We've been covering some of the Andrea Pirlo rumours over the past few weeks as they bubbled up. This weekend, however, they took on a whole new level of seriousness. Let's recap quickly:
- First, Pirlo was photographed shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch on Friday afternoon.
- Then on Saturday, he caught a Yankees game with CFG supreme honcho Ferran Soriano.
- Additionally, the Sporting News claimed that Pirlo would be revealed as New York City's third designated player on Friday.
Pirlo's appearance at Yankee Stadium launched the rumour engines into overdrive. Everyone from the Daily Mail and ESPN to Goal and NBC Soccer rushed to report on his impending arrival in the Big Apple; none of these reports confirmed anything beyond what we already knew. Meanwhile, both Italy's Gazetta Dello Sport and La Stampa report that Pirlo's going to stay with Juventus until January of 2016.
Finally, Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News is reporting that Pirlo will play for New York City this season.
What are we to make of this?
At this point, if Andrea Pirlo doesn't sign for New York City, that'll be a bigger shock than if he does. All the circumstantial signs are there pointing to him being a Gotham player. If he does sign, I'd expect him to play this season. There's really no point in signing him, then waiting till January of next year for his time with New York City to begin.
Claudio Reyna's been adamant that the team will sign three designated players, and Pirlo would certainly fit that bill. Moreover, from a marketing standpoint, if nothing else, New York City would have three of the biggest stars in MLS in one roster — Lampard, Villa, and Pirlo.
What does this mean for the team?
That's a far more interesting question. I'm on record saying that signing Pirlo would be a mistake for New York City, for a variety of reasons. At one point, Frank Lampard was expected to be the face of the franchise. That is, until his signing was screwed up to a fare-thee-well in a farrago of lies and obfuscation. Even though Lampard's set to begin playing for New York City shortly after the summer transfer window opens on July 8, there's been no fanfare around his impending arrival.
All the focus has been on David Villa as New York City's signature player. Maybe that changes, but I doubt it. Given the amount of attention Pirlo's gotten so far, I expect him to join Villa as the focus of attention, then Lampard. In the end, though, that's just marketing.
What's interesting is how New York City sets up once Lampard and Pirlo join the team. Let's get something out of the way: these players are there to play, not sit on the bench. The only way Lampard and Pirlo don't play is if they're injured, or they choose not to play on turf. Otherwise, they're in the starting eleven.
The general response by people who disagree with my take on Pirlo is that he's a great player who led Juventus to the Champions' League final. Let's be brutally frank:
- Yes, he's a great player. So what? Soccer is a team sport. You can be an individually legendary player and still be unable to win trophies. For all of Pirlo's greatness, Juventus still lost to Barcelona 3-1. The previous season, they failed to make it out of the group stage. The season before that, they got waxed in the quarterfinals. None of that — none of that — takes away from Pirlo's greatness as a player. It simply means that signing Pirlo doesn't mean New York City are now MLS Cup favorites. Far from it.
- Pirlo's greatness as a player also doesn't erase his very real weaknesses as a player. To recap: 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.
We don't talk about that — and most folks don't bring that up — because it's not readily apparent. It's not obvious because virtually every team featuring Pirlo is built around him, to a degree far greater than usual. Players on Pirlo's teams, particularly in the midfield, are there to cover for his weaknesses. That's what Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal did for him at Juventus, for instance.
In other words: Pirlo doesn't adapt to the team. The team adapts to Pirlo.
Yes, I know there's going to be all kinds of statements whenever he's announced saying otherwise. I'm sure that Pirlo will strike a lot of humble notes, and mean them. They don't matter. They're just words. For better or worse, this is going to be Andrea Pirlo's team, not Frank Lampard's or David Villa's. It has to be, in order to set Pirlo up for success. Anything else, and you're basically wasting millions of dollars and a designated player spot.
Balancing this lineup is going to be one hell of a challenge for Jason Kreis. He's going to need to keep three heavyweight stars happy, and if it doesn't work out, he's going to be out the door with a quickness. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes.
What does the starting lineup look like with Pirlo, Lampard, and Villa in it?
This is the other challenge facing Kreis. How does he set up the team to succeed with this particular combination of designated players? Historically, Villa works best in a two striker system. We know about Pirlo's weaknesses, and what we need to do to account for them. Kreis doesn't have Pogba and Vidal, and it's going to show, but there's nothing he can do about the roster now.
There's some rumors that the roster's going to be overhauled, with six to ten players coming in, but I have a very hard time seeing that happen. New York City is halfway through the season. If you're bringing in that many players during the season, you've got to hope that they jell together quickly. Otherwise, you're repeating the same issue from earlier in the season — and you can kiss the playoffs goodbye.
Moreover, New York City's at or near the cap, which means that if they're bringing that many players in, they're cutting that many players loose. That's a decent chunk of change to be paying out in contract termination fees, on top of the money you're paying for the new players.
So let's assume that the roster turnover will be minimal. With the players on hand, here's how I see New York City lining up:
A 5-3-2 is what makes the most sense with Pirlo, Lampard, and Mix Diskerud in the midfield, and Villa as a forward. We won't see a diamond 4-4-2 because New York City doesn't have the players to cover Pirlo and make that formation work. Lampard doesn't function as a number 10 at the tip of the diamond; Carlo Ancelotti, who also coached Pirlo, tried Lampard there during his spell managing Chelsea, and abandoned it. Mix, as we saw earlier in the season, doesn't have the defensive skill to be a box-to-box midfielder shielding Pirlo. And if you want Pirlo to succeed, you have to shield him. There's no escaping that.
Kreis has to hope — and hope isn't a plan, but it's the best he's got — that Angelino is ready to contribute out of the gate, even at age 18, and that Andoni Iraola has the fitness of an Ironman triathlete. He also better hope that Shay Facey can stay through the end of the season; his loan expires at the end of the month, so right now, I've got Brovsky taking his place. You're not going to see players like McNamara or Poku on the field, except as substitutes. Same thing goes for Grabavoy, Velasquez, and Ballouchy.
This is going to be one of the older — if not the oldest — rosters in MLS. They will be highly vulnerable to counterattacks. If I'm playing against them, I press them all the time, and work on running them off the field. They will be highly susceptible to speedy players, who may have all kinds of space to play in. That's why a 5-3-2 is probably Kreis' best bet; because the five-man backline will help clog up attacks, whilst providing cover to Pirlo, Lampard, and Mix.
Does this roster have talent? Yes. Does it have what it takes to make the playoffs, let alone win the Cup? I'm far less sanguine about that.
My hunch — and I'd really like to be wrong about this, but suspect I'm not — is that this lineup doesn't jell together. New York City ends up missing the playoffs, if only barely. Fans call for Kreis' head, and the combination of star dissatisfaction in the locker room and fan unrest results in Kreis' firing. We've seen this before in MLS. Fans in Toronto and Montreal can tell you about it. So can fans of a certain other New York-area team.
Which is a shame, because New York City has the potential to be different. But so far, they sure aren't showing it.