By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
New York City FC had their best season ever in 2017. They finished second in the league with 57 points and sported a +13 goal differential. But NYCFC plateaued and was bounced from the playoffs by Columbus, which prompted a good deal of change this offseason. NYCFC declined options on eleven players, and also moved upcoming star Jack Harrison to Manchester City, much to Pep Guardiola’s surprise, er, I mean, excitement. But it’s safe to say that NYCFC upgraded their overall talent with some smart and exciting signings. The big question that remains; did Claudio Reyna and Patrick Vieira do enough?
Vieira has NYCFC playing a very entertaining brand of soccer, as they control the tempo offensively and are competent on defense. NYCFC finished fourth in the league in possession at 56.5% and they pressed their opponents, ranking third in the league with 11.7 defensive actions in their attacking half per game. Despite this aggressive play, NYCFC finished with the fifth best defense in the league, both in terms of goals allowed (43) and expected goals allowed (42.6).
What held City back was a third scoring option behind David Villa and Jack Harrison. The departure of Harrison has now doubled up on those worries heading into the new season. The other concern is the momentum the team had at the end of the season. Here is a chart of NYCFC’s goal differential and xGD by game.
This chart looks like it might welcome a nice Saturday afternoon hike, but the plateau was a point of frustration for NYCFC. They reached +13 goal differential in late June against Minnesota and didn’t make a strong move from that point. The downward expected goal trend indicates that NYCFC might have been a little lucky to keep their goal differential where they did.
NYCFC chose to only tinker on defense as they return four of their five key players, including Sean Johnson in goal. The two center backs, Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens, are set to provide stability in the middle and intriguing 24 year old Benin national Cedric Hountondji has been brought in from Ligue 2 to push the pair. The left side will be manned again by Ben Sweat, but it’s the right side where the change has occurred. Anton Tinneholm was brought in from Malmo FF in Sweden and looks to fix an area where the team struggled to find consistency. NYCFC also traded for right back Saad Abdul-Salaam who was Sporting KCs Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. A defense that was already solid should be at least as good in 2018.
The midfield is where Vieira and Reyna have really invested in the offseason. Vieira now has good depth and a lot of tactical flexibility to work with. Returning are mainstays Alexander Ring, who led NYCFC in percent of touches when on the field with 11.3%, Maxi Morales and Yangel Herrera. Rodney Wallace also returns as does Thomas McNamara. In Vieira’s 4-3-3 there is room for five of these midfielders to work alongside Villa, and here is where it gets interesting. The biggest offseason acquisition was 20 year old Paraguayan midfielder Jesus Medina, who will have the pressure of filling the void left by Harrison. Also signed was attacking midfielder Ismael Tajouri who figures to slot next to David Villa on the right side of the formation. Last but not least is Ghanaian midfielder Ebenezer Ofori who was signed from Stuttgart. It does not appear NYCFC will miss the retired Andrea Pirlo. That’s eight midfielders with either good MLS experience or intriguing international experience.
The one place that change was not needed was at striker thanks to the venerable David Villa. NYCFC still added Jo Inge Berget who scored 25 goals in the past three seasons at Malmo FF. He will provide depth for Villa but can also push the attacking midfielders out wide for time. But Villa is the reason why NYCFC is a contender in the East. He absorbs a high volume of shots and also over delivers on those shots.
Here’s a chart from ASA’s own interactive tables that show the value of David Villa. He led MLS in shots attempted (excluding penalties) with 131 and was third in the league in goals minus expected goals, contributing 6.3 more goals than an average shooter would have. He’s the difference maker that all true contenders rely on in the clutch.
With a top five defense, experienced midfield and David Villa up top, NYCFC have enough to make the playoffs. The ultimate success of this season will come down to City finding additional scoring from Medina, Tajouri, Berget and the rest of the attacking midfield. That’s the unknown that has them sitting off the pace of Toronto FC and Atlanta United in the East. But if Medina and Tajouri are as good as advertised then Vieira could definitely see this club through to the MLS Cup Final.
Here’s the potential starting lineup for City, adjusted to compensate for the size of the pitch at Yankee Stadium.