Well, that could've gone better.
New York City went to Chester, Pa., looking for a win against Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers Philadelphia. They're heading back on I-95, tail tucked firmly between their legs, with only five days to figure things out.
The game began slowly, with both teams feeling each other out. There were some chances early on, with the Union having the better looks at goal. As it turned out, they were the first to cash in, as Zach Pfeffer scored to give the Union a 1-0 lead on a finely worked team goal.
New York City nearly responded immediately, as David Villa got on the end of a long, searching pass, which he seemed to save from going out. The ball landed at Adam Nemec's feet, and he seemed to score, ending his long club drought. The word "seemed" is working hard there, because as it turns out, the ball did go out.
No goal. That's how we went to half-time.
New York City made one change at the half: Khiry Shelton on for Sebastian Velasquez. In six games, Shelton's often been the kickstarter for New York City's offense. This was no different; in the 55th minute, it paid off, as David Villa scored to end the team's 241-minute scoreless drought.
New York City played much better in the second half, and as the game wore on, it looked as though they would take advantage of Philadelphia's late-game weaknesses. It was the Union, though, who were celebrating in stoppage time. The rock-steady Josh Saunders made a hash of a Philadelphia cross, the ball fell to Vincent Nogueira, and he took advantage, poking the ball home to give the Union the win.
New York City's played six games now. In those six games, a definite pattern's been established: slow starts in the first half of games, followed by dominant second halves. The Blues enjoy plenty of possession, but struggle to turn that possession into goals.
The result was that, going into this afternoon's game against the Philadelphia Union, New York City had just one victory -- against New England, in their inaugural home game -- with two draws and a loss.
Philadelphia -- languishing in the bottom of the Eastern Conference, winless, with just three goals scored all season -- seemed likely candidates for New York City's second victory. Not only that, but in five of their last nine games, the Union had given up a goal in the 75th minute or later.
In other words, the Union were the perfect opponents for a team that thrives on second-half adjustments. Like New York City FC.
Instead, it was the Union, not New York City, celebrating in the 92nd minute, after midfielder Vincent Nogueira feasted on a rare Josh Saunders error and scored a gimme goal. When the whistle sounded, it was New York City fans bemoaning missed opportunities and ruing the fact that New York City had dominated the second half, but had nothing to show for it.
Here's the thing: the game is ninety minutes long. Not 45. 90. We can talk about how NYC "deserved" at least a point, if not three, based on the second half, but that's not how the game is played. Based on the whole game, New York City deserved, at best, a point. Philadelphia came out to play. Given an actual decent goalkeeper in John McCarthy, the Union took care of business at home. They took advantage of the chances they were given.
New York City's slow starts, though, are merely a symptom of a greater issue. Let's look at the starting lineup for today's game:
This lineup is the baseline lineup for New York City. Let's look at the midfield, in particular. Mehdi Ballouchy gave way to Sebastian Velasquez after the team's first game, but aside from that, the midfield's been the same throughout.
It's not working out.
Leading up to the season, I wrote over and over again that New York City's roster wasn't suited to how Jason Kreis likes to set his teams up -- in a diamond, whether you call it a diamond 4-4-2, a 4-3-1-2, or a 4-1-2-1-2. He simply doesn't have the pieces to make it work.
He's got a plethora of attacking midfielders: Velasquez, McNamara, Calle, even Diskerud. He's got a left midfielder and a right midfielder: Grabavoy and Pablo Alvarez. He's got a box-to-box midfielder: Andrew Jacobson. He's got a couple of potential holding midfielders: Kwadwo Poku and Matthew Dunn.
But none of those guys are Kyle Beckerman or Javier Morales, who were Kreis' midfield rocks at Salt Lake. Could Poku be that guy? Sure, but he's still raw, and his last appearance wasn't exactly impressive.
Time and again, New York City enjoy much better possession than their opponents, but fail to score. We saw it again today; at one point, the Blues had 63% possession, with one shot on goal. One shot!
That tells you that the midfield setup isn't working. It's not a question of subbing different players in, either; fans on social media were demanding that Shelton start the next game, and it's a little weird that we haven't seen much of Poku or McNamara. The problem isn't the players, though; it's the tactical setup.
It's time for Kreis to ditch the diamond, and try something else. Maybe you bring it back when Lampard shows up, but it's clearly not working now. My suggestion would be something like this:
I think this gives New York City a better positional fit. Jacobson is free to be a box-to-box midfielder here. Villa is alone up top, but he has Shelton and McNamara to assist -- and you can fit in any of Mullins, Taylor, Calle, or Velasquez in those slots. Based on results, I think you have to bench Williams for Facey, but be aware that Facey is still young and raw.
Velasquez has had multiple games to demonstrate his worth, but he's clearly hit a wall. McNamara would be a fine replacement for him. Nemec simply hasn't delivered like he has for his country; nothing wrong with that, but he's taking up a slot that could be better filled by Shelton.
We'll see if anything changes Thursday.