things didn’t work out. Even after Lewis escaped to Colorado, we were left to draw our own conclusions.

There may still be a happy ending to all this. Lewis’s open-play xG+xA per 96 has rebounded to a healthy 0.62 since the trade, placing him 14th in the league among players with at least as many minutes, just three slots below Carlos Vela. Now that the Gold Cup is over, he could see regular starts for the first time in his career. It’s an exciting time to be Jonathan Lewis.

As for NYCFC, they’ve moved on too. Dividing Lewis’s lack of minutes was easy enough. The new Scottish winger Gary Mackay-Steven was handed Lewis’s number 17 jersey, something that would’ve seemed unimaginable back when Lewis had Jack Harrison worrying about his starting spot. Mackay-Steven had a promising cameo at the end of the Red Bulls game last weekend, including a memorable stepover before slipping a tidy ball between Aaron Long and Michael Murillo to cue up a Héber shot.

With Ismael Tajouri-Shradi still out and Jesús Medina not showing much from the bench, Mackay-Steven could play a bigger role against Colorado tonight. The game will be a glimpse of things to come for NYCFC, but also of what might have been from a kid on the other team who’s just starting to wake up. ❧

Image: Bit and Bridle (Tibetan)

RBNY Preview: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Hudson River Derby*

*But were afraid to ask.

It’s derby day! We don’t have much time before kickoff and a lot has changed since the last time these teams met (remember Eloi Amagat?), so I sat down with a noted soccer expert (me) to get some answers about What to Watch For or whatever they say on those pregame shows.

Are the Red Bulls still good?

Debatable! On points per game they’re fifth in the East, comfortably above the playoff line. But by home-adjusted expected goal differential per game, which is better at predicting future performance, last year’s Supporters Shield winners are sitting in negative territory, one spot below last year’s Wooden Spoon recipients, the San Jose Earthquakes. That said, the Red Bulls have spent a lot of this season without key players like Bradley Wright-Phillips (injured/old), Aaron Long (injured/bailing out Tim Ream), and Kaku (drama), so I mean who knows.

Are they still, you know, the Red Bulls?

More or less, yeah. There are signs that Chris Armas has had them trying to play more with the ball, but an excellent breakdown over at American Soccer Analysis shows that while their longer possessions have gotten more dangerous, they’ve actually gotten less frequent, suggesting that maybe this team’s just not built for possession. The biggest stylistic difference from last season is that the Red Bulls are starting to discover that soccer fields have a left side, too.

Wait but what if Jesse Marsch had a reason for overloading one wing?

Right, so that’s the thing. For a team that’s all about playing direct and counterpressing, it makes sense to squeeze the game against one sideline where you can win the ball with numbers. Not surprisingly, the stats show Chris Armas’s more diffuse Red Bulls aren’t pressing quite as effectively they used to, especially in the highest third. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still very good at it.

Uh oh that clip looks bad. How will NYCFC adjust?

They might not have to. Notice Atlanta’s playing from a four-back set with their fullbacks barely a third of the way up the field. The Red Bulls have zero qualms about pushing seven or more players across the halfway line and trapping the buildup as it swings slowly from sideline to sideline, which is how they dismantled NYCFC’s 4-3-3 last May when Patrick Vieira insisted on building from the back.

But for the last few months Dome Torrent’s team has mostly preferred a 3-4-3 with wingbacks that can drift upfield to break the lines of the Red Bulls’ preferred 4-2-3-1 defensive shape. Expect Armas to keep his fullbacks tight on Rónald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm and force NYCFC to play through the middle. That’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition: the Red Bulls can be vulnerable to fast breaks, especially with Tyler Adams gone, but Alex Ring will be the first to tell you that trying to play “flick-ons and shit like that” through the middle of their defense is a dangerous game.

Hmm, any other options in possession?

Yeah, so one thing NYCFC’s done a lot lately is to enter the final third with long diagonal switches. That might not be a bad idea against the Red Bulls, whose heavy horizontal press has left them vulnerable to switches in the past. But it actually hasn’t been that effective for Dome this season: according to American Soccer Analysis’s Cheuk Hei Ho, NYCFC possessions that enter the final third via a switch of play are about 33% less likely to score that possessions that get there some other way. With Aaron Long back in action, the Red Bulls’ back line should be pretty sharp at picking out those cross-field aerials, so NYCFC might be better off relying on Héber’s holdup play through the middle.

Okay so what about when the Red Bulls have the ball?

Speaking of Alex Ring, he’ll be pretty important here too. In addition to spreading the buildup, Dome’s 3-4-3 sticks an extra defender in between the center backs, which is the first place the Red Bulls look to put the ball when they recover it. It’s probably not a coincidence that the only two opponents who’ve played three-back formations against the Red Bulls this season, Montreal and Orlando, both won at Red Bull Arena while holding the hosts to 0.67 and 0.65 expected goals, respectively.

But Ring is no James Sands: he’s noticeably less comfortable playing as a hybrid center back, and in the last few weeks it seems like just about every game has featured a halftime formation change to bump him back up to midfield. If Dome wants to start in a 3-4-3 today, there’s a decent chance we’ll see Ben Sweat or Sebastien Ibeagha (who spent some time at right back (!!) against Orlando on Wednesday) as the third center back.

Who else might start this one?

Your guess is as good as mine. NYCFC is basically a bunch of shapeless flesh sacks full of lactic acid after playing four games in less than two weeks, culminating in Wednesday’s crushing 120-minute loss … in Central Florida … in July. (I need a shower just typing that sentence.) Alexandru Mitriţǎ is definitely out (although that might not be that big a loss) and new signing Gary Mackay-Steven is probably in, at least as a sub (although that might not be that big a gain). Other than that, it’ll be a lot of gametime fitness calls.

Speaking of fitness, Bradley Wright-Phillips played his first minutes in three months last week. If he’s ready to start this one, that’d be a huge offensive upgrade from the Red Bulls’ rotating cast of random white guys from safety school Ivies.

Scary, right? But still not as scary as the possibility that Jesús Medina might see the field. ❧

Image: Pablo Picasso, Dying Bull

NYCFC 3-0 Seattle + Portland Preview: Position is Everything

How juego de posición can help NYCFC through a white-knuckle summer.

Everything happens so much. That’s a line from @Horse_ebooks, a Twitter account that got popular eightish years ago for spewing what appeared to be nonsense culled algorithmically from the digital detritus of the ebook boom. The fun part was that if you read them in the right frame of mind the garbled tweets started to look not random at all but more like Pascal’s Pensées for our internet-addled age, or “Zen koans which have been dropped on a computer keyboard from a great height.

In keeping with its dumb decade, @Horse_ebooks turned out to be a fraud promoting something—does anyone remember what exactly? wasn’t Russia involved somehow?—and we learned that actually computers aren’t funny and profound, humans are funny and profound, which was a crushing disappointment. Still, I love that tweet, Everything happens so much, and I think about it sometimes as our lives fill up with the artifacts of people and algorithms imitating each other poorly to produce frenetic messes like, for example, the Major League Soccer schedule.

In the 60 days from April 28 to June 28, NYCFC played seven games. Now we’re in the middle of a five game, 16-day sprint that will culminate with a cup knockout game in Orlando on Wednesday followed by a derby in New Jersey next weekend. Because this is MLS, this all happens right when our starters are straggling back from international tournaments and the July heat is turning the subway into a malarial swamp and at this point even the guys you’d almost forgot were on our supplemental roster look like their hamstrings might burst into flames at any second.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if we didn’t keep winning. When NYCFC hosts Portland this evening, both teams will be suffering from success, forced to juggle their lineups to compete in weekend league play and a weekday Open Cup quarterfinal with a whole two rest days between. The Timbers started most of their first string against conference rivals FC Dallas last weekend and will need them again to advance past LAFC—or, let’s be real, just to avoid being humiliated by five or six goals against LAFC—on Wednesday. Given that his Mabiala-Chara-Valeri-Blanco spine is wholly on the wrong side of 30, Gio Savarese just might develop a sudden enthusiasm for the #PlayYourKids movement around lineup time tonight.

As for Dome Torrent, he won’t have a choice. The list of NYCFC players on either the injured list or the bench at a continental final tonight is so long that the lineup practically writes itself. Taty Castellanos will get another run out at striker, where he’s showing devastating potential (just ask anyone in Philadelphia) even as he continues to learn on the job. Keaton Parks could go 90 for the fourth game in a row, a sentence that just a couple weeks ago might have caused me to levitate and speak in tongues. There’s even speculation that the teenage midfielder Juan Pablo Torres will continue his Sergi Robertofication and relieve Anton Tinnerholm at right back. We’re that thin.

The surprise twist of rotation szn is that NYCFC has continued to be pretty damn good. That’s a testament to Torrent and Claudio Reyna, whose team is built, by both design and training, to survive these brutal stretches. Let’s start with the design part. New York City isn’t exactly famous for its income equality, and in its first season NYCFC played to type, blowing its budget on a few spectacularly expensive stars and filling out the roster with minimum-salary cannon fodder. According to American Soccer Analysis, the club still owns three of the top eight spots since 2015 for roster Gini coefficient, an econometric measure of how unevenly salaries are distributed, but each season’s been more balanced than the last. In 2015 the top 11 players on NYCFC’s roster earned 92% of the team’s payroll; last season 86%; this year 82%. Yes, that’s mostly because we’re not paying anyone Pirlo or Villa money anymore, but the reason we don’t have to buy stars is that the club’s been spending smartly on TAM-range players and scouting backups like Castellanos, Parks, and Sebastien Ibeagha who can contribute MLS-quality minutes come crunch time. The depth chart is sound.

No matter how good your squad is, though, rotating your lineup without sacrificing your style is a tough ask for any coach. Just ask Brian Schmetzer, who on Wednesday basically brought his USL reserve side Tacoma Defiance FC to Yankee Stadium disguised as the Seattle Sounders. But to write off the 3-0 whupping that followed would shortchange Dome Torrent, who was missing about half his starters too and playing key players out of position. What separated the sides was that, for all the everything that was happening, one of them still played like a team.

What’s the secret to Dome’s success? Hate to get all Spielverlagerung on you here but there’s a fancy foreign phrase you might want to start working into your soccer convos this summer: juego de posición. It’s one of the most abused tactics buzzwords in the game, and is invariably explained by gesturing at an inscrutably tesselated pitch map and mumbling something about “occupying specific zones in relation to the ball.” Honestly, though, the fundamental idea’s not that complicated: position matters more than players.

It’s very important for me to play positional because that is the reason they can understand in different shapes what is expected.

Dome Torrent, to ProSoccerUSA

Notice that’s position, singular, not positions. We’re not talking about who’s listed as a right-sided defensive midfielder or a left inside forward on the lineup card, we’re talking about how the team as a whole maintains its shape in possession, how players space themselves properly and stagger between the defensive lines to create short passing diamonds, line-breaking passing lanes, and a free man on the weak side when the defense collapses on the ball. Basically we’re talking about this:

Just imagine this with a bunch of super complicated-looking rectangles overlaid on it.

Big deal, you say, that’s just a formation! Which, I mean, yeah, that’s why formations exist—to give players a reference for how to arrange themselves in relation to one another, a mental geometry to shape their movements on the pitch. The thinking part starts when the ball gets rolling, and right here, about two touches after an NYCFC goal kick, you can already see how Maxi scoots over to the halfspace and up behind Seattle’s first line of pressure, Keaton moves into the central channel on a lower horizontal line, and Ring, Mata, and Mitri adjust their positions to complete complementary passing diamonds for Chanot to choose between. No more than three players may occupy a horizontal line, the tactical mystics mutter, while no more than two may occupy the same vertical zone. In other words: Stagger lines! Space yourselves!

The even harder part comes when your shape gets distorted, because that’s what soccer teams spend all their time trying to do to each other, and each player has to think on the fly about how to efficiently recover that shape. When you get right down to it, tactics are just a race against reaction times: you do a thing (a dribble, a pass), your opponent does a thing in response (two defenders leave their line to close down), and whoever figures out first how to exploit the spaces that open up controls what happens next. That’s why positional play is so useful, because players move around but positions on a pitch don’t. Instead of worrying about how to get back to your fixed place on the locker room whiteboard, just recognize the space where someone ought to be and do what needs to be done there. That all probably sounds super abstract, so maybe some video will help.

Look, this clip isn’t exactly Man City. The passing is slow, the recognition is slower, and it’s pretty obvious nobody’s thinking more than about one and a half moves ahead. But they are thinking about space! Isi’s checking into midfield, Mata’s tucking inside when the defensive mids are too high, Maxi’s pushing up the wing when Mitri drops, Ring’s streaking up a channel his teammates have opened for him. None of these moves comes in the instruction manual for their nominal role in the starting formation, but by learning to anticipate the spaces that teammates’ moves create, each player keeps the team in a good shape for what comes next. That’s the bottom line for juego de posición.

It’s important that NYCFC is starting to get the hang of this stuff by summer because positional play makes you versatile. If we’re being honest, a Maxi-Keaton double pivot has no business existing, Ring’s not great at dropping between the center backs, Taty’s still learning to be a striker, and as Dome pointed out this week in a Glenn Crooks article about positional play, Isi’s gone from a wide winger to an inside forward working between the lines. Playing guys out of position has caused problems for Dome in the not-too-distant past, but if he wants to get anything close to his best eleven on the field right now, players need to be flexible—and understanding team play helps that happen.

Soccer, even just minute to minute, is a chaotic sport. Soccer on an MLS schedule is plain crazy. The lesson of juego de posición is, in its own weird way, the lesson of @Horse_ebooks: to bring beauty out of this mess you’re going to have to apply some human intelligence to it. If you don’t, the everything will overwhelm you. ❧

Image: Eugene Delacroix, Studies of Horses

D.C. United 1-2 NYCFC + Philadelphia Preview: Is Alexandru Mitriţă Good at Soccer?

Just, you know, asking questions here.

First of all: yes. Obviously. If he wants to be.

But I mean, like, how is Alexandru Mitriţă good at soccer? What does he do so uncommonly well that Claudio Reyna stuffed a steamer trunk with crisp bundles of unmarked hundreds and set sail across the Atlantic in mid-February—this is, I assume, the only way to get to Romania—to ink a transfer contract in matching neck tattoos?

It was a fair question to ask back when NYCFC made Mitri the third-most expensive buy in MLS history, before Alejandro Pozuelo and Brian Fernández bumped him down a couple slots, and it’s a fairer question now that he’s been in New York long enough to get recognized while walking his French bulldog. We’ve just about got a decent sample size on our little guy, and the results are—well, they’re mixed.

Here are some things Mitri is most definitely better than you at: shooting, dribbling. If this were the NBA, the Knicks would’ve signed him to a max contract by now. (There’s a chance they will anyway and he’ll wind up being their best guard in a decade.) On the other hand, here are some things that Mitri might not be better than you at, if you happen to be the median attacker in Major League Soccer: pretty much everything else.

That’s a little worrying! It’s not that Mitri’s stats are bad, exactly, it’s just that if you only had this chart to go on, you might not pay millions of dollars to secure his services over those of an MLS journeyman like Juan Agudelo. So do numbers lie, or is it maybe time to start thinking of CFG’s scouting department as that guy at poker night who meticulously calculates pot odds on TAM-range bets all night but then goes all in on a straight flush draw?

We’ve seen that play out before with Jesús Medina, who looked like a smart investment for about half of last year before suffering a six-week hamstring strain whose long-term side effects appear to include terminal amnesia about what to do when somebody kicks a soccer ball to you. At 24, with a stint in Italy already under his belt, Mitriţă was always going to be less of a gamble than a 21-year-old from the Paraguayan first division. But that also means he’s more of a finished product, with fewer growth years left to pin our hopes and dreams on. What we see from Mitri in the second half of this season might wind up being pretty much what we get.

But will his second half look like his first? There are reasons to be optimistic. For one thing, he’s coachable (at least if your coach isn’t filled with wickedness). Back in the spring Mitri had a little bit of a shot selection problem. Before picking up a knock in April he was firing off about five shots a game with an average chance to score of less than 8% apiece. Since working his way back to health, he’s upped that to 14%, increasing his overall expected goal output while lowering his shot count. Fewer possessions wasted from 30 yards out on the moral equivalent of shirtless bathroom selfies can’t be a bad thing.

One big reason it’s been easier to get into the box is the signing of one Héber “Air Bear” Araujo dos Santos, whose work at striker takes the heat off Mitri and gives him room to work between the lines. Back when D.C. United visited Yankee Stadium in March, novice center forward Taty Castellanos let Mitri’s moments of on-ball brilliance go to waste:

Fast forward to last week’s Open Cup rematch, and things looked very different. True, Chris Durkin and Antonio Bustamante, who can barely buy a beer between them, aren’t exactly a big-game-ready double pivot. But just watch the way NYCFC’s new attack picks them apart here:

Héber’s holdup play and counterpressing, Ben Sweat’s advanced wingback position, Maxi’s freewheeling midfield role: these weren’t features of NYCFC’s play for the first couple months of the season. Each helps free Mitri to get creative, and he does it in style, scrambling the lines, juking defenders, and looking for dangerous one-twos with Héber at the top of the box. Drifting inside is how Mitri eventually found a goal, thanks to some stellar service from the severely underused Keaton Parks.

But those exchanges with Héber also show a more worrying thing about Mitri, which is that he tends to dawdle and sulk off the ball. Look, forwards don’t need to be in motion all the time, and Mitri’s idol Messi famously walks better than most players run. But until he can show us that his frequent bouts of flaneurism are more about manipulating space than hanging a hapless Ben Sweat out to dry, the one low-gear guy in a high-gear press deserves to have his teamwork called into question.

Which brings us to the Philadelphia Union. The opponent at Yankee Stadium this evening won’t look much like the one NYCFC steamrolled in the playoffs eight months ago. An offseason revamp has Philadelphia atop the Eastern Conference table and neck and neck with Atlanta and NYCFC by your usual nerdy stats measures. But unlike Dome Torrent, Jim Curtin didn’t fight his way back to the top with help from high-dollar signings—the Union’s two biggest pickups, Marco Fabián and Sergio Santos, have had a limited impact so far. Instead, the team has relied on a new diamond-midfield system, some quality minutes from homegrowns like Brenden Aaronson, Ilsinho’s god-tier production off the bench, and pretty much total buy-in across the board.

Basically, it’s a team where nobody walks, nobody gives up on plays, nobody picks a shot because it’ll look sick on YouTube. Whether NYCFC’s going to be that kind of team in the second half is all on one $9 million man. But if and when Alexandru Mitriţă turns it on, look out. ❧

Image: Tapestry (Narcissus)

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

North Carolina Preview: A History of Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbus 2-2 NYCFC + Cincinnati Preview: Style Over System

Dome’s started to turn flexibility into “sensibility.” But will it translate into wins?

In the winter of 2018, just half a season after emerging from the shadow of Pep Guardiola to become a head coach in New York City, Domènec Torrent made a remark that may come to define his tenure: “What marks everything is not the system but the style of play,” he said, speaking to a publication run by Pep’s longtime biographer. “The system is not so important. What matters is the sensibility you give to the game.”

A couple of months ago, having watched this team stumble through a succession of conspicuously unstylish systems and a record-threatening number of ties, the notion of a philosophy beyond formation felt impossibly distant. As opponents adjust to the 3-4-3, however, Dome’s side is beginning to show that it’s capable of adapting its style of play to a variety of systems. There’s just one problem: the draws have returned.

NYCFC’s last two opponents have attacked the 3-4-3 in different ways. Last week Chicago chose to press high from the beginning, pinning the Pigeons’ wingbacks deep in their half, but this weekend Columbus pressed more selectively, sitting their front line deeper and opting to cut off the passing lanes to Ebenezer Ofori and Alexander Ring. Dropping the line of confrontation also compressed the space between Columbus’s forward and defensive lines, allowing them to set traps for NYCFC to play into.

When Alexander Callens or Maxime Chanot played wide, Columbus overloaded the sidelines. When the ball found its way up the middle, four black shirts were on hand to isolate the ball carrier. Deprived of short passing options, a wobbly NYC began to force plays and botch the line-breaking verticals and switches that were key to the 3-4-3’s early success. In the 25th minute, one of Columbus’s traps finally slammed shut: four defenders pressured Alexandru Mitriţă into giving up possession, launching the counterattack that led to the Gyasi Zardes’s converted penalty.

Columbus’s deep, compact defensive shape created overloads, forced NYCFC into errant passes, and ultimately created the turnover that led to their first goal.

Minutes before the end of the half, Dome abandoned his 3-4-3 for the second match in a row and switched to a 4-2-3-1. Against Chicago, he’d opted for a more defensively-minded midfield. This time, perhaps with the one-goal deficit in mind, he boldly replaced the injured Ben Sweat with Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, sliding Maxi Moralez from a forward slot back into his more familiar central attacking midfield role.

Moving a player from the underpressured back line into the congested zone between midfield and defense allowed NYCFC to flip the overloads that Columbus had been using so effectively to stifle them. In forward and central zones, Moralez drew Columbus’s defensive attention away from Shradi and Mitriţă, opening up the long, vertical passing lanes again. When play shifted to wide areas, Maxi pushed toward his winger, forming a triangle with the ball-side defensive midfielder to tip the numbers in New York City’s favor. The overloads drew Columbus’s midfielders out of the center, allowing NYCFC to run free. The equalizer started on the left side, swept through a vacant midfield to the opposite wing, and finished with Héber galloping forward to pass the ball into the net.

Left: Columbus’s deep line of confrontation gave them the numerical advantage in the midfield. Right: After the first formation switch, NYCFC’s extra midfielder flipped the overloads.

After a rare error from Ring gave Columbus the lead for a second time, Dome reached for an even more aggressive gear, bringing on Valentín Castellanos for Ofori and reshaping his side into a 4-4-2 diamond. This second change of system improved NYCFC’s numbers in the center again, and the glut of attacking players allowed Maxi to drop deeper and get involved earlier. By replacing Ofori’s more controlled passing with Maxi’s verticality and ability to turn on the ball, NYCFC created a flurry of chances that culminated in Taty’s stunning long-distance equalizer.

Shifting to a diamond gave Maxi more influence over the game and improved NYCFC’s chance creation from deep areas.

NYCFC’s budding adaptability will give opponents more to think about, as the team translates the free-flowing attacking play of the 3-4-3 into a variety of formations, but the same applies for its own players. Both Ring’s uncharacteristic error in the build-up and Callens’ inability to get back on defense for Columbus’s second goal could easily be chalked up to the tactical flux, a worrying reminder that flexibility often comes at the expense of familiarity. Changing formations saved a road draw, but it may have cost a road win.

Thursday’s match-up with a struggling Cincinnati would ordinarily be an opportunity to consolidate, but international call-ups and injuries have left Dome without four or five regulars. Looking ahead, prospects for stability look even slimmer, with the U.S. Open Cup, international competitions, and another long break looming. NYCFC’s newfound sensibility ought to help carry the team through another stretch of adaptation—but if we settle into another rut of boring draws, ideals may not matter much at all. ❧

Image: Stefano della Bella, Thirty-Six Acrobats in Six Groups

Chicago Preview: The Wingback Dilemma

Why NYCFC’s outside backs cause matchup problems for a 4-2-3-1.

In the beginning, fullbacks marked wingers because one was an outside defender and the other was an outside attacker, and God saw that it was good. Then about a decade ago fullbacks ate from the tree of knowledge and figured out they could attack too, and wingers sighed a little louder than was totally necessary and said unto the Lord, fine, whatever, we’ll track back. Winger and fullback followed each other up and down the pitch, for it is not good that the man should be alone.

Then along came a three-center-back trend out of Italy and the rise of wingbacks, who were neither fullback nor winger. And, well, just look at poor Nico Gaitán’s reaction when Anton Tinnerholm gets the ball here.

The teammate he’s exasperated with is Jeremiah Gutjahr, a 21-year-old homegrown who filled in at left back for Chicago while Jorge Corrales was hurt. Which, fine, rookies make mistakes, and part of the reason MLS teams overpay aging DPs like Gaitán, an Atlético Madrid and Argentina alum, is to impart some tactical nous to the kiddos. But you can understand Gutjahr’s confusion: Why should he, a fullback, be marking Tinnerholm, the outside back on NYCFC’s defensive line? Isn’t that the left winger’s job?

There’s nothing fancy about NYCFC’s ball movement or positioning in the clip. And there’s nothing generally wrong with Chicago’s defense, whose 1.19 home-adjusted expected goals against per game are seventh best in the league. Rather, the reason Tinnerholm is open has to do with a fundamental matchup problem for teams defending in a 4-2-3-1, MLS’s most popular shape, against Dome Torrent’s 3-4-3.

When NYCFC’s right center back is on the ball, the opponent is stuck with a dilemma. Chicago’s left winger can’t slide over to cut off the passing lane to the right wingback, because NYCFC’s three-back line is so wide that the angle would pull him almost all the way to the sideline and open a direct route to the right winger. But he can’t cheat back far enough to catch up to the right wingback after the ball is played, either, because the wingback has pushed up around the halfway line. The alternative, then, is for Chicago’s left fullback to scoot forward and mark NYCFC’s right wingback himself—but that’s still not ideal, since it opens space behind him for the right winger to exploit. By slipping between the defensive lines, NYCFC’s wingback is practically guaranteed to get open in the buildup and wreck Chicago’s shape.

Like you probably guessed from Gaitán’s flailing arms, Chicago gameplanned for the fullback-marks-wingback option when these teams met in April. Once they got warmed up, it played out pretty much as planned, and NYCFC’s wingbacks had limited influence in the buildup. But the knock-on effect was that Chicago’s high fullbacks left room for NYCFC to play quickly up the wing, and Ebenezer Ofori took full advantage.

Here’s the basic move for NYCFC: a wingback receives the ball in the buildup, draws a fullback marker, and one short relay later they’re into the wing space Chicago’s fullback vacated.

This particular play starts a little too high and slow to create a chance from the wing, but it’s a move NYCFC returned to over and over in that game, often with dangerous fast break results.

Will Veljko Paunović change Chicago’s approach today? He could do what the L.A. Galaxy’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto did and switch to a three-back formation to try to match up better with NYCFC’s wingbacks. That wouldn’t be a total novelty for the Fire, who recently slipped their way too enthusiastic newcomer Francisco Calvo into a back three to plow New England, 5-0. (Then again, I mean, New England.)

Or maybe Paunović will decide a 1-0 away loss to NYCFC wasn’t so bad and we’ll see the wingback dilemma play out again in Illinois. If it does, watch out for Alexandru Mitriţă, who was injured last time these teams met. He’s been known to cause problems when you give him an open wing to run into. ❧

Image: Charles Sheeler, Wings