Another game, another late stunner. More of the same for New York City FC, right?
To be fair: until the closing act, this one really looked like it was going to be different, and not just because manager Jason Kreis was absent with an illness.
A new formation. A rotated squad. A redoubled desire to push forward and look alive in the first half. It all promised an eternal-springing-of-hopes.
The final score, disappointingly, was anything but fresh: 1-1, and a solitary point in the league standings.
Here's how NYC lined up to start the game:
SUBS: Villa >> Poku (Half), Hernandez >> Watson-Siriboe (Half), Calle >> Brovsky (78')
Unmistakably, this was an attacking lineup. It was the first-ever professional start for diaper dandy Khiry Shelton, and our first look at Javier Calle out of the fullback position. The intent was clear: no more slow first halves, which have routinely plagued New York City both aesthetically and functionally.
Despite missing the frame on all five of their first half shots, NYC kept Philly on their heels while firmly dicating the flow of the first forty-five minutes.
With Villa and Shelton each nabbing half of the field, a palpable sense of width was apparent on the attack for the first time this season. The sideline-to-sideline commitment freed up space for Adam Nemec to hold possession, Andrew Jacobson to maraud up and down like so many headless horsemen, and Javier Calle to create dynamic overlaps on the left with winger Mehdi Ballouchy.
It was the often-maligned former Red Bull man Ballouchy that came up with the best scoring chance of the opening half.
In the 28th mintue, Nemec dumped the ball to Villa, who delivered a tasty backheel pass to Ballouchy at the edge of the eighteen-yard box. A gaping swath of the net was available -- practically begging for the ball's loving caress -- but Ballouchy's curler flew tantalizingly over the crossbar.
As the halftime whistle blew, New York City had controlled 61% of the possession, and was stretching out Philly in the final third with an impressive number of crosses: in open play, the home team produced six in the first forty-five minutes, while the Union could only manage one.
David Villa, with an eye toward Sunday's short-rest fixture against Portland, found himself on the bench to start the second half. Jason Hernandez joined him on the pine as Kwadwo Poku and Kwame Watson-Siriboe trotted on to the pitch.
For the miffed Mehdi Ballouchy -- who coulda-shoulda given New York City its first goal in the 28th minute -- no Villa was no problem.
In minute 57, Khiry Shelton shrugged off a defender and rolled forward to find the Moroccan winger in the corner of the eighteen-yard box. Then, this happened:
Oooohhhh, that left-foot special.
"I faked like I was gonna go [outside], cut in, and fortunately, connected well with my left and ended up going to the far post," the goal-scorer later recounted.
All those passes sideways and backwards and to nowhere in particular... all was forgiven! Indeed, the weeknight crowd of 20,461 was ready to flip the script and embrace the embattled Ballouchy as their new hero.
And for 85 minutes, that narrative nearly won the day.
The Union never looked comfortable or engaged in their buildup. Linking play was nonexistent between the midfield and the front line, and set piece opportunities -- on the uncommon occasion that they did materialize -- were bridges to nowhere.
When leading Philly goal-scorer Fernando Aristeguieta was subbed off in the 60th minute, the faint, sweet smell of all-three-points began to waft about in the Bronx air.
Flying entirely in the face of the run of play, however, Kwame Watson-Siriboe whiffed on a potential clearing header. Union super-sub C.J. Sapong, a former U.S. international, leaped up to poke the ball past Josh Saunders at point-blank rage. It was the 86th minute.
The Union -- who felt hard-done by two stoppage-time stunners against Sporting Kansas City at the end of March -- had managed a second late miracle of their own in less than a week. Just like last Saturday at PPL Park, it was New York City FC that had to suffer for it.
"I think the guys were all disappointed because we believed that was our victory," fullback Jeb Brovsky said after the match.
Despite the deflating nature of the result, surprise star man Ballouchy grasped a glimmer of positivity in his prognosis for the team: "[I]f we replicate that performance, I think we'll be in a great position."
This is a team that, if nothing else, proved it can produce a goal without David Villa on the field. It possesses loads of positional flexibility, as evidenced by the dynamism of Calle and Shelton. Roll that in with the vastly-improved energy and intent on display and the first half, and New York City's situation feels far from dire.
This team won't have much time to gather itself and get back to the grind, however: Portland comes to town on Sunday, capping off a run of three games in eight days for the Bronx Blues.
No pressure or anything, but Orlando City beat the Timbers 2-0 last weekend in Portland.
Again, no pressure.