It took nearly no time at all for Andrea Pirlo to intoxicate Sunday's 5-3 barn-burner with his bewitching touch.
That is, "touches," plural.
Yes, Cyle Larin doubled his money and brought Orlando's lions level at 2-2 within four minutes of Pirlo's introduction in the 57th minute. The instant karma that was to follow, however, represented nothing less than a stunning re-calibration of momentum, and a new way forward for New York's newest team.
(Yes Pirlo, Yes Playoffs???)
Within ten minutes of Larin's equalizer, Pirlo had perpetrated a bloodless coup. He assumed control of the middle of the field, holding the ball with the easy grace of a saint, curating passing lanes and fast-twitch attacks through his lethal combination of osprey-vision and singular will.
Before his MLS career had elapsed for fifteen whole minutes, he had liberated his team. Unlocked it. He provided the impetus for two goals, detaining the ball long enough to spring Kwadwo Poku on marauding runs that shook Orlando City's funky back three, setting up both David Villa and Tommy McNamara on goal in four furious minutes.
Though Pirlo wasn't credited with an assist on either finish, it was impossible to miss the penetrating punch enabled by his sheer awareness.
Welcome to the Pirlo Effect.
"He sees passes most of us don't," gaffer Jason Kreis remarked after the match. "He can really open up the game. What I really saw was a team opening up because they believed he could find them."
Indeed, the man is a skeleton key for attacking soccer. Let's look at the first goal Pirlo set up, the 67th minute banger by David Villa:
Let's not take a single thing away from Villa's class or Poku's run. But the field spacing that enabled them?
That's all Pirlo.
Kreis noted in post-game that Poku hadn't made the most of the wider areas of the pitch during attacking buildup in the first hour. This passage of play reflected the opposite. Poku wasn't tentative taking on Adrian Heath's back three. Rather, he looked empowered.
Pirlo's deft touches and enviable choreography weren't for show-- he was eating up space smack in the middle of the field, allowing David Villa the time he needed to race forward to the left side of the box, his preferred zone of entry (in home games, NYCFC entered Sunday attacking down the left a staggering 41% of the time).
And on the right? The hard-driving Poku and the Zen-like Pirlo appeared destined for a beautiful relationship in linking play.
As we can see from the video, once the Orlando City midfield appeared sufficiently stretched by NYCFC's motion, Pirlo dished it off to Poku the Punisher, who had plenty of green grass to trample as he galloped down the right half. Villa drew sufficient defensive attention off the ball on the other side, providing wide berth for Poku's advance.
The setup was all about timing, and Pirlo's touches permitted the necessary synchronicity. The key is that, by biding his time in the middle, he was able to create in any direction without tipping his hand.
Now, on to Tommy McNamara's goal moments later in the 71st minute:
Once again, a tremendous run by Poku. But right on cue, it's Pirlo that opens up the attacking channels with patient precision. How often do New York City's finishers find themselves wide open on the left, where opponents have long anticipated their attacks to develop?
That's the Pirlo Effect. That narrow field seems plenty wide with number twenty-one conducting the orchestra, doesn't it?
Fifteen minutes on the pitch, and two "hockey assists." And not a single shred of it by accident. Nothing that felt the slightest bit forced.
What's striking is how reliably New York City was suddenly able to shuttle the ball forward using the whole field despite having so much trouble doing so through twenty games: especially at home, we've seen the Bronx Blues creating chances almost exclusively through Villa's preferred half. On Sunday, the situation was dynamic and tougher to predict. It ought to be noted that 82% of New York City's shots came from up the middle for a change. For his part, Tommy McNamara, who is usually relied upon down the left behind Villa, was finally free to roam, joining forces with Poku in the right-center area of the pitch.
We witnessed a kind of balance in NYCFC that we had yet to see for any meaningful amount of time before Sunday. The additional pressure this maximal spacing imposed upon Orlando's defense was plainly evident, allowing New York City to keep 57% of possession and fire off over one hundred more passes than their opponents (445 to 331) while still completing them at a marginally higher rate.
It's clear from the video evidence that the eye don't lie-- Pirlo's magic is readily apparent, and projects to expand in scope and impact as his minutes and familiarity with the squad increase. But can the stats shed any additional light on the Pirlo Effect?
Here's what we unearthed on WhoScored.com:
Pirlo served up 35 passes in 34 minutes of play. His rate of just over a pass per minute dwarfs that of the next highest player, Jefferson Mena, who averaged 0.65 passes per minute from the back.
He produced 38 touches in those 34 minutes. At 1.1 touches per minute, his ball-control was stunningly consistent. Second on the team in touches per minute on Sunday? Late sub Mix Diskerud at 0.78.
Forced to man the base of the midfield despite lacking the proper vision to reliably orchestrate the Blues' buildup, Andrew Jacobson spent his first twenty games of the season winning the ball and patrolling the middle without the ability to turn possession into scoring chances.
On Sunday, the heart of the New York City midfield witnessed a revolution of creative intent.
After the match, Diskerud marveled that Pirlo was calling for the ball from goalkeeper Josh Saunders despite routinely having two or three purple shirts stuck to him like flypaper. "He doesn't lose the ball," Diskerud beamed. "He doesn't get stressed. That's not normal!"
Added David Villa: "There aren't very many players in history that can play at that kind of level. Everybody is going to be better playing next to Pirlo."