Thirty minutes of brilliance. That's all Andrea Pirlo played this afternoon at Yankee Stadium, but that's all that New York City FC needed to stave off a determined Orlando City. The Blues took a massive step towards making the playoffs in their inaugural season with a 5-3 victory. With the win, New York City moved up to seventh place in the East, improving their record to 6-9-6 and 24 points. Despite just four days of training, Andrea Pirlo made it clear he was here to work, and he delivered.
The first half was fairly uneventful. Neither the Blues nor the Lions could seize the momentum, and it looked like both teams would enter halftime scoreless. Then Angelino served up a picture perfect ball from midfield to David Villa, who was all alone at the top of the box. Despite being blanketed by Orlando defender Sean St. Ledger, Villa managed to create enough separation to rifle home a goal, giving New York City a 1-0 lead just before halftime.
But Orlando wouldn't be denied. Five minutes after halftime, Lions rookie Cyle Larin squared things up at 1 apiece. New York City responded deftly, though. Tommy McNamara found Javier Calle, making his first start since April, in the Orlando box. Calle slipped in the goal, and New York City led once more, 2-1. It was Calle's first MLS goal.
Despite all that, the action felt like a prologue to the main event. Throughout the first half, fans were chanting "WE WANT PIRLO!". The Italian legend, New York City's third designated player, was on the bench. Shortly before halftime, he began warming up on the sidelines. As it became clearer that he would play, the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium crackled with electricity. In the 56th minute, Pirlo entered the game for Mehdi Ballouchy.
He made an immediate impact, as the game seemed to open up and New York City players worked even harder to make themselves open for Pirlo's passes. But the effect wasn't limited to New York City; Orlando, too, took advantage. In the 61st minute, Larin scored his second goal of the game, taking a pass from Darwin Ceren, who flew down the left, and blasting home the cross. That leveled the game at two.
Pirlo then started dictating the run of play. In the 67th minute, he spun twice, then found Kwadwo Poku on his right. Poku then powered forward, slipping a pass to Villa at the top of the box. Villa fired home, giving New York City the lead once more at 3-2. With the brace, Villa stands at 12 goals for the season; third on the MLS scoring charts.
That wasn't all; not by a long shot. Pirlo did it again four minutes later, leaving another Orlando defender dizzy with a spin, finding Poku again. Poku spotted McNamara with tons of space; McNamara wouldn't miss. Like that, New York City led 4-2, and the party seemed to be on.
Except that Larin would make it interesting. In the 85th minute, the Canadian got his hat trick and narrowed the lead to 4-3. It's the second time that New York City's given up a hat trick in two weeks; for as improved as the midfield seems, the defense is still a weakness. Jefferson Mena, the Colombian signed two weeks ago, was at fault for all three goals. In fairness, he was only playing because Chris Wingert hurt his hamstring early in the game, but one hopes that this was only the result of not having had time to mesh well with his backline partners.
Stoppage time came. In the team's first meeting, Brazilian star Kakà managed to deny New York City the win with a free kick goal at the end. Incredibly, the same situation presented itself. All game long, he'd taken the free kicks for Orlando, dialing himself closer and closer to goal. He fired this attempt — and it rebounded off the post. Mix Diskerud, fresh off the plane from the Gold Cup, found himself with the ball.
He started the counter attack. Diskerud found Villa in midfield. Villa then passed to Poku, who faked out a defender and the keeper, leaving Diskerud to tap in the goal in front of an empty net. And like that, New York City secured all three points.
Despite the performance today, there are still questions about New York City's lineup going forward. It's still way too easy for teams to break down New York City's defense, and find themselves with great scoring opportunities. Pirlo, presumably, won't be doing much of that defensive work. But how do you best structure the team to maximize Pirlo's gifts, whilst still managing to lock down the back? As New York City enter the stretch run for the playoffs, these questions will loom ever larger.
But they are for tomorrow. Tonight, New York City celebrates.