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Three things we learned in New York City's rampant 3-1 win against D.C. United

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As the playoff race approaches critical mass, we have finally seen exactly what works and what doesn't for New York's newest team. Here's a hint: #NoPokuNoParty.

You can't stop the Punisher.
You can't stop the Punisher.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Forget locker room speeches and bulletin board material. The biggest motivator for New York City FC in the second half of the season comes from an unlikely source:

Losing to the Red Bulls.

After wilting 3-1 at home to their cross-river rivals on June 28th, the Bronx Blues traveled to Montreal, gave the ball to a scintillating David Villa, and got out of the way. The result was a 2-1 win in which the visitors used the full space of the field to dominate the pace of play.

On August 10th, the Red Bulls once again dispatched New York's newest team, this time a 2-0 existential letdown in Harrison. We all know what happened just four days later: first-place D.C. United strutted into Yankee Stadium looking to kick the Blues while they were down.

David Villa, of course, responded with a performance that seemed to say one thing loud and clear:

"I AM THE ONE WHO KICKS."

Riding Villa, Kwadwo "The Punisher" Poku, Tommy "Mac the Knife" McNamara, and some pleasingly sound defending, New York City dominated their way to a famous 3-1 win.

One day, results like this won't have seemed to come out of nowhere. That day is getting ever-closer: we're learning more and more about what works and what doesn't for this team. On this Monday, as we look ahead to another tough mid-week clash against a formidable Eastern Conference foe, let's identify three things we learned upon Thursday night's thrilling New York City win.

  • New York City's midfield has an odd man out. It's Frank Lampard.

In this column, we've previously explored how any midfield combination that involves Mehdi Ballouchy and Ned Grabavoy simply will not work, especially in terms of (1) providing pace and intent in attacking buildup, and (2) providing defensive cover for Zen-like long-baller Andrea Pirlo.

As far as those directives are concerned, the same problems apply to Frank Lampard.

Seriously, where does Frank fit in with this team, especially now that a clear first-choice midfield grouping has definitively emerged? There are four midfielders that absolutely must start for this team. They are, in alphabetical order:

PLAYER
#
APPS (STARTS)
TRAITS
Andrew Jacobson
4
23 (23)
Defensive support, ball recovery, racing around like a demonic "glue guy"
Tommy McNamara
15
14 (11)
Work rate, making runs on and off the ball, finishing
Andrea Pirlo
21
4 (3)
Playmaking, professorial curation of possession, bonus points for beard
Kwadwo Poku
88
17 (4)
General marauding, winning the ball, fearsome dribbles, creating chances

That leaves one spot left in a five-man midfield behind lone striker Villa. Should that spot go to Mix Diskerud or Lampard?

The answer is Mix, because he brings the stamina and work rate to complement those other four. He hasn't done anything exceptional other than run, run, run, but alongside the physicality, creativity, and on-the-ball skill of the first four I listed, Mix's dashing and durability still add something to the table. But Lampard, who openly acknowledged his lack of fitness on multiple occasions? Right now, he isn't bringing anything to the table. In fact, he's taking things away.

Quite simply, Frank Lampard's presence decreases the margin of error for this team in its current form.

Against the Red Bulls, with Lampard in the starting lineup, the Bronx Blues dictated the pace of the game for all of about fifteen minutes before lapsing back into inattentive cluelessness. On Thursday night, with Lampard unavailable with a quad injury, New York City dictated for the full ninety minutes against a team in pole position in the East. And it wasn't a coincidence.

Let's be clear: Frank Lampard is a classy player with a tremendous body of work. But until he's up to full fitness -- no-bones-about-it, ninety-minutes-or-GTFO fitness -- he doesn't figure as a starter for Jason Kreis's team.

  • The central defensive pairing of Shay Facey and Jason Hernandez, without a doubt, gives New York City the best chance to win.

On the evening of June 7th, following a period of dodgy experimentation which found him ever-floundering at right fullback, Shay Facey moved inside to join Jason Hernandez for the first time.

On that day, New York City broke their infamous eleven-match winless run with a 2-1 victory against Philadelphia. It was NYC's first-ever road win to boot.

The team entered PPL Park that evening having surrendered two or more goals in four of their last five games. They left Pennsylvania that night having started a run that would find them winning three of their next four in league play.

Let's look at each and every NYCFC fixture since Facey & Hernandez began manning the middle:

DATE
FIXTURE
CB1
CB2
RESULT
6 June
NYC @ PHI
Facey
Hernandez
2-1 WIN
13 June
MTL @ NYC
Facey
Hernandez
3-1 WIN
20 June
NYC @ TFC
Facey
Hernandez
2-0 WIN
28 June
NYR @ NYC
Facey
Hernandez
3-1 LOSS
4 July
NYC @ MTL
Facey
Watson-Siriboe
2-1 WIN
12 July
TFC @ NYC
Facey
Watson-Siriboe
4-4 DRAW
18 July
NYC @ NER
Facey
Hernandez
1-0 LOSS
26 July
ORL @ NYC
Facey
Wingert/Mena
5-3 WIN
1 August
MTL @ NYC
Facey
Mena
3-2 LOSS
9 August
NYC @ NYR
Facey
Mena
2-0 LOSS
13 August
DCU @ NYC
Facey
Hernandez
3-1 WIN

NOTE: Hernandez was unavailable on July 26th due to yellow card accumulation.

To recap: New York City's overall record with Facey and Hernadez at center back is 4W-2L-0D, with a goal differential of +4.

With every other pairing, New York City stands at 3W-9L-6D, with a goal differential of -7.

Facey is simply better with Hernandez out there; his rapport with the fleet-of-foot, absent-of-mind Jefferson Mena is zilch, as evidenced by the surprising 3-2 defeat at home to the Impact that gave way to the devastating shutout loss to the rampant Red Bulls just one week later.

As soon as the Mena experiment ended, New York City got right back to its winning ways.

  • (INSERT SUPERLATIVE POKU STATEMENT)

Let us not mince a single word: Poku the Punisher is one of the single most important players on this team, and should be a shoo-in first-choice selection when fit.

Period.

You've seen the highlights. You've seen them probably five times, actually (how could you not?). But let's turn to the stats from Sunday's 3-1 win, for which WhoScored.com awarded Poku a perfect 10/10 match rating, the first-ever for NYCFC:

  1. Poku was the only NYC midfielder with multiple shots on target.
  2. As usual, he led the team in successful dribbles (4). David Villa was second with 2.
  3. Andrea Pirlo led non-defender NYC players with 12 defensive recoveries. Poku was second with 11.
  4. Pirlo also led non-defenders with 5 interceptions, with Poku right behind with 4.
  5. Most importantly, Poku led the team yet again in chances created (5), which included an assist.
PokuChancesDCU
NYCFC's chances created vs. D.C., with assists in blue. Poku (88) leads the way.
(Image: Opta/MLSSoccer.com)

And the big picture? Along with a +7 goal difference, New York City's MLS record is a staggering 4W-0L-0D with Poku in the starting lineup.

No analysis required. In fact, I'm gonna go get a sandwich.

...

More specifically, we cannot underestimate the importance of the Pirlo-Poku relationship. As soon as the Italian metronome appeared for the final thirty minutes of NYCFC's 5-3 win over Orlando City, he immediately identified the Slayin' Ghanaian as his personal attacking liaison. On two of Poku's three assists in that game, it was Pirlo that fed him the ball. Let's not give too much credit to the former Juventus and Milan superstar, however-- Poku still had to make two equally eye-popping attacking runs down the right flank to create goals for David Villa (66') and Tommy McNamara (70').

In terms of performance, Poku is the clearest outlier on this squad. Honestly, how do you defend against someone so tremendously strong on the ball? He runs like Maurice Jones-Drew and looks a hell of a lot like him, packing that perfect combination of bulk, balance, and a low center of gravity. To put it a better way: there's nobody else on this squad -- or perhaps in MLS -- who can do the things that Kwadwo Poku can do.

PokuTouchesDCU

Poku's touches against D.C. Remember when NYC could only create down the left???
(Image: WhoScored.com)

Let's not forget that the Punisher was the first-ever NYCFC player to score two goals in a competitive game, lighting up the scoreboard in the eventual penalty kick defeat to the New York Cosmos in the U.S. Open Cup. Curiously, that game stands as the only Poku start that didn't end in a win (to be fair, David Villa and Tommy McNamara didn't play).

On Sunday against D.C., the legend continued.

One final stat before I clean up the crumbs from my delicious sandwich and call it a day: Major League Soccer lists Poku's 2015 salary at $60,000, the league minimum. And Frank Lampard, NYCFC's absentee father? $6,000,000.

Give me the Slayin' Ghanaian any day of the week. #NoPokuNoParty.