To watch an amazing soccer match is to watch two pairs of eleven players on the pitch share an unspoken understanding. Whether it's an idea from a routine training ground exercise or from an innovative run that is the stuff of tactical boards, it begins as a singular thought from the player on the ball who moves with conviction and with the need to change the game at his feet. When he moves, the rest of the pitch moves with him; darting runs, long crosses, feints and elasticos and nutmegs and dummies, whatever he needs to do he commits to with purpose--anything to get his team around the penalty box.
The best matches are when you can see the players all but finish each others' thoughts, threading passes as though they are extensions of each other, pinging balls in perfect triangles to out-maneuver and break down the opponent's defensive systems. This understanding grants them the ability to orchestrate smoother passing up from the back through and around midfield, the intent to provide their forwards with the best balls possible. This in turn helps generate momentum to force the players into quick-thinking scenarios, to act on instinct instead of taking one touch too many that prevents goal-scoring opportunities.
Last weekend's NYCFC game at Real Salt Lake demonstrated that there is much room for improvement with this, all of this, and perhaps a good deal more room in the roster for some depth.
Velasquez at Real Salt Lake
When looking back at the goals that NYCFC has made this season, it's important to recognize that some have come from a collective team effort at and away from Yankee Stadium. Villa's goal at Philadelphia Union in particular comes to mind, a goal which was essentially a three or four man assist spearheaded by Villa himself. This suggests that they are capable of performing at the level I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, but the frequency of which we see this is far too scarce to have any true impact, hence the notable lack of goals. On Saturday there was a perceptible disconnect between all of them, begging the seemingly unanswerable question that NYCFC fans have been asking themselves for the past month--what's happening?
I can't give a definitive solution to the problem, as anything and everything is conjecture, but there are a few elements at play that I suspect are impeding their progress. So the short answer? It's a lot of things. The long answer? Well, let's start from the back and work our way up, because the problem begins with the back line.
NYCFC has yet to find a robust defense. Calle made his debut as a left back for about two games before he went out injured and failed to make an appearance afterwards in any subsequent games. I remarked in an older post that I really liked what I saw of him then; out of anyone that has been pushed into that role, Calle excelled from both an attacking and a defensive standpoint. Since then, we've seen Brovsky jump from left back to right back to holding midfielder, interchanging with Allen, who has also seen both left back and right back positions. Williams and Facey, too, have also featured in these slots. The common theme here? There is no continuity.
If you exclude the beauty that is total football, you can assume that every team member has a position in which they are most comfortable playing. Relevant point? David Villa at the pinnacle of the formation, where he is most influential as a finishing striker. Because there has been no stability in the defensive line besides Wingert as a center back (and Saunders if we're going for semantics), it has left NYCFC feeling painfully off-kilter in the back for much of their past six or so games. This ever-shifting roster of players makes it nearly impossible for the defense of the team to grow into their duties and grow together as a cohesive unit.
Obviously, there are external factors here that make this challenging beyond selecting the same squad, including injuries, bookings, and a simple lack of options--all things that should be addressed to prevent the absence of depth from inhibiting the club's overall performance. There should soon come a time when the club starts settling on player combinations, though. Traction cannot be gained if the players don't get minutes together.
Ballouchy winding up a shot
Before I move on to the midfield, I have to mention the small matter of distribution and clearance. It is up to the defense to work in tandem with the goalkeeper, to help him clear balls from his penalty area, and to pass balls accordingly to the rest of the team. One thing I've noticed watching the past few NYCFC games now is a consistent inability to circulate the ball and maintain possession off of this distribution, often resulting in the opposing team intercepting and bouncing right back to put pressure on the defense. NYCFC needs to get a little more intelligent with this.
Intense situations sometimes warrant reactionary clearances. Defenders get into fights for the ball, win it back, and spin in a hairpin turn to simply volley the ball out of danger--it's bound to happen. But when it becomes a recurring issue of blindly booting the ball back into the feet of your opponent, something has to change. More calculated passing to mend the void between the defense and the rest of the team would help immensely, designed to benefit the midfield and forwards and not just clear the ball away. I'd like to see more in general from NYCFC's defense, honestly; a greater awareness of each other, of the intent of passing, and of the opposing team.
hope vs. belief
For Saturday night's RSL vs NYCFC broadcast, Ian Joy returned to comment alongside Joe Tolleson. It's a lovely experience listening to Joy remain unbiased and decidedly optimistic during these grim games, since us NYCFC fans don't need a condescending voice on our TVs rehashing the obvious in the "it's game over" fashion so many commentators favor these days. There was one thing that Joy said in the midst of the match that made me think, and it was that the players seem to have the hope that they can do better, but it's almost as if they don't actually believe in themselves. To some extent I think he's right, and I think that the midfield was a polarizing example of this.
The greatest disconnect between the players is happening in midfield. Every factor I've mentioned in my past game reviews is a viable culprit here: trepidation breeds hesitancy, which can cause interceptions and incomplete passes and any number of mistakes. Joy's comment about the players not possessing the belief felt obvious as we watched turnovers force NYCFC off the ball without any of the answering fire we saw in the Chicago game two weeks ago. Even after going a goal down, there was no immediate response, no buckling down to change the game and create opportunities to alter the scoreline.
To reflect on the pluses of the game, I still like Ballouchy and Shelton as wingers, but I'm more inclined to say that Shelton should be on the right and Ballouchy on the left. Ballouchy deserves praise for what he did on Saturday, too; he was always trying to drive the game forward, opening up that right wing to play wide and spread RSL out as much as he could. As has been the case, his singular efforts weren't enough to change the tide of the game, his link-ups with Facey and Jacobson not as strong as they could (and should) have been.
If there was any one player who strove to do his best on Saturday night, it was Diskerud. I haven't said much of him for the past several games, but there was definitely a higher energy in his performance that I haven't seen since the Orlando match. He fought for balls and moved as a creative 10 should to open up chances for his two forwards, yet as with Ballouchy the overall detachment of the midfield and the forwards gave the distinct impression that there were six players on the pitch all doing completely different things. There were only a handful of times that they were all of the same mindset, and even then, nothing fruitful came of their attempts on goal.
When we see cohesion, we will see changes, and with time we will see the hope turn into belief, I think. As more players are added to the roster--whether that's in the form of Pirlo, Drogba, Onyewu, or homegrown stars--and more games are played, players will come to understand each other and Kreis' tactics on a deeper level. It's a big, complicated puzzle with layers upon layers of intricate details, with each piece very, very slowly falling into place.
So yes, it has been an unbelievably rocky start and times are tough for NYCFC, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that we are, with every match, watching history be made for a New York City team establishing itself in MLS. At one point the Seattle Sounders were an expansion team, too, and several years later they are now considered to be one of the best clubs in the league!
It's just another one of the incredible things about being a soccer fan; it's inevitable that your club has its highs and lows (and lowest of lows), but from experience I can say (and probably most of you as well) that it is one of the most intensely rewarding feelings when your club achieves an extraordinary win. With how crazy Yankee Stadium gets going during our current matches, can you imagine what it's going to be like when NYCFC finds its form? Stay positive, everyone, because there are some amazing things ahead!
This entry is from my personal blog "An NYCFC State of Mind", a site that is dedicated to releasing weekly game reviews that strives to go beyond simple analyses of NYCFC's matches. For comprehensive reviews for the rest of NYCFC's games, visit An NYCFC State of Mind. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.