After earning the club their first playoff appearance in year two, expectations continue to rise for NYCFC. Coach Patrick Vieira is seen as one of the best young coaches in MLS, and the team appears to have added even more talent in the offseason. Still, their superstars continue to age - can they still be relied on to carry the team in terms of workload and minutes in 2017?
2016 in review
Last year was a tale of two seasons for NYCFC. The first half was a continuation of the struggles of their inagural season, and NYC managed to earn only 18 points in their first 15 games. The nadir of that stretch was the now-famous 7-0 loss at home to their neighboring-state rivals. Skeptics began to question if Vieira would even last as long as his predecessor Jason Kreis did.
But that 7-0 humiliation was also the season debut for Frank Lampard, and his return (symbolic or not) coincided with dramatic improvement in form. Over the remaining 19 games of the season they averaged almost two points per game and went from being well out of the playoff race to finishing 2nd in the Eastern Conference. Lampard certainly added something to the midfield, as his 8.17 expected goals and assists were 2nd best on the team, despite his playing only 1342 minutes. With Lampard’s return, what had been a chaotic and inconsistent series of lineups from Vieira found some stability as the team’s form improved.
Andrea Pirlo started slowly but found his legs, ultimately playing almost 2900 minutes (we include stoppage time minutes in our totals, which differ from MLS' official tally), more than twice as many as the season before. He is still the ultimate deep-lying playmaker, happy to sit back and drop long dimes from the center of midfield. His 64 key passes were good for 7th in MLS, many of them to eventual league MVP David Villa. Villa’s 25.07 xG + xA were the best in the league, and his 0.79 xG created per 96 mins were 3rd. He also led the team’s field players in minutes played, with over 3000.
Though not named alongside their flashy big three European stars, Frederic Brillant also deserves mention here. He doesn’t have their attacking prowess, but his 301 defensive actions were the most in MLS and his 193 clearances were 35 more than 2nd place They were also emblematic of a leaky defense that allowed 55 goals and 52.56 xGA, both worst among teams that made the playoffs.
Things obviously improved in the 2nd half of the season, and the general theme of NYCFC’s season was clear: out-score their opponent. They scored three or more goals nine times, and were more than happy to win in high-scoring affairs.
Offseason Additions and Subtractions
The biggest subtraction, at least in name, is Lampard, who has retired and returned to England after his 6 month stay (ASA sources are still trying to confirm if he arrived before last summer) in the Big Apple. Also retired is Andoni Iraola, who ultimately settled in as a central midfielder last year in the place of another player that is all but officially gone: (unofficial poet of MLS) Mix Diskerud. Mix featured heavily under Kreis but didn’t see action after June for Vieira. We can probably expect his contract situation to be resolved before NYCFC’s first home game.
Also gone is Jason Hernandez, who started 26 games in the middle of defense last year, along with midfielders Federico Bravo and Steven Mendoza, who saw their loans expire.
They also sent some GAM & TAM to Atlanta to acquire former Chicago starter and once-upon-a-time national team fringe player Sean Johnson. While probably an improvement over 2016 'keeper Josh Saunders and certainly much younger, Johnson is one of the only regular starting GKs who had a worse Goals Minus Expected Goals per 96 minutes than Saunders last year.
They also sent a boatload of GAM (noticing a trend?) to Chicago for the ability to draft Akron Zip Jonathan Lewis at 3rd overall, and a little more GAM & TAM to Portland for the ability to sign former Timbers winger Rodney Wallace. Those two players will provide depth on the left wing, a position where there wasn't a lot of consistency last year.
Panamanian international Miguel Camargo comes to help provide depth in the midfield, and Peruvian international Alexander Callens arrives to help plug some of the holes in the middle of the defense. Kaiserslautern transfer Alexander Ring will try to fill the defensive midfield role that Iraola played last year behind Pirlo, competing with 19-year-old Manchester City loanee Yangel Herrera. Ben Sweat is another addition that will look to make a defensive impact, previously playing for the then-NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The biggest pickup of the offseason is DP Maximiliano Moralez, who comes via Serie A and Liga MX. He’ll be counted on to fill the shoes of Lampard, both positionally and in terms of goal creation. At only 29 years old, Vieira is also surely hopeful that he can stay healthier. It’s not unimaginable that Moralez might play more minutes this season than Lampard did over his full tenure in NYC. The hype-train on Moralez has already left the station, but only time will tell if he’s going to be MLS’s Zlatan or just another fake attacker.
To the right is NYCFC’s starting lineup against Sporting KC in their final preseason match. With Johnson likely in charge between the posts for the year, Callens, Brillant, RJ Allen, Maxime Chanot, and Ronald Matarrita should be the regular faces in the Pigeons’ backline. Chanot, a Luxembourg international, joined NYCFC in the middle of 2016, but was restricted to only eight games because of an injury. Along with Callens, it will be interesting to see if this new central defensive look will be enough to bring the disastrous defense in the Bronx under control.
In the midfield, Pirlo and Moralez are sure to start most games, leaving only one defensive midfield spot for Ring and Herrera to battle over. Given Pirlo’s age, he’s likely to miss some games, which would leave room for both to start, as above. This would be a very intriguing formation, similar to how the Colorado Rapids play both Sam Cronin and Michael Azira as dual holding mids. Still, NYCFC live and die by their high octane offense, and it’s just as likely that company IT man and attacking midfielder Tommy McNamara will get slotted in for any Pirlo absences.
Up top, NYC will play Villa as center forward every game he’s even remotely healthy, flanked by Jack Harrison on the right wing and Wallace on the left. Harrison’s ability to dribble at fullbacks will be huge for this offense in particular. Even when Harrison doesn't have the ball, his skill and pace will draw his defender closer in, exposing more space for Villa and company to move into. And if Villa can get any space near the box with the ball at his feet, you should expect him to score. With a full slate of minutes, Harrison should cement his place as an elite winger in this league.
Expectations for 2017
It’s now or never for this “first edition” of NYCFC. With Lampard retired, only Villa and Pirlo remain from the club’s high-profile entrance into the crowded New York sports market, and this is likely their last year of championship-caliber play. One thing is certain: this team will score buckets of goals. That’s probably enough to get them into the MLS Cup playoffs, but is it enough to get them to the final, let alone win it? If this new defense can cut down on the chances allowed, that should be enough for NYCFC to lock down the Eastern Conference and compete with FC Dallas for the Supporters’ Shield. That said, NYCFC’s poor defense numbers might actually be a direct consequence of Vieira’s “build from the back” tactics. If that’s the case, only disciplined, mistake-free play in the back will be enough to save NYCFC from themselves, and in a new era of high press play in MLS that may be impossible. Patrick Vieira is playing a dangerous game, and while they’ll be on every pundit’s early season list of playoff teams, whether their journey ends in hardware is far from certain.