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"A Bundle of Contradictions": What's Going Wrong, What's Going Right

The past week has seen NYCFC's first consecutive wins and a loss in the first East River Derby (#LIRRderby), and nothing in this world makes any sense. As Dreiser puts it, any attempt at exact characterization is futile among such a "bundle of contradictions." But across the two matches, a clear shape is beginning to emerge for the team: what went right against Montreal and went wrong against the Cosmos tells us everything we need to know about where we are and where we're going.

The most futile thing in this world is any attempt, perhaps, at exact definition of character. All individuals are a bundle of contradictions---none more so than the most capable.

—Theodore Dreiser, The Financier

Try to hold these two things in your mind at once: 3-1 at home against Montreal; giving up a 2-0 lead against the New York Cosmos. Cognitive dissonance ahoy.

It is, yes, the mark of a "bundle of contradictions," and it makes putting a firm finger down on where we are seem well out of reach, as impossible in the tiny universe of a football pitch as in the much larger one of a human psyche. But these contradictions, frustrating as they may be, are far from damning. As it is for the most capable of people in Dreiser's view, so it may be with the most capable teams: wholly baffling, causing a sense of futility to the would-be commentator that's hard to shake, but only as a function of how much is going on underneath.

But characterization in Dreiser's novels is nowhere near as mysterious as he makes it out here. The truly "capable" in his universe may tend to be inscrutable to other characters, but for himself he reserves an omniscient knowledge: his vision of the human is ultimately calculable and calculating, discernable in its nature and motivations, even discernablebecause of the very contradictions he claims obscure true knowledge. Likewise for NYCFC, there's a lot to be taken from the nature of their contradictions, a lot to be made of where we succeeded against Montreal and, correspondingly, where we failed against the Cosmos.

To start with the sour note, I'll begin with the New York Cosmos (AKA the New York κόσμος, if you like, or to translate, the New York Literally Everythings; well played to them Wednesday night, but I still think the name's a bit ambitious). Most of the 120 minutes was a morass of incoherent passages, giveaways, frantic play distinctly from the back foot. That disarray was punctured by moments of unlikely individual brilliance and underscored by flashes of stunning individual failure. The brilliance came mostly from Kwadwo Poku, our resident übermensch, who superceded the boundaries of what seems humanly possible time and again, giving us two goals entirely unprepared for by the run of play. The failures, on the other hand, were many, but two stand out: Mehdi Ballouchy's decision (and I mean decision) to take the low-percentage shot himself instead of making the almost certain layoff to Mullins, and Pablo Alvarez's much more forgivable strike off the post in the extra time penalty that should have given us the win. It was a match in which nothing was quite predictable, like some twilight zone or witching hour, or the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was batshit, full of sound and fury, and in the end things went the way they usually go for us.

None of which quite jives with the cloud we rode in on. I assume the NYCFC supporters moonwalked all the way to Hofstra unless they simply floated, because the confidence abounded throughout the NYCFC family after the team first broke the winless streak and second proved emphatically that doing so was not a fluke. And yet despite cashing in on the broken curse, it might be said by the cynics that on Wednesday we were back to the old nervous ways. Certainly, the frantic play of the first fifteen minutes resembled nothing so much as the worst of the winless streak, like the first game against Chicago, for example, in which we effectively defeated ourselves. The sinking feeling of seeing that happening again was staved off, however briefly, by a sense that we were now past that, that things of that nature didn't happen anymore. But it wasn't to be.

The reasons it went south have a clear (inverse) relationship to the reasons Montreal went so well. In Montreal we benefited from consistency, fielding a somewhat predictable starting XI based on what happened at Philly and setting up in the 4-4-2 diamond that's been serving very well. The lineup in Long Island was bizarre, largely due to the necessity of the older players not ruining themselves on the turf, and the formation was skewed as a result. In Montreal, when our two-nil lead was compromised, we responded with offense, with Poku giving us back the cushion and sealing the match. Against the κόσμος, we tried to sit on our lead and got punished. Attempting to do so was the only choice, though, because of the inexplicable substitutions, which deprived us of offense and reduced our defense to a shambles in the same stroke. The subs against Montreal, by contrast, were as inspired as these ones were disastrous. The only thing consistent across the two games was Poku's performance; the death stroke was losing him to be replaced by Grabavoy, condemning us to frustration in extra time and the ultimately fruitless round of penalties. In a word, everything that went right in Montreal was systematically removed from the #LIRRderby, which as a result when very wrong indeed.

In this view, then, the character of this team is nowhere near as inscrutable as it might at first have seemed, just like Dreiser's claims of unknowability give way to a pretty clear set of motivations and desires. The inscrutable is actually just overdetermined, the product of too many factors to be boiled down into a clean account but still fundamentally a summation of causes. What I take as a positive from all this is precisely that a sense of order is beginning to emerge, even when it's only visible in its violation. Whereas a few matches ago, any starting XI seemed as good as any other, it's starting to become clear what needs to happen an what needs not to in selection, which is the A team and which the B. It's becoming clear who can be counted on in a pinch, who can make something out of nothing, and which partnerships are essential to the functioning of the team.

In other words, the team is able to be characterized. An "exact definition" may still be "futile," but coherence begins to emerge out of the chaos—which coincidentally is kind of like Pythagoras's definition of κόσμος, if not the New York Cosmos. Let's do what we can to take the order and rationality we associate with Pythagoras from this match, then, and get the hell out of Long Island.

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Every week, Ninety-Plus of Blue discusses one NYCFC match by way of one literary quotation. The goal each time is the same: to say something true about both and, hopefully, to understand both better as a result. In tracing NYCFC from its first kickoff, this blog is developing an (admittedly bizarre) hybrid genre that combines literary analysis with sports writing. Put another way, it's what happens when aesthetics meets aesthetic football.