New York City shouldn't sign Andrea Pirlo. There, I said it.
Signing the Italian star is a mistake. It's the kind of thing you do if you approach roster building like you were playing manager mode in EA Sports FIFA. It presumes that building a good team — let alone a great one — is merely a question of assembling the best 11 individual players, or at least as many of them as your budget allows. It's completely ignorant of how you build a team in this league.
If you look at the historically successful teams in MLS, they have a few things in common. Among them is an insistence on building piece by piece, rather than splashing out on overpriced stars as a shortcut to success, let alone greatness. There's a reason for that. The league's famously restrictive and byzantine roster construction mechanisms make it hellishly difficult to simply spend your way to titles.
So there's that. But wait, there's more.
Let's say New York City splashed out on Pirlo. So, now, New York City's three Designated Players are David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo. What does a potential starting eleven look like for New York City? For purposes of comparison, here's how Juventus have set up:
Like Jason Kreis at RSL and NYC, Massimo Allegri's used a 4-4-2 diamond with Juventus. While there's a fair amount of motion in the midfield, it invariably features Pirlo as a deep-lying playmaker, with Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal shielding Pirlo and Marchisio up top. I use the word "shielding" very consciously here, because that's precisely what Pogba and Vidal do.
The thing about Pirlo that's gets forgotten here is that he's a very athletically limited player. He has no speed, lacks stamina, isn't particularly physical, can't really tackle, and is mediocre at best when it comes to playing defense. This isn't a function of age, either. Pirlo occupies the position that he does because he's always lacked those qualities. It so happens that his gifts are so otherworldly that they largely outweigh those weaknesses.
Pirlo's career has enjoyed a renaissance — remember, AC Milan let him go because they thought he was spent — because Juventus have literally built the team around him. Pogba and Vidal are two of the best — if not the best — box-to-box midfielders in the world. They provide Juventus with the speed, physicality, and stamina that Pirlo lacks. They also provide defensive cover for the team, and thanks to their offensive gifts, they help keep opposing teams honest.
Concentrate on Pirlo, and you run the risk of being roasted by either Pogba, Vidal, or both. It doesn't matter if Pirlo can't defend, because Pogba and Vidal can shield Juventus' back line. The two of them also serve as outlets for Pirlo should an opponent pressure him. In short: thanks to Pogba and Vidal, not to mention the rest of Juventus' lineup, all of Pirlo's weaknesses are neutralized; all of his gifts — his extraordinary vision, his passing range, his astonishing distribution skills — are magnified.
New York City — for a variety of reasons — can't give Pirlo the same kind of cover. Let's start out with how that lineup might look with all three DPs playing:
At just about every position, with the sole exception of perhaps attacking midfielder, New York City's lineup pales with Juventus'. Which is to be expected, obviously. The problem, though, is most apparent in midfield. At first glance, you think, Damn, a spine of Pirlo - Lampard - Villa? That's not a problem! That's the greatest spine in MLS history!
It is. Until you realize that it's also a spine that's not just dependent on Pirlo doing all the magnificent things he does, it's also dependent on him doing all the things that he's historically been bad at. Defending. Tackling. Shielding the back line. I haven't even gotten to his stamina — or lack thereof — or his physicality — or lack thereof, or his immobility. Those three things, incidentally, are things that pervasive in Major League Soccer. It is a fast, physical league that spans an entire continent.
You can argue that they are overvalued — and I'm inclined to agree — but they exist. Any one building an MLS roster has to take them into consideration. You can't just sign a player who doesn't lack those elements and hope for the best. Hope is not a plan. If you want to build a consistently winning team, and not be dependent on the fickleness of luck for your success, then having a plan is mandatory. That's the difference between, say, the New York Red Bulls and the LA Galaxy.
But, you ask, why do you expect Pirlo to have to do the things he's bad at doing? Why wouldn't New York City cover for him the way Juventus does?
Because neither Ned Grabavoy nor Mix Diskerud are able to cover for him the way Pogba and Vidal cover for him.
Grabavoy's best attribute is his workrate; until his recent injury, he played every minute of New York City's season. His defensive chops aren't particularly great, and he's similarly mediocre on offense. As he's gotten older, his mobility and most importantly, his speed, have decreased. He's got plenty of stamina, but defenders can get by him fairly easily. He certainly wouldn't be able to shield Pirlo if called to do so.
Diskerud, meanwhile, has had a fairly undistinguished start to his MLS career. After starting strong in his first two games, Diskerud essentially disappeared as a contributing player. His play declined so badly that Kreis ended up calling him out by name, after last month's rivalry game against the Red Bulls. More to the point: that decline in his abilities coincided with a period in which he was deployed at the base of the midfield, and tasked with providing defensive cover and serving as an offensive outlet. Too many times, Diskerud simply looked lost out there; trying to do too many things, and consequently, doing none of them.
Guess what he'd have to do in this situation? Exactly: provide defensive cover, and serve as an offensive outlet. Why would we expect things to be any different? Pirlo's fantastic, but he can't turn Grabavoy and Diskerud into facsimiles of Pogba and Vidal. They are who they are; why force them to be something they are not? Why not just maximize their strengths?
Signing Pirlo doesn't do that; it does the opposite.
So: those are two reasons why New York City shouldn't sign Pirlo. There's a third; it fits in with the others. It doesn't get discussed, but it should, and it matters more than you think.
We know that Villa's contract expires after 2016. We know that Lampard's does as well. And every discussion of a potential Pirlo deal has it expiring next year as well. This makes a certain amount of sense; at 35, Villa would be the youngest of that trio. Lampard would be 38, Pirlo 37. We've already seen Villa miss a significant amount of time to injury; one can see the potential for that increasing as he ages. Lampard and Pirlo have been adamantine, but even Lampard fell prey to injury this past season.
So their contracts expire next year, you're saying. So what?
The so what is that you're essentially hitting the reset button on building the team after two years, and starting all over again. Come 2017, New York City could potentially have three brand new DPs, and be in the same spot they are right now. As I mentioned at the beginning: this is not how you build a winner in MLS.
Maybe it's not as bad as all that, though. Who's to say what could happen between now and then? I mean — sure? Maybe Diskerud becomes one of those three DPs. Maybe Kwadwo Poku and Khiry Shelton blossom into excellent MLS players, maybe even DP-quality players. Lots of things could happen. But that's a lot of maybes, too. Diskerud hasn't played anywhere near DP quality right now, for one. Shelton and Poku are still incredibly raw players; nothing against them, but there's a vast gulf between where they are now and where you'd expect an excellent MLS player to be.
But that's not a wager I'd take.
I love Pirlo. He's one of the greatest midfielders of all time. But the questions that he answers as a player aren't questions that New York City needs answers to. Signing him would be a mistake, and further proof that New York City's front office values star quality and the short-term jolt of a star signing rather than the thankless slog of building a consistent winner.