By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
Only one MLS expansion team (Seattle in 2009) since the turn of the millennium has made the playoffs in their first season. Given the tumult that surrounded NYCFC’s existence prior to ever kicking a ball, it always seemed unlikely they would be the second. But expectations for Jason Kreis’ side were high, he didn't live up to them, and so he was dismissed. There have been numerous and significant changes going into the 2016 season, and there can be no question that a significant improvement is expected for the upcoming season. How realistic those expectations are is yet to be seen.
2015 in review
In my 2015 preview for NYCFC I began with a series of questions. The answers to those questions at the end of the season were supposed to determine whether the season was a success or not. As I said at the time, “success in 2015 is unlikely to be measured in team performance, but rather a series of more existential factors.” Let’s see if the answers to those questions give us insight into what happened to the club last season.
1. “Has the city of New York accepted the team?”
This seems to be a fairly resounding “yes.” The average attendance of 29,016 people per game was good for 3rd in the league, despite playing in a baseball stadium that is less than ideal for the beautiful game. Advantage NYCFC.
2. “Has the organization created a more stable front office?”
Conversely, this seems to be a fairly resounding “no.” Kreis went to Manchester to learn from from his superiors, was poised to bring his MLS Cup winning experience to the job, and had over a year to prepare his team and roster. Then he was given unrealistic expectations and was handed a team consisting mostly of cast-offs, misfits, geriatrics, and David Villa. While he certainly wasn’t blameless, he also was far from the only reason why his team didn’t work.
A big part of that is Kreis apparently didn’t have as much control as we (and maybe he) thought he did. We won’t re-hash the Lampard fiasco here, but it became apparent early that he was but the marionette puppet and the Abu Dhabian overlords were actually pulling the strings at NYCFC.* (To add insult to injury, Kreis is now forced to stare longingly on as an assistant to a coach he is far better than.)
3. "Is there a legitimate plan to build a soccer specific stadium they can call home?”
Kind of, but not really.
4. Has Frank Lampard returned from England?”
Yes! Pretty much, anyway. He was hurt a lot last season after he finally arrived, though was relatively effective when he did play. Still, this is probably his last season.
In sum, the answers to my questions a year ago fell about 50/50 in favor and against, and yet it still led to a coaching change and an extensive roster overhaul. The changes going into 2016 are below:
|GK Ryan Meara||D Frederic Brillant||GK Eirik Johansen|
|D Angelino||D Diego Martinez||GK Josh Saunders|
|D Jeb Brovsky||D Ronald Matarrita||D RJ Allen|
|D Shay Facey||D Ethan White||D Jason Hernandez|
|D Kwame Watson-Siriboe||M Federico Bravo||D Andoni Iraola|
|D Chris Wingert||M Jack Harrison||M Mehdi Ballouchy|
|M Pablo Alvarez||M Mikey Lopez||M Connor Brandt|
|M Javier Calle||M Mix Diskerud|
|M Ned Grabavoy||M Andrew Jacobson|
|M Sebastian Velasquez||M Frank Lampard|
|M Thomas McNamara|
|M Andrea Pirlo|
|M Kwadwo Poku|
|F Patrick Mullins|
|F Khiry Shelton|
|F Tony Taylor|
|F David Villa|
Maybe the biggest addition of the offseason isn’t in the table above. That would be new head coach Patrick Viera. He comes from Manchester City’s youth squad, and will be the latest foreign coach to attempt to overcome the difficult learning curve that comes with managing in MLS. He hopes to succeed where nearly every other foreign coach has failed; getting his club to the playoffs in his first season. If he can get his star players to buy-in to his philosophy he will be hailed as a savior of a club in disarray. If he can’t adapt to the physicality of MLS, the long distance travel, and manage his team’s egos, he may be gone before the season ends.
Viera is going with a single-pivot 4-3-3 formation that will look a little different than Kreis’ 4-2-3-1 that was deployed at the end of the season. It looks like he’s going to employ a high-press and try to use speedy wing-play that will funnel the ball through the middle to Lampard and Andrea Pirlo then back out to the wings. These are relatively big changes, and we should know early-on if they’re going to work.
Goalkeeper and Defense
Easily the biggest weakness last season was defense. The 1.64 goals allowed per game was tied for 3rd worst in the league last season, and their xGA of 1.59 was the worst. There was a significant investment in offensive talent last year, but that left the defense with a hodgepodge of role-players being depended on to anchor the backline.
In goal, Josh Saunders led the team in minutes last season, and he was the busiest keeper in MLS. Though he gave up a league-worst 57 goals, he also led the league in saves and shots against. His Goals against minus xGA were about average for MLS, and there is no rational person that blames him for NYC’s inability to stop goals. The causes for that were mostly due to the shaky defenders in front of him.
The biggest constants on that back line were Jason Hernandez , Shay Facey, and Chris Wingert, who finished third, fourth, and seventh respectively in minutes played among outfield players. After the defensive struggles early in the season, Andoni Iraola was brought in during the summer as a stop-gap measure, but only played nine games after dealing with injuries. If he can stay healthy, Iraola will slot in on the right for 2016.
Wingert and Facey are gone, but Hernandez is likely to resume his place in the center. The other defensive positions have clearly been the priority for the new additions. To replace Facey’s minutes, centerback Frederic Brilliant has been signed from the Belgian league. The left back position will have some competition, as Diego Martinez comes from River Plate and Costa Rican international Ronald Matarrita has been signed from Alajuelense.
The success or failure of the 2016 is likely to depend on if the NYCFC midfield can work. Last year, Lampard and Pirlo arrived midway through and were supposed to save the season. Instead, they struggled to find chemistry and results didn’t change. Their relative disinterest in playing defense was a big part of their struggles, and while they claim otherwise, they still need to prove that they’re not just here for the paycheck.
Viera’s attempt to change the formation may play to their strengths. Whereas Kreis seemed to try to fit players into the system he wanted to play, Viera is attempting to find a system to fit the players. If the preseason is any indication, Viera is probably going to go with a very narrow three man midfield, consisting of Lampard, Pirlo, and Kwadwo Poku or Andrew Jacobson.
Jacobson played more minutes than any other field player on the team last year and performed admirably considering he was tasked with single-handedly carrying the defensive torch for a team that didn’t play much defense. If Jacobson starts, he’ll cover for Lampard and Pirlo at the bottom of the pivot while they orchestrate the attack.
The sexier choice – and the one that pre-season lineups suggest Viera will go with – is Poku. Playing in the NPSL only two years ago, Poku went from preseason success story to significant contributor in 2015 with four goals and seven assists. He struggled to find minutes under Kreis, but Viera seems poised to set him free. He’s a fast and physical midfielder that could provide the yin to Lampard and Pirlo’s yang. If he starts, he’ll probably be next to Lampard, with Pirlo sitting back to pull the strings of the offense.
Such a scenario makes it exciting to think about the number of goals that will be created, but it will also put a huge burden on the new defense which won’t have much midfield support. Pirlo isn’t going to track the opposing attacking midfielders from his deep-lying positions, so if Viera does go with this hard-attacking formation it will need a lot of things to go right – starting with the high-press and (probably) a high defensive line. If any one of those pieces doesn’t work, expect to see the more pragmatic Jacobson re-installed as the lone defensive midfielder and Poku deployed more as a late-game offensive substitution.
One name notably absent from this article so far is that of USMNT heartthrob Mix Diskerud. Expectations were high for Mix after his success for the national team while playing for Rosenborg in Norway. Unfortunately, Kreis was never able to find a way to successfully use him, and his style doesn’t seem to fit with Viera’s new attacking philosophy that is built around the big three. Mix will come off the bench for 2016 when Lampard and Pirlo can’t go the full 90.
Tommy McNamara will also contribute off the bench, as will newcomer Mikey Lopez. Top overall SuperDraft pick Jack Harrison is dealing with a preseason injury and seems likely to go out on loan to start the season, especially because the team is currently over the maximum allowable international roster spots.
David Villa. David Villa. David Villa.
If Pirlo and Lampard were disappointments in 2015, Villa was equal parts success. He scored early and often, and did everything he was asked to do and more. His 18 goals and 8 assists accounted for 54% of the team’s goals, and his 0.80 expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes were second only to league MVP Sebastian Giovinco. Given the lack of cohesion around him, his contributions are probably even more impressive than they seem. If NYCFC’s offensive strategy can be boiled down to two words, it should be “find Villa.”
While the talent around him isn’t overwhelming, he does have some help. No outright attacking players have been added in the offseason but he still has Oregon State alum and the second overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft, Khiry Shelton, who is fresh off a callup to the USMNT for camp cupcake. Though he was used mostly off the bench for Kreis, expect him to see more starting minutes in the upcoming season on the right side of the attack.
The left wing position appears to still be up for grabs, but Patrick Mullins is probably the logical choice, with Mehdi Ballouchy behind him and Tony Taylor possibly playing a larger role off the bench this season.
Last season NYCFC had one of the most imbalanced rosters in the league. Their top talent was as good as any team in MLS, but they also had starters that wouldn’t make the 18 of some teams. While depth is still a concern, it isn't nearly as bad as last season and the defensive additions should do wonders to shore up the backline. With Pirlo and Lampard given a full preseason to prepare and mesh with their teammates, they should be much better positioned to succeed. Still, Viera faces a steep learning curve in a new league on a new continent and will have to deal with the fact that this team is not a priority for its owners.
If Viera figures out MLS, Lampard and Pirlo bring a renewed energy, Villa continues to be Villa, Poku emerges as a powerful midfield presence, and the defense is improved, this team has every chance at a top four finish and a home playoff game. But Viera follows the mold of most new foreign coaches, Lampard and Pirlo continue to ignore their defensive duties, Villa can’t get service, and Jacobson is again the only reliable defensive cover, then this could be another finish near the bottom for NYCFC. If they do end up up in the cellar, at least NYCFC fans will know what to drink.