Time to take a breath.
Last night, New York City squared off against Orlando City, their fellow expansion club and putative rivals. If last night was any indicator, their rematch in (hopefully) two weeks is something to savor, like a succulent Brazilian fraldinha grelhada, full of flavor.
The two teams squared off, in what looks to be their optimal starting lineups going into First Kick. For both teams, it was their first chance to test themselves against a league foe; for these particular teams, it was a chance to explore how they stacked up against each other, midway through preseason.
Based on how New York City performed in the first half, they may want to reconsider going to Manchester for future pre-season preparation. They looked sluggish, precisely how you'd expect a team to look two days after returning Stateside from a European sojourn. Let's go into specifics.
The game started tightly, and though New York City had the first genuine chance of the game - a screamer from David Villa that left Orlando's goalpost begging for surcease - Orlando soon took hold of the game. Brek Shea, Orlando's newly-minted left back, found a lot of space to work with on the left side. He was pushing forward and stretching New York City's defense like a worn rubber band. Then Kaká started to really make his presence felt, making dangerous runs, and deftly orchestrating Orlando's offense, working in concert with forward Bryan Róchez and midfielder Kevin Molino.
Orlando applied urelenting, ruthless pressure to New York City's defense, and finally, in the 32nd minute, the walls came tumbling down. Molino fed Kaká, who rocketed a right-footed shot like a Hellfire missile to the bottom right corner of the net.
Like that, it was 1-0 Orlando. Like a pack of ravening lions, Orlando prowled for more. Kaká and Molino were simply dominant on the ball, taking advantage of loose possession by New York City, and making darting runs against the defense. New York City was lucky indeed not to be trailing by more at halftime.
The game resumed. Three minutes later, New York City made its first changes: Khiry Shelton for Sebastian Velasquez, and Shay Facey for Andrés Mendoza. Watson's introduction, especially, breathed new life into New York City's squad. With Shelton in the game, New York City abandoned their diamond formation, and switched to a flat 4-4-2. Suddenly, Orlando found itself on the back foot.
In the 56th minute, New York City's pressure and liveliness finally paid off. Villa put Khiry Shelton into the Orlando box with a sumptuous pass. Shelton then raked his shot past veteran goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts with the outside of his boot. The accounts were all square at 1 goal apiece.
Both teams exchanged a bevy of dangerous chances; Orlando nearly took the lead again in the 58th minute, as Róchez made space in the box and curled a lovely shot onto the crossbar. Molino's volley on the rebound then went wide, to the relief of New York City. In the 67th and 70th minutes, first New York City, then Orlando, made mass substitutions.
All those fresh legs meant that the intensity stayed in the red zone throughout the remainder of the match, rather than tailing off as players tired. In the 85th minute, rampant chaos in New York City's penalty area gave Orlando midfielder Tony Cascio a clear shot at goal, only to be denied by goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
That's how it ended: New York City 1, Orlando City 1. Head coach Jason Kreis had this to say after the match:
Kreis needs to ditch the diamond formation for the time being. In both the game against Brondby and the first half of this game, New York City struggled to find fluidity in its midfield. Villa, especially, grew more and more frustrated as the half wore on, forced to drop deep to get the ball, and effectively try to act as a Spanish version of Kaká.
It didn't work.
There's no mystery in why New York City did better in the second half; that's when they switched to a flat 4-4-2, three minutes in. Eight minutes later, Shelton scored the tying goal. Kreis deployed the diamond 4-4-2 with great success at Real Salt Lake, but he had two vital cogs in Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. He lacks their equivalent in this roster; the closest player he's got is Kwadwo Poku, but he's 23, and most of his experience is further up the field. Dunn is the lone holder, and he's 21. Kreis might be better off using a 4-3-2-1, or a 4-2-3-1. We'll see if things change on Wednesday against the Dynamo.
Khiry Shelton is legit. The #2 draft choice entered the game shortly after halftime, and immediately jolted New York City to life. His goal was very well-taken, and he was a threatening presence throughout the second half. We know that Tony Taylor is likely the #2 striker behind Villa; with his scoring ability and vision, it's entirely possible that Shelton is #3. That may free New York City to deploy in a 4-3-3.
New York City is vulnerable on defense. This has a lot to do with the midfield struggles, but in both of the last two games, New York City's center backs have struggled. Against Brondby, it was Hernandez; against Orlando, it was Mendoza. In both games, Manchester City youth player Shay Facey distinguished himself with quiet, dilligent work. Where Shelton brought the offense to life, Facey buttressed the defence. He may be sticking around for the season. We'll see if he starts on Wednesday.
RATINGS (1-10; 1 - abysmal; 5 - meh; 10 - spectacular)
Saunders (GK) - 7: Bailed out New York City countless times in the first half; were it not for his saves, it easily could've been 4-0 or 5-0 at the break. Much quieter in the second half, but saved the draw twice, once in the 58th minute, and again in the 85th. Not very mobile, but clearly the number 1 goalkeeper for now; if Meara continues to struggle with injury, he may be the first-choice until someone else signs.
Wingert (LB), Williams (RB) - 6: had some impact on offense, but were kept busy defending through the first half.
Hernandez (CB) - 6: Was much better tonight than last Sunday against Brondby. Let's hope that game was an oddity.
Mendoza (CB) - 3: Wretched performance. He was responsible for Kaká's goal, and repeatedly lost his man between the 24th and 40th minutes of the match
Grabavoy (LM) - 6: Quiet, professional performance.
Jacobson (CM/DM) - 4.5: Tried hard, but he's not a holder or a defensive midfielder. He's not Kyle Beckerman, and even if he grew dreads, he still wouldn't be him. It shows.
Ballouchy (RM) - 3.5: Started the game in place of Mix Diskerud, who was ill. Ballouchy is the kind of player who looks great on the training field, then disappears in the playing field. That's exactly what happened, and it forced Tony Taylor to deputize in his stead. It's time to move him on. New York City have enough depth that they don't need him, and his roster spot is better used on an actual holding/defensive midfield anchor, so that Kreis can use the diamond effectively.
Velasquez (AM) - 4: Was utterly anonymous in this game; the confident, silky midfielder we saw in England disappeared completely. Villa had to, in effect, play both his position and Velasquez's, and it completely frustrated him. Can't afford games like that; that kind of erratic performance is what got him shipped out of RSL.
Taylor (RF/RW) - 6: Was effective, but spent much of the first half covering for Ballouchy, who was off picking daisies or something. Did more of that in the second half, but thankfully it didn't hurt the team.
Villa (CF) - 7: Was heroic in how he covered for Velasquez, but you clearly sense his disgust at having to bail him out over and over and over again. Much better once Shelton came in; his pass to him set up the equalizer.
Shelton (F/"false 10") - 8: Clearly the man of the match. His goal tied the game, and rescued it for New York City. His vision was menacing, and helped unlock Orlando's stout defense, as he set up numerous scoring opportunities in the second half. Depending on his play against Houston and Charleston, he may well have locked down a spot on the roster.
Facey (CB) - 7: As wretched as Mendoza was, that's how good Facey was in relief. Did yeoman work in settling down a nervy backline, and showed wisdom beyond his years in his play. I'd be stunned if he wasn't part of the roster once the season begins, and on the balance of his play, I think that he probably should start.