The last time NYCFC found itself in the position of coming off a win was about three months ago after the home opener, in a match against Sporting Kansas City that would mark the beginning of a turbulent period for the club. Naivety shaped my expectations then, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that the commanding performance from that first home game buoyed my hopes for the team's future. When the string of draws and losses started coming in I struggled to remain optimistic, recalling a comment that one of my friends made to me at the start of the season - "They are an expansion team. You have to remember that, because it will be a tough season for them no matter who is on the roster." So, exercising patience as best I could, I like so many NYCFC fans dug in and waited for the storm to pass.
Something felt different going into last night's game, however. The win from the Philadelphia game cleared a hurdle that NYCFC had been contending with for a few matches now--the matter of tightening up midfield. Armed with that knowledge, NYCFC was able to go into the subsequent match fully aware of what they needed to do to replicate that same synergy and achieve the same results. Discipline would dictate the outcome of the game and Kreis knew it.
At the end of the night the club came away not only with three points, but three points earned by playing one of the best comprehensive performances of the season thus far. It was a style that I think everyone has been craving since the team was announced: strategic attacking soccer executed by every single player that stepped onto the pitch. It was also arguably the culmination of all of the lessons learned from their losses in the past. Most importantly, though, it showcased NYCFC's potential to finally unlock the immense talent on their squad.
What has been fascinating over the course of this season so far is how NYCFC has worked toward building its identity, its style. What's even more fascinating is that it is nearly impossible to qualify style based off of country alone as you might see, for instance, with English football, which is very physical, very active, sometimes with the direct long ball tactic. Or conversely with Spanish football, which favors the tiki-taka method of short, quick passing. With MLS being relatively young and acting as a proverbial melting pot for players of different backgrounds, each team seems to possess a uniquely diverse range of strategies. Specifically with NYCFC, we're seeing an evolution of gameplay through possession-based soccer.
I made note of the possession-based approach sometime back in April, so now is the perfect time to draw comparisons. Back then NYCFC was content to sit on the ball, maintaining anywhere from 50-60% of possession for most matches as it routed the ball through its ranks with no real inspiration. Their play became predictable, which invited team after team to simply press a high line and close down anyone who had or could get the ball. This in turn threw NYCFC off-balance and forced turnovers, which led to breakaways and goal concessions.
What makes the world of a difference now is what the team is doing with this possession. The 4-4-2 diamond, in my opinion, has been the biggest asset to this team since its introduction a few games ago. By its very nature it has created triangles within midfield to open up passing options, filling voids to seize opportunities if the opposing team loses the ball in that integral space on the pitch. This allows NYCFC to control the pace of the game, yes, but last night in particular showed the intelligent decision-making that went into this strategy. All three goals were a product of the right choice being made at the absolute crucial moment, when the playmaker on the ball saw his options and knew what he needed to do to convert the chance into a result.
Every goal was 100% a team effort, but the Poku assist on Diskerud's goal was the standout for me. I absolutely love the fact that Poku is a power substitute; any time he has been subbed into a match he impacts it immediately, his inherent strength a force to be reckoned with, especially when he comes up against tired legs of a defensive line. He saw a slow pass between Montreal and took advantage of it, muscling the ball off of Lefevre to regain possession right outside the box. Both Villa and Grabavoy were there, but by that point there were too many bodies for a clean shot from the left hand side. Despite Villa yelling for it, Poku noted Diskerud's run off the right and pushed the perfect pass right into Mix's line of fire. The play was too fast for the Impact defenders to readjust; Mix balanced it for a cracking right-footed shot and buried it in the corner of the net. Brilliant, brilliant goal.
working as a unit
With positive possession came the the team-wide understanding and awareness that validated this tactic for NYCFC. Where before we saw eleven different players doing eleven different things on the pitch, last night we saw eleven players working together toward the same purpose. Kreis gave an interesting post-match interview where he remarked that he thought the players seemed freer, and I could not agree more; Villa's goal unlocked a burden of expectation I think they all felt. Afterwards, it seemed to give them the morale boost to finally just play. The broken, uninspired mood was gone, replaced with a new kind of confidence that saw NYCFC win a match with flair and poise.
As I mentioned earlier, each goal ranged from a two- to four-person effort, worked through calm and collected build-up. There were far fewer miscues because NYCFC was both patient and innovative, working these factors simultaneously to create a series of perfect opportunities. Those elements combined saw the team not only take control of the game before the opposition did, but drive them one step further to maintain the lead and consistency of rhythm even through the rotation of substitutes. The sudden explosion into form carried them through the remainder of the game, and though they did concede a goal late off a corner, NYCFC refused to let Montreal Impact push them onto the back foot.
Unsurprisingly Villa flourished under the fast-paced tempo. With a solid midfield supporting him he was able to soar, his world-class edge seeing him with several run-ins that could have put NYCFC up another two or three goals. He moved the game forward with determination and without having three defenders on him at all times, something I'd definitely like to see happen more in the future. As Kreis said yesterday, his players seemed freer during the Montreal match, and Villa was no exception to this observation.
Now that we have a formation and a system that seems to work for the players at hand, the real progress can begin as we look forward. It goes without saying, but this (or higher!) is the level at which we need to see the team play all of their games. The true capability of the players had a chance to really shine during this game, most notably in Diskerud and Poku, and we can only hope that it is a sign of fantastic things to come for all of them. It was a resounding victory that was fully deserved and undoubtedly the most entertaining match I've seen this season. Keep it up, boys in blue--you made me truly proud to be an NYCFC supporter this weekend!
This entry is from my personal blog "An NYCFC State of Mind", a site that analyzes matches and explores tactics and formations. 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.