I found myself feeling unexpectedly indifferent after the match on Sunday. I have to preface this entry with the fact that it was my first NYCFC match since the end of March, and if you haven't had the fortune of attending a game at Yankee Stadium yet, I also have to say that it is an experience. Let me set the scene.
When you walk into the stadium and see the pitch it's a bit strange at first, to be honest. Once you get over the fact that it's a pitch fit into a baseball diamond, though, it becomes an observation that sort of just rests in the back of your mind, not quite forgotten but no longer really important. At the risk of offending baseball fans, the stadium feels a little more lived in now, as if NYCFC has slowly worked toward making it their home. There are tons of fans everywhere deck out in NYCFC gear; families, friends, couples, kids, adults, supporters groups. Tons of fans representing other teams, too, ranging from Chelsea to Juventus to the US Men's National Team to Real Madrid. It is a space utterly infused with soccer culture.
You can feel the energy beginning to boil when kick off starts inching closer. Last time I was at a game NYCFC had a different introduction with mentions of each of the five boroughs, which I admittedly enjoyed, but they must have switched at some point to this drumming countdown that sounds (and feels) like your heart is about to explode out of your chest. It gets the crowd ramped up until the whistle blows and the stadium echoes from all sides with chants and yelling, spearheaded by an animated supporters section. I have to give credit to the amazing tifo here, because it was hands down one of the best parts of the whole game--hats off to the Blue Ladies, Hearts of Oak, Third Rail, and any other groups that contributed. Really fabulous job, can't wait to see more.
On Sunday, things rose to a fever pitch when NYCFC circled the Red Bulls' goal in the opening minutes, yet it paled in comparison to the ridiculous explosion that rocked Yankee Stadium when McNamara scored. I've only been to a handful of soccer games in person, but words fail to appropriately describe how intensely incredible those 20 seconds were. I couldn't really see much in front of me--just McNamara drop the ball before it was buried in the back of the net. My section was on its feet, beer thrown and hands up in the air, hats coming off in disbelief. It was another one of those moments that I know I'll never forget as an NYCFC fan.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game was not as memorable. I think that singular moment softened the blow of what happened, because I enjoyed the match regardless and believe that that is of paramount importance. However, there are some important points to discuss...
I can't disagree with the fact that NYCFC's performance declined steadily throughout the match, but I can acknowledge the fact that they started very, very strong. Historically we've seen the team roll off the whistle with an almost cautious approach, their play probing instead of purposeful and with vigor. On Sunday, they pressed hard right away; Villa drove them forward with gutsy determination, pinning the Red Bulls back in their own half for a solid five minutes or so until the corner was won that ended up eventually yielding McNamara's goal. It became their fastest goal on record.
Riding high after that initial goal and with support pouring from the stands, they continued to push for more with a few commendable shots, but the razor-sharp finish that we've been seeing in past games was notably lacking. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the game seemed to take a turn, but Wingert's early substitution at minute 24 is as good a benchmark as any.
If there's one thing that NYCFC has yet to find an answer for, it's a strong counterattack. In NYCFC's past three wins, the teams they played against did not rely heavily on the breakaway play. This isn't to discredit any of the team's progress that shone in those three games--they did play well during that run of wins, rectifying so many mistakes that had been plaguing them. I think, coming from a fan's perspective, that this is precisely why the defeat stung a little more than the others. It was a performance that evoked errors of past games, where we saw sloppy turnovers and giveaways that sent the entire team tracking back defensively...and unsuccessfully. What I think ultimately undid NYCFC was the pattern in the Red Bulls' attack that started developing at the end of the first half: pressing down the left.
Wingert possesses a very defensive-minded style. Alongside Facey, Hernandez, and Allen, Wingert has proven to be a good asset in the back line. We've seen the defense break down runs of plays on numerous occasions, seen Allen and Wingert both make some fantastic recoveries, and we've definitely seen some amazing clearances from Hernandez and Facey. When Wingert was removed from the equation, though, there was a noticeable breakdown in the NYCFC defense. As the first half drew to a close the Red Bulls had finally worked their way into the game.
The quick succession of goals conceded in the second half proved that something was off with the players on the pitch. We've seen NYCFC chase games to salvage a point, but that obligation to defy expectations never gained any traction in this match. RB's left-sided attack continued to remain an issue that the back line could not contend with; they were caught up out of position enough that RB had an easy time of running deep and whipping crosses right into the box. Interestingly, the NY Cosmos employed the same tactic, and both teams were able to beat NYCFC. Coincidence?
There were a few more instances where Saunders came up big--as did the notorious Left Post--but the biting frenzy that took NYCFC by force in those opening minutes was spent. Poku's substitution breathed a bit of life into the closing moments of the match, but the attempts became less calculated and more reactionary.
At the heart of the issue were two matters, the first of which was that I think the game needed two (real) strikers on the pitch. I've been preaching this for over a month now, but I really like seeing NYCFC set up in a 4-4-2 diamond. I know that formation in particular can expose potential weaknesses in the back, but it's been one of the strongest for the team thus far in their first season. With the fantastic energy they exhibited in the opening minutes of the derby, I would have loved to have seen Mullins up front with Villa for that extra support with a two-pronged approach, with the diamond behind them feeding them innovative plays to slip in behind the RB defense.
On Sunday it appeared as if McNamara was fulfilling a more advanced role as he did during the Toronto game. I love the energy he brings to his performances, but I don't like him up top, and because of his forward placement I think he failed to really flourish after a sterling 15 minute performance. I prefer him sitting back in the diamond on the left, where he can orchestrate balls that are either for goal or for his strikers' benefit--and, as he has done before, drop back to help defensively. Placed with Poku on the right, Mix up top, and Jacobson at the base of the diamond, that group has potential to be formidable, and I wished we could have seen more of that magic in the derby.
The second issue had to do with another disintegration of communication that began in the defensive lines and crumbled all the way to the top of the formation--hence the reason Villa saw very little of the ball in the second half. The back line was broken down too much to assist the midfield with intelligent passes; we saw more blind clearances that were dropped right at the opposing team's feet instead of the patient build up that they've been exercising for the last three games. Because the midfield wasn't feeling support from the back line, and because the pace became too disjointed for NYCFC to take hold of the match and control it, Villa could not organize any effective attack. In short, the breakdown dominoed across the pitch.
In the wake of a defeat of that nature, all that's left to do is look forward. I for one can say that I'm excited for Lampard's and Pirlo's arrival, if only because it's providing NYCFC with some seasoned (and much needed) depth in the midfield. It's difficult to say that there is a one-size-fits-all formation and player approach to winning a league, as different opponents will attempt different tactics as we have very plainly seen over the course of the last month. So by bringing in two very experienced players, there is a hope that they will be able to thrive under situations where there is a need to adapt on the fly to counterbalance unexpected problems on the field. Similarly with the two other signings, Iraola and Angelino, it's a matter of injecting the team with experience that will allow Kreis some flexibility with his roster choices in the back.
I'm certain we will see some pretty drastic changes in the coming weeks, but it's going to be an exciting time for the club. Progress is progress, and every week we will continue to see them grow. Even though the results weren't what we were hoping for, I still had an absolute blast at the match and really can't wait to go back to Yankee Stadium. On to the next!
This entry is from my personal blog "An NYCFC State of Mind", a site that analyzes matches and explores tactics and formations. For comprehensive reviews for the rest of NYCFC's games, visit An NYCFC State of Mind. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.