Ron Zook, a major goat in college football coaching circles, led the University of Florida to three mediocre seasons beginning in 2002. Unlike his successor, who earned two national titles at Florida and won another at Ohio State in January, "the Zooker" just couldn't get control of his own program.
The culprit? A pervasive air around the local football culture that reeked of a strange combination of entitlement, negativity, disunity, and lack of institutional control. Coach Zook famously called it "noise in the system."
Reading Jason Kreis's striking comments after Saturday's 2-1 defeat to the Columbus Crew, it's no longer wrong to assume that the same phenomenon is taking hold at New York City FC. There are conflicting forces at work here; differing visions for the future of the club plainly deadlocked. And there really isn't any time left this season to reconcile them, assuming that's even possible.
With that in mind, here are the two biggest things we learned on Saturday.
- Kreis's incendiary remarks didn't come out of nowhere. This is a systemic issue within City Football Group.
CFG makes all of the important decisions at NYCFC, and Kreis has to carry their water. Unfortunately, Manchester's interests are prioritized at New York's expense, as Lampard's tragic arc has proven yet again.
Think of it this way: if he didn't have to bear such incredible institutional pressure from CFG, would Kreis have kept the indispensable Kwadwo Poku out of Saturday's starting XI?
Over the course of this season's odious eleven-match winless run, during which Poku and Tommy McNamara had yet to emerge, Kreis really could have used Frank Lampard. The English star man, of course, was busy scoring goals and rescuing points for the parent club in Manchester, as was his personal preference.
These days, New York City could never get away with benching a somewhat healthy Frank Lampard despite the fact that everybody and their mama knows Poku does far more for the team.
What a cruel joke that is, eh?
Pirlo on Kreis assessment of players not wanting to be there: "I would be very unhappy if that were true" #NYCFC— Dylan Butler (@Dylan_Butler) August 29, 2015
Frank Lampard: "All I feel is something’s off on the pitch... but for me it’s not for the want of trying." http://t.co/IqJz8FggOk— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) August 30, 2015
The inherent disparity and volatility that comes with the designated player rule is playing out its worst-case scenario at NYCFC this year. You can certainly bench a guy making $6,000,000 per annum if he's surrounded by other similarly-paid players. As Omar Little said, that's all in the game. In MLS, unfortunately, there's a stunningly large chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Right now, the have-nots (and David Villa) appear the the most invested. The hungriest.
But even a Cup-winner like Jason Kreis doesn't have the political capital to keep Lampard off the field -- even if he's still not ready to play ninety minutes (or seventy) -- for a couple reasons:
- Beginning with the summer arrivals of Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, a suspicious number of NYCFC's kickoff times were in mid-afternoon to capitalize on the growing primetime television audience in the UK. This implied added pressure on Kreis's squad selection re: European stars.
- CFG, based on repeated precedent, has full veto power over New York City's affairs.
- This team, in its current form, is not built to contend for trophies of any kind.
Roster scars just don't heal that fast.
Claudio Reyna, NYCFC's embattled sporting director, will undoubtedly take one hard lesson with him into the offseason: it's hard to build a team from scratch in any league, especially if you've never done it before. But it's even harder still to do so in Major League Soccer, where the dense morass of roster and salary restrictions appears to have been built by Rube Goldberg, then hacked up and retrofitted like a DJ Screw song.
Jason Kreis has arguably suffered the most for CFG and Reyna's inability to work within the constraints of the MLS roster structure. It was Reyna, of course, that threw $300,000 at Adam Nemec. He was also the one who decided to pay Andres Mendoza, who never logged a single minute for the senior team and was bid farewell in favor of R.J. Allen, whom the club essentially pulled off the street. Unfortunately, you can't just fire the players that didn't pan out and use the money to get different players straight away. That's not how contracts work.
No, the black marks on the payroll amount to sunk costs. Terrifyingly, it happens that half of the entire roster is noticeably overpaid with respect to production:
Add that in with the fact that five potential starters all arrived within a few weeks of one another just as the playoff race entered put-up-or-shut-up time, and damn, it isn't hard to understand the source of Jason Kreis's public frustrations Saturday evening.
Case in point, let's look at Columbus's first goal, a headed bouncer from Pipa Higuain straight off a corner kick:
It's funny how that works-- an unmarked man leaps up completely unimpeded and puts it away calmly, businesslike. And who was expected to mark Higuain, but didn't?
Honestly, il maestro didn't even jump. Hell, maybe he can't! To be fair, it shouldn't come down to an aging deep playmaker to mark such a well-known Number Ten, should it? Everyone knows Higuain is dangerous in the box. Squads game-plan for these exact situations. So, what gives?
In the big picture, set piece marking has been an absolute calamity all year for NYCFC, beginning with the devastating Ike Opara header goal from a throw-in at home against Sporting Kansas City (on that night in March, defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe jumped for it and simply missed the ball).
It's positively infuriating that, despite the massive changes to the defensive grouping throughout the year, the same fatal flaw continues to drag this team down.
On to the next Crew SC goal, super-sub Just Meram's match winner:
What. the. eff.
How was that possible? It's a pressure-free solo run by Meram. As we've seen all season long, it doesn't take much individual brilliance to score on New York City, who routinely wilt in the last fifteen minutes. In the above video, the malaise in the voices of the YES Network's Joe Tolleson and Ian Joy reflects as much.
The defending was nonexistent, but let's take a step back-- if Andoni Iraola doesn't give the ball away as a result of basically daydreaming, Meram doesn't score. Not that goal, anyway.
Did the former Bilbao captain's lack of focus and awareness remind you of something? Sure, the time Sebastian Giovinco did the exact same thing to the guy to set up Marky Delgado for Toronto's fourth goal at Yankee Stadium on July 12th.
Kreis has been open in his distaste for mid-year-signings. They are notoriously limited in their ability to make meaningful contributions in brand-new systems, not to mention the potential to disgruntle those who were there at the beginning only to become displaced. Standing here at the end of the summer, it's difficult to imagine these issues resolving themselves in time to snatch the sixth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
This team is riddled with scar tissue, a consequence of such a succession of roster blunders. At a certain point, there's just no more surgery that can be done until the thing itself has time to heal.