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Dirty Dozen: What the stats say about NYCFC through twelve games

We scoured the databanks of WhoScored and to help us tell the story of New York's newest team through its first dozen matches. Spoiler alert: it's a comedy of errors. So, what can be done?

A struggling team has to pick itself up out of the dirt.
A struggling team has to pick itself up out of the dirt.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Shakespeare wasn't talking about soccer analytics when he wrote Act I, Scene 1 of The Comedy of Errors, but I couldn't help but think of the dodgy arc of Jason Kreis's squad (and the damning match data underlying it) when an old acting buddy and I came upon this:

And for the sake of them thou sorrowest for,

Do me the favour to dilate at full

What hath befall'n of them and thee til now.

Pretty apropos. We may as well crunch some numbers and "dilate."

Our revels are long-ended, as the first and only MLS win for New York's newest team came all the way back on March 15th. (And that win came against a New England outfit that played without slick Number 10 Lee Nguyen and rampaging dragoon Jermaine Jones.)

We can slice it all up any way we like, but the numbers -- unlike Sepp Blatter -- never lie. Let's roll through some eye-popping statistics to better illustrate the box-to-box comedy of errors that is New York City FC, with an eye toward what the front office and technical staff can do to raise their game and give the fans something to revel over once again.

To begin:

  • New York City ranks 2nd in MLS in possession (53.7%), but spends an average of 39.8 minutes per game behind on the scoreboard. No other team plays from behind for more than an average of 29 minutes per game.

On the flip-side, only Portland has spent fewer minutes per game playing with the lead. Further:

  • At 0.25, the Bronx Blues rank dead-last in MLS in lead-taking goals per game (that is, goals that break a tie). They are undefeated when scoring first (1W-2D-0L), but are one of only two teams to have held the lead at halftime just once in 2015.

New York City doesn't just have trouble jumping out ahead-- they've surrendered eight goals in the first thirty minutes of games. Nobody else has more than six.

It's unavoidable: spraying short, unambitious passes all over the place (looking at you, Mix) and taking a ton of touches without creating attacking chances (looking at you, Shelton and Velasquez) inevitably results in empty possession and few goals.

PROGNOSIS: No team coached by Jason Kreis is going to be mired in empty possession forever, especially if that team is backed by such formidable trans-national resources. The question turns, then, to when this group will get it together and develop the kind of ingenuity that sires goals.

There are two ways that could happen this year: (1) New York City must overcome the injury bug, the effect of which is magnified for any expansion team, and (2) improve its field vision and spacing, especially in buildup play. Spacing is exactly what it sounds like -- open acreage through which playmakers and finishers can run, stretching opposing defenses into mistakes in isolation -- and vision from the back is what creates exactly that.

Unfortunately, for every brilliant flash of economy from David Villa and miraculous service into the box from the R.J. Allens of the world, there have been dozens of setups in the attacking third that fizzled into nothing thanks to poor crossing, sub-par communication, and a general lack of ideas.

(Hudson River Blue can offer ideas, but all of them are Tommy McNamara. #FreeTheMullet!)

The addition of a defensive midfielder with the vision to complement the all-around playmaking savvy of Frank Lampard will go a long way to free up the kind of space that New York City's opponents have exploited to create chances of their own. Whether it's on the counter-attack against a high defensive line (as with the home loss to Seattle) or through stretching the field sideline-to-sideline (as with the Red Bulls, Portland, and others), we've seen firsthand how these dynamics can operate to devastating effect.

But its hard to imagine them working in NYCFC's favor without the right personnel to spring them into action. With Andrew Jacobson in deep midfield and a combination of Ned Grabavoy (not a winger), Pablo Alvarez (past his prime), Mehdi Ballouchy (Mehdi Ballouchy), and a developing rookie manning the wide positions, those opportunities will remain evasive.

Speaking of width:

  • New York City ranks dead-last in MLS in crosses leading to shots on goal ("key crosses").

Without the ability to feign even the slightest threat from the wing, NYC's opponents have only had to worry about taking away the top of the eighteen-yard box. Against any strong center back tandem (Besler and Opara at Sporting Kansas City, Scott and Evans at Seattle, etc.), that doesn't afford many options.

PROGNOSIS: In matters of width, the famously narrow field at Yankee Stadium is a wild card, but New York City has been unable to figure a way to take advantage. In fact, they've been victimized-- Sporting KC snatched all three points in the Bronx on a single set piece goal. Off a throw-in.

Where's New York City's L.T.I.G. (long throw-in guy)?

Understanding that such a skill isn't all that common -- Matt Beslers don't grow on trees, as far as I know -- Yankee Stadium is NYCFC's home ground. The visitors shouldn't be the ones exploiting its dimensions.

I hope Jason Kreis & Co. have an HBO subscription, because on this subject, they ought to take Tyrion Lannister's advice:

"Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you."

Lil' Tyrion probably never played soccer on a field that was only seventy yards wide (or, if you ask Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes, sixty-eight), but the advice remains as sturdy as a Clegane.

But enough about Yankee Stadium:

  • NYCFC ranks an acceptable 11th out of 20 in MLS in shots on-target per game (4.2), but sits dead-last in that metric away from home (2.3). Fittingly, they are one of six teams in the league without an away win.

You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs -- this has been proven scientifically -- but New York City has found it especially hard to get cracking outside the Bronx.

PROGNOSIS: Two options here: either never lose a game at home and pray to the soccer gods on the away dates, or figure a way to have a home playing surface that both looks and feels more like the rest of Major League Soccer.

From where I sit, the Yankee Stadium pitch is so small and so desperately cobbled together -- nay, Frankestein'd -- with a combination of outfield grass, infield grass, and temporary sod that it makes getting into a coherent rhythm unnecessarily difficult over the course of a campaign. Sub-letter status in one's own building is a rough position for any team.

For an expansion club thrown together from scratch, these issues further narrow a margin for error that was strikingly slender to begin with.

*          *          *

On Saturday night, a Houston Dynamo squad comes to the Five Boroughs with problems of their own: they sit eighth in the Western Conference, and, like New York City, have surrendered sixteen goals on the year.

As we saw in the thrilling 2-2 draw against Chicago two weeks ago in the Bronx, fortunes can turn at any time. It's hard to argue with the numbers, but if we can learn anything from ol' Mr. Shakespeare, it's that praying for a little magic isn't always a losing proposition.

So, will Saturday turn out to be an Elizabethan tragedy, or a Summer Night's Dream?

Thanks to the crew at SoccerSTATS and WhoScored for crunching the numbers for us. Do you have a super-sweet stat up your sleeve that you'd like to share? Leave a comment or blow us up on Twitter @hudsonriverblue.