By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
For a team that has yet to play a professional game, NYCFC sure has seen - and cultivated - a lot of drama. From stadium deals falling through to the Frank Lampard debacle, to the lackluster jersey reception, to the purported rules surrounding permitted ways to support the team, it has been a rocky entrance into MLS. But the assembled on-field product looks to be a decent one. David Villa and Lampard are the big names, but an interesting combination of newcomers and seasoned MLS veterans have filled out the squad. If any MLS coach can get a brand-new team to work it is Jason Kreis, but it is already clear that the distractions will be many.
Only two teams (Chicago in 1998 and Seattle in 2009) have ever made playoffs in their expansion year, but NYCFC are looking to be the third. With the Yankees and Manchester City backing them they’re clearly not afraid to spend money, and expectations are very high. Still, success in 2015 is unlikely to be measured in team performance, but rather a series of more existential factors. Has the city of New York accepted the team? Has the organization created a more stable front office? Is there a legitimate plan to build a soccer specific stadium they can call home? Has Frank Lampard returned from England? With that said, let’s take a look at what type of team has actually been assembled.
Kreis is the great American hope for coaching. With Bob Bradley’s team Stabaek finishing mid-table in Norway and favored by many to be relegated in 2015, Kreis is now the American coach with the biggest overseas audience. At only 42, he’s also the favorite to follow in Jurgen Klinsmann’s shoes and coach the USMNT if all goes right. So what type of team has Kreis built to implement his patented 4-4-2 diamond? It’s a squad made up of a lot of familiar faces; Kreis either played or coached six of the players on his roster before bringing them to NYCFC. He also brought in players from abroad; another six players come from a league outside of North America, ranging from Uruguay and Colombia to Norway and Germany. There is a lot of pressure on Kreis, and his job may depend on his ability to get his team to sync.
MLS Veteran and MLS Cup winner Josh Saunders is the presumed starter in goal, with former Red Bulls starter Ryan Meara on loan as the backup. Saunders has only played four games in MLS since winning the Cup in 2013 with the Galaxy, and has dealt with personal issues, but our xG models for 2011-13 show he allowed fewer goals than the average goalkeeper would have expected in each of the three seasons (though small sample size caveats apply), suggesting he’s a better than average netminder. Meara performed as expected in his starting season in 2012, which implies there wouldn't be much of a letdown if Saunders can’t cut it.
In front of Saunders will be Kreis-favorite Chris Wingert at leftback, with Ecuadorian Andres Mendoza and former Earthquake Jason Hernandez in the middle, and former Crew player Josh Williams on the right. With an average age of 29, this is an experienced and hardened backline. It has lots of MLS experience, and won’t come with flash. These are solid, if unspectacular, players that won’t surprise anyone. When building a new team from nothing, consistency is important. This looks to be a good place to start.
USMNT member Mikkel Diskerud (or simply “Mix”, as his jersey will say) will do the playmaking until Lampard arrives from England. His style seems to fit perfectly into the role Javier Morales played for Kreis in Salt Lake, though playing in Norway won’t have prepared him as well as Argentina did for Morales. For the midfield diamond to work with Mix at it’s apex, he will have to quickly adjust to the speed and physicality of MLS. If he is slow to adapt, things will be tough for NYC in the early-going.
Former FC Dallas man Andrew Jacobsen will form the bottom corner of the diamond. Fresh off a successful loan to the aforementioned Stabaek, Jacobson will bring strength in the air and hard tackles to protect space behind Mix. To his left will be another RSL vet and the only player with hair rivaling Diskerud, Ned Grabavoy. He’s the ultimate role-player. He won’t grab headlines or pull cheeky moves, but he’s usually in the right place at the right time. At 31 he’s beginning to slow down, but should be able to quietly hold his own against most opponents.
The right-mid starting spot looks to be a competition between former Atlanta Silverback Kwadwo Poku and MLS journeyman Mehdi Ballouchy. On the surface they couldn't be more different. Ballouchy is a known quantity. He will bring a bit of flash and finesse to the wing, but is also prone to boneheaded mistakes and sometimes forgets to play defense. He also hasn't played more than 1000 minutes since 2011, so may require some time to find his form. Conversely, Poku is big and fast, two traits that are generally signs of future success in MLS. He has shown signs of inexperience in preseason, but seems to have a high soccer IQ. He may not start at the beginning of the season, but my money is on Poku starting by the end of it.
Either Slovakian international Adam Nemec or former USMNT U20 Tony Taylor are the favorites to start in the number nine position. Taylor had moderate success in Cypress and Portugal after going to college at South Florida, but only made only appearance last season for New England. Nemec was most recently in the German second division, where he scored 14 goals in 60 appearances since 2012.
Another way of saying it is that David Villa is all on his own up top. Possibly now the most talented player in MLS, Villa’s career speaks for itself. Since joining Valencia in 2005, he has averaged a goal every other game against some of the best competition in the world. Still, success usually doesn't come quickly for foreign starts coming to MLS. Even the likes of Henry, Beckham, and Dempsey have struggled to begin with. If Diskerud can’t get him the ball, then it will be a painfully long wait until Lampard arrives, and there is no promising that he’ll adjust quickly either.
NYCFC has built arguably the most imbalanced team in MLS history. The top starting players are arguably the best in MLS, and the bottom starting players are arguably the very worst. Even if he adapts quickly, it will be odd for a player like Villa to play next to the likes of cast-offs Ballouchy and Taylor. He’ll have to find his own space, and is likely to be double-teamed constantly. With no numbers or data to look at it is a fool’s errand to predict how this season will go, but a bottom three or top three finish seem equally likely. The truth is probably somewhere in-between. If Villa and Diskerud are slow to acclimate to MLS, it will be a very long season. If they find their niche quickly, and Lampard arrives to bring experience and goalscoring from the midfield, this team can make a run in the playoffs. I think a finish between seventh and fifth in the Eastern Conference is most likely