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On to Carolina: New York City looks for its first trophy

New York City takes on Orlando, Houston, and Charleston over the course of a week. What can we expect at the Carolina Challenge Cup?

New York City FC poses for pictures before playing Brondby
New York City FC poses for pictures before playing Brondby
New York City FC

New York City is now in Charleston, S.C., busily preparing for the Carolina Challenge Cup, its last big pre-season test. In that tournament, New York City will square off against three teams:

  • fellow expansion club Orlando City, at 7:30 PM ET tomorrow;
  • Houston Dynamo at 5:30 PM ET on Wednesday, February 25; and
  • Charleston Battery at 7:30 PM ET next Saturday, February 28.

The team's coming off a generally successful ten-day sojourn in Manchester, England. There, they took advantage of the world-class training facilities owned by City Football Group, and played their first two games as a team. In the first game, they comprehensively beat Scottish Premier League strugglers St. Mirren 2-0, with David Villa scoring the club's first-ever goal, and Tony Taylor adding another in the second half.

Their second game, against Danish contenders Brondby IF, was considerably tougher. Brondby took advantage of two costly New York City errors and won 2-0. They generally looked a bit better than New York City, but it was a tight game all around, and New York City never stopped looking to score.

All in all, though, the two games showed head coach Jason Kreis where the team needed work.

"We're right where I would have expected to be," said Kreis after the loss to Brondby. "I think after the last match I probably came out of that a little more positive, of course. I'm a human being. We won the game and I probably said, 'That's a little better than I had expected,' and I come out of this one saying, 'That was probably a little worse than I would have wanted.' I think the truth is somewhere in the middle."

In both games, New York City showed a real commitment to playing Kreis' preferred possession-style game. Particularly against St. Mirren, the team played with a real fluidity in attack that showed what could be possible once the team is in full season fitness and form.

Playing against two MLS teams - particularly Orlando City, which has played up the potential for a rivalry with New York City - is something midfielder Andrew Jacobson is looking forward to.

"All the other games up until now, it's different styles, you're trying to get better, you're trying to get fit, you're trying to do a lot of things," Jacobson said. "Going into this trip, playing some MLS teams, it gives us a chance to really focus because these are the teams we're going to be battling with to win the MLS Cup. We are coming in with the mentality that we're going to play well and we're going to win these games."

So: what can we look forward to? Here's the traveling roster for the Challenge Cup (T - trialist; * - unsigned):

  • Goalkeepers: Akira Fitzgerald, Josh Saunders, Ryan Meara, Andre Rawls*, Eirik Johansen (T)
  • Defenders: Andres Mendoza, Josh Williams, Jeb Brovsky, Jason Hernandez, Chris Wingert, Connor Brandt*, Shay Facey (T), Kwame Watson-Siriboe
  • Midfielders: Andrew Jacobson, Mix, Ned Grabavoy, Thomas McNamara, Mehdi Ballouchy, Matt Dunn, Sebastian Velasquez, Javier Calle, Kwadwo Poku, Pablo Alvarez (T)
  • Forwards: David Villa, Patrick Mullins, Khiry Shelton, Tony Taylor, Adam Nemec

Right off the bat, this probably isn't the final roster - for one, it's missing defender George John. That said, what can we surmise from this roster? The biggest takeaway for me is that goalkeeper and midfielder are still rather unsettled, two weeks before the season presumably starts.

The former, particularly, raises eyebrows. Meara's injury is one reason why the club is still looking at goalkeepers; the other is that neither Saunders nor Fitzgerald has truly impressed in the two games New York City played in England. In fact, Kreis brought in Johansen for Saunders in the second game, instead of Fitzgerald.

Johansen, a Manchester City EDS player, did okay between the sticks, but given the roster size uncertainty around the CBA negotiations, I'd be surprised if New York City still had this many keepers on the roster come the beginning of the season, whenever that is.

The club's midfield questions are long-standing. New York City is still looking for a holding midfielder, assuming they play a diamond 4-4-2. Particularly against Brondby, Ben Jata pointed out the biggest issue with New York City's midfield:

Right now, the team has a plethora of attacking midfielders - McNamara, Ballouchy, Velasquez, Calle, Poku, and Mix all fit that description. Jacobson is a box-to-box midfielder, while Grabavoy is a shuttler, mostly on the left. Dunn has played holding midfielder, but he's still young and raw - it was his error that led to Brondby's second goal.

Meanwhile, Alvarez is a right midfielder, and at 34, probably not a medium- or long-term solution, and maybe not even a short-term one. Calle brings some skill and size to the left side, but he's not mobile, so there's legitimate questions as to whether he can succeed in the league.

That leaves Kwadwo Poku.

Anyone who saw him play in New York City's last two games was struck by his size, speed, and vision. Particularly against St. Mirren, Poku was rampaging all over the field like a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing after an exquisitely choice morsel. If anyone is playing themselves into the roster, it's Poku. There's a good reason why people have compared Poku to Yaya Toure, and I'd be shocked if he didn't see significant playing time in this pre-season tournament. In fact, I think he'll be on the first-team roster when the season begins, which isn't something I thought possible when they first signed him.

On defense, I think it's entirely possible that Shay Facey sticks around for the season. He was certainly impressive for New York City in their last two games, and he can fill in at both center back and right back. Left back is still an issue: Wingert is your starter, Brandt is likely the deputy, but he has no competitive experience playing the position. Don't be surprised if Kwame Watson-Siriboe slides in to the left back position by default.

As for forward, Tony Taylor has been the other really impressive figure in this pre-season. He's been commanding with the ball, and plays well on the right, which is where the bulk of his experience lies.

Given all that, here's my thoughts for how New York City could line up against Orlando on Saturday. I think it'll be a tough, hard-fought game. I don't want to hazard a prediction here, but I do think it'll be the toughest of the three games New York City plays.

I've got Facey starting in the back four; he's been that impressive. Meanwhile, we have a three-man triangle midfield of Grabavoy, Poku at the base, and Mix on the right. I remain convinced that Diskerud's natural position is on the right, up top, playing off the shoulder of an 8 or 6, and nothing I've seen thus far has convinced me otherwise, despite the efforts of multiple coaches to slot him elsewhere on the field. At 24, I don't know if he's going to develop much further beyond what we have already.

Up top, I have Mullins and Taylor on the wings, with David Villa in the center. We haven't seen much of Mullins, and on my depth chart, I've got Taylor ahead of him. But if you're going to play a 4-3-3, Mullins is more adept than Nemec at scoring. Nemec gives you size and height, and not much else. Khiry Watson is still a project.

Here's another option, though, that hardly anyone's mentioned: why not play a 4-5-1?

In this setup, Kreis takes advantage of what he has in abundance: attacking midfielders. You slot Andrew Jacobson as your holding/defensive midfielder, and pair him up with Poku down low. You line up Grabavoy on the left, and instead of having another forward, you bring on Sebastian Velasquez, who's shown some real skill in pre-season thus far, particularly going forward. That leaves you Mix on the right.

Since you've got Poku there, you don't have to worry so much about Diskerud tracking back on defense, because that's a real weakness of his. If Poku wants to range forward, he can, because Jacobson is behind him.

We'll have full coverage of tomorrow's match against Orlando, starting at 7:30 PM. You can follow us on Twitter at @hudsonriverblue.