When I ran into David Villa for the first time, I played it so cool that El Guaje had to put on a jacket.
I didn't even get star-struck when eventual baseball Hall of Famer Frank Thomas signed a ball for my seven-year-old self, his six-and-a-half feet of prodigious bulk casting a superheroesque shadow over me that, despite being a shadow, likely weighed more than I did.
But when I saw the preeminent soccer wizard from ESPN Stats & Info in the Yankee Stadium press box for the March 28th NYC-Sporting Kansas City match, I went quite nearly to pieces:
That's Paul Carr.
Is my hair OK?
Quick, practice not stammering.
Man, I think at least one hair is out of place.
Am I interesting?
SHIT, WHY CAN'T I JUST BE BALD LIKE GRANT WAHL?!?
Fortunately, I was able to compose myself long enough to fall face-first into an interview with this affable stat jockey, who remains a favorite guest of the Men in Blazers despite the duo's departure from ESPN in August.
Here's our chat from a week ago, edited only for length:
Hudson River Blue: What was your level of engagement with New York City FC before the last match against Sporting Kansas City?
Paul Carr: In the same vein as an "above-average MLS fan." We had their opener [against Orlando City] on ESPN, so I watched that game and did some prep for that game. Other than that? Following the travails of getting the team in place, the stadium, Lampard, Villa, all of that stuff. I've been interested in seeing how the team develops.
HRB: In light of that first game against Orlando City, what did you make of New York City's performance in the Sporting KC game?
PC: Some of the same problems were definitely present. NYCFC had a ton of possession, they just weren't able to do a lot with it.
HRB: That's right. Even without David Villa, New York City held 62% of the possession.
PC: There was some of that in the opening game as well, but I think that Orlando game was a little more open, because Orlando, as a new team, were not quite as cohesive.
Against Kansas City, NYCFC really ran into trouble in the final third of the field, especially in the middle. That's just what Sporting KC does: they don't let you get through that way. They feel really good about their center-backs, Besler and Opara. They push you out wide.
New York City really struggled to make that last push. They couldn't do anything around the top of the [eighteen-yard] box. I don't know if you can put that on [David Villa's absence]. It comes down to the growth and development of players.
HRB: What did you see from Benny Felihaber in Kansas City's midfield? He was an enforcer out there.
PC: He was really good! It's possible that he's still underrated in MLS. I almost expected him to get a national team call-up.
He can do almost anything-- he can play that "Number 6"-type role [in the defensive midfield], but he's at his best when he can get forward and create space for a pass. He's got that little extra bit of class that you don't see out of a lot of midfielders, but he's also got the "bite." He'll take you out of the game.
HRB: New York City doesn't have that proper "Number 6" at the base of their midfield diamond. They've shoehorned Andrew Jacobson in there – and he's got "bite" as well – but he's more of a box-to-box type than that a holding man.
PC: I don't know if [Jacobson] has been asked to do too much or if he's just trying to do too much, but if they could get a [Number 6] back there, especially in that type of formation, it would really help.
I'll be interested to see where Frank Lampard plugs in. Traditionally, Lampard was also a box-to-box guy, but he's older now. He's got some physicality, but he's got the creativity for that playmaker role as well.
HRB: Much has been made of the dimensions of the pitch at Yankee Stadium. The club claims the field is 110 yards by 70 yards, which is as small as FIFA regulations will allow. Did it look narrow to you?
PC: It definitely looks narrow. I know they officially say it's 70 yards wide, but I've heard people who have been on the field say that it "walks" a little bit shorter than that. It makes throw-ins into the box easier.
HRB: That's been a key dimension of Matt Besler's game for a while now.
PC: He said after the game that they would try and throw "line drives," and that's exactly what Sporting KC scored on.
When you watch KC most of the time, its a little harder to do those line drives, whether it's a corner or a throw-in, but those are the hardest to deal with. You've got less time to react.
Not a lot of teams have a Matt Besler, but if they're smart, NYCFC has got to take advantage of that and find someone who can use the throw-in as a weapon. Especially late in a game, you've got to be able to get the ball into the box.
HRB: Were you surprised that New York City weren't trying long throws into the box themselves, given that this is their field?
PC: I was surprised. It's your field, it's your set-up. You're playing half your games here.
HRB: I imagine that's something Jason Kreis has them working on. They can either own it themselves, or be victimized by it.
PC: If nothing else, you've just got to defend well. Opara got free on that throw-in. You've got to be solid back there.
HRB: The man-marking was generally good, even with Kwame Watson-Siriboe making his first start for New York City at fullback. It only takes one marking breakdown in a tight game, though.
PC: I don't think NYCFC played badly. It comes down to that last touch in the box, and clearly, that's what was lacking. They generated chances, especially in the last twenty minutes or so. Maybe they deserved a goal, but the finishing wasn't there.
HRB: In the stands, it's hard to hear singing and chanting at Yankee Stadium because of the way it's built, but there is a tremendous opportunity, given the diversity of New York, to cultivate an incredibly vibrant fan culture. What did you hear?
PC: I think the organization can get better in terms of cheers and chants, but on the whole, I thought the atmosphere was pretty good from where I was sitting. The way sound travels there is a little bit different because of the angle [of the pitch], but this is a good starting point.
I thought the atmosphere was really good. I knew it wasn't going to be the 40,000 they had at the home opener, but from the press box, the noise level and the energy were better than I expected.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Part II of our interview with Paul, in which we discuss the dilution of MLS during the recent international break, the future of league expansion, and the recent work of our favorite soccer economist, Dr. Stefan Szymanski.