Another game, another loss. Writing these words is wearisome.
Coming off a disastrous loss to the LA Galaxy, New York City was in "must-win" mode. They played a Columbus Crew SC team that they drew against on the road. Playing at home, in spectacular late-summer weather, New York City was primed for victory. A win would give needed ballast to a playoff push in a wide-open Eastern Conference. Even a draw — should the Montreal Impact lose to Toronto — would see the Blues in sixth place, occupying the final playoff spot.
Obviously, you know what happened. New York City snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
It wasn't the loss that sticks in the craw. Losses happen, and Columbus is a good team. It was the way they lost. Spiritless. Lacklustre. Devoid of any desire. With time left, heads drooped, legs dragged. With time left, and the score level.
As in the game in Los Angeles, New York City started brightly. For the first time since they played the New York Red Bulls earlier this month, all three DPs started. Because of that, coach Jason Kreis decided to roll with a tactical wrinkle. Instead of the 4-2-3-1 arrangement he's been using lately, Kreis decided to deploy New York City in a 4-3-3. This was the lineup:
You can see the logic in that. For the majority of his time at Chelsea, Frank Lampard played in that formation, as the furthest-forward central midfielder. The advantage of using that formation is that it's probably the best way to deploy two DPs in Pirlo and Lampard that are essentially highly redundant of each other. Mix Diskerud and Andrew Jacobson are tasked with the defensive cover here, with Patrick Mullins serving as a target man, allowing David Villa to operate on the left, much as he did at Barcelona.
For the first few minutes of the game, the Blues took the game to Columbus, Mix Diskerud buzzing around, Pirlo raking the field with passes. They had their chances. They weren't taken. Columbus, as so many other teams, weathered that storm, and soon gave as good as they'd received. In the 10th minute, on their fifth corner of the game, the Crew finally capitalized. Federico Higuaín headed home a corner, and they led, 1-0.
Let me amend that: Federico Higuaín headed home the set-piece delivery, because Andrea Pirlo absolutely whiffed on his defensive assignment. Seriously: Pirlo was so flummoxed on that play, you'd have thought he was defending a corner for the first time in his career. Wait, wait, wait, you could see him thinking. What am I supposed to do here? Wait, what? Wait! Wait...that dude can HEAD the ball?!?
To their credit, New York City didn't fold immediately. They pressed for an equalizer. Frank Lampard had chances to score, but was largely undistinguished. Then, in the 29th minute, Andrew Jacobson took his now-standard long distance crack. Except this time, he actually scored.
The game was tied. New York City had everything to play for. With Montreal losing to Toronto, a draw would put the Blues above the red line; a win would create some distance. Given New York City's tendency to play better in the second half, given that they'd be playing towards their supporters, a second New York City goal seemed certain.
It wasn't. Outside of an initial flurry in the opening minutes of the second half, the Blues were content to sit back and absorb pressure, hoping to hit Columbus on the counter attack. The problem with that strategy is that it's very reactive, and it's dependent on a resilient defense capable of absorbing pressure. This is something that New York City hasn't had at all this season. To his credit, Kreis first two subs — Poku for Lampard, Tommy McNamara for Mullins — were offensive in nature. But he was forced to replace center back Jefferson Mena with Shay Facey.
Even if he'd been able to make a third offensive sub, it's not clear it would've helped. Columbus' defense was finely drilled, able to easily brush away the occasional New York City counter. Their constant pressure finally told in the 83rd minute. Andoni Iraola, who hasn't exactly covered himself in glory as a New York City defender, carelessly gave away the ball in midfield. From there, it was altogether too easy for Columbus to set themselves up for the winner; Justin Meram sent a grass-cutter in, and Josh Saunders could only watch helplessly as the ball rolled into the goal.
From there, the conclusion was foregone. Time needed only to be marked away. A final corner gave New York City a desperate lifeline; it was squandered, just as so much else has been this season.
Still: the playoffs remain a possibility, if not a probability, for the Blues. Montreal's defeat today means that New York City is still level on points with the Impact. But in order for that possibility to become a probability, let alone a reality, they cannot afford any more losses, especially at home. New York City travels to Dallas next Saturday; then face Toronto at home the following Wednesday. Neither will be an easy matchup; but wins can be had. The question is: will New York City seize those opportunities, or will they squander them?