A good friend of my partner's once laid down three rules about writing:
- The past perfect tense (had jumped, had written) needs to go away
- Use active language
- Say what you think, don't prep it.
In that spirit: New York City FC is better off without Mix Diskerud. And if they get an offer for him from any other team in the off-season, they should take it if it's a good one, let alone a great one. They probably won't, but they should actively explore moving him on. He doesn't fit New York City's needs, and they have better, cheaper players already. The evidence is abundant. It's hard to escape, and it becomes more obvious the more you think about it.
It's tough to say this. Diskerud, more than a lot of players, is beloved by both USMNT fans and NYC fans. He's likable! He's a character. He feels more approachable than most players. Most of all, he looks like the kind of player we've hungered for as American soccer fans. You see him, with his flowing locks, and imagine him on the soccer field — the Norwegian-American Pirlo, as it were. The imagination gets augmented by mystery. No one watches Tippeligaen games, so our experience of Diskerud came mostly through hazy YouTube videos. When we saw him take the field for the USMNT, our excitement outweighed sobriety. It still does.
What's missing is actual evidence of Diskerud's goodness, let alone greatness, on the field. Or in the stats. For all his perceived promise, the reality of Mix is far different.
Here's a group of MLS players. Try to figure out which one is Diskerud.
Give up? Here's that table again, only this time with names.
Diskerud isn't even close to the best player in that group. Even if you limit it to New York City players, he's not even the best American player on that roster, despite the fact that he's gotten called up to the national team. Oh, about that. Getting a national team call up is nice, but it's not dispositive of studliness as a player.
Quick: name the two players who didn't play a single minute at the 2014 World Cup for the USMNT. If your answers were Mix Diskerud and Timmy Chandler, you're the winner! Diskerud also didn't feature highly in the Gold Cup; he started against Haiti, going the full 90 minutes, then didn't play again until the semifinal against Jamaica, where he went approximately 27 minutes, doing nothing noteworthy as the USMNT lost to Jamaica, 2-1.
That's not to say he hasn't had his moments. He has! Then again, so have Bobby Wood and Michael Orozco Fiscal, but no one's clamoring for them to get paid.
Mix Diskerud is a perfectly mediocre player. That's the brutal truth. Like any good player, he's capable of doing good things, maybe even great things. But of all the American national teamers who've returned to MLS recently, the only one who's gotten rewarded for less accomplishment is Jozy Altidore. And Altidore absolutely tore up a far better league than Norway's before his ill-starred Sunderland turn. Diskerud didn't even do that.
He was a competent enough midfielder for Rosenborg, one of Norway's top teams. In his last full season for them, 2013/14, Diskerud started 19 games, logging 1,761 minutes with two goals and three assists. On their face, not bad numbers, but nothing stellar. It's definitely nothing irreplaceable. Rosenborg didn't think twice about letting Diskerud walk away at the end of his contract with them.
Part of the problem — and part of the reason I compared Diskerud to so many other types of midfielders — is that no one knows what he is. Let's phrase that differently. What position does Mix Diskerud play?
I'm serious. What position does he play? He's not good enough to be a central attacking midfielder; he's not a creator. He doesn't have great vision, he's not that great with the ball at his feet. Most of all, he's not bound & determined to stay high, and he's not a scorer. Both Patrick Mullins and Tommy McNamara have scored more goals. McNamara makes far better runs into the box and is far more creative with the ball. Mullins has four goals and three assists in just 785 minutes of play.
So if not #10, then where? Jason Kreis tried playing him as a box-to-box midfielder. In short, a box-to-box midfielder is a player with an incredibly high stamina and endurance. He does a bit of everything: cut off opposition attacks, tackle near his own box, make late runs into the opposition box and carry the ball after receiving it from the back.
Sadly, Diskerud's most ineffective stretch in New York City thus far was the span of games where he was played as a box-to-box mid, culminating in a sub shortly after halftime in the first-ever Hudson River Derby. He sprayed aimless passes to nowhere and no one in particular, ran all over the field, and generally contributed nothing of substance. In fairness, he did display insane levels of stamina, and he's sneakily good at tackling. But stamina is a means to an end, not an end itself. Tackling, for that matter, is overrated. Committing to a tackle means you're taking yourself out of the flow of the game temporarily. With how fast the game goes, that could be the difference between preventing a goal and giving one up.
For me, that rules out Diskerud as a box-to-box midfielder. There is one spot where Diskerud works well. At his best, Mix Diskerud operates as an advanced wing player playing off the shoulder of an 8/10 midfielder. How would that look in a lineup?
That's Diskerud lined up as an attacking right midfielder. Putting him there frees him to, theoretically, make darting runs into the box, set up scoring chances, and, who knows, score a few times himself. That's it, problem solved, time to go home, folks.
Not so fast. Turns out there's a player on New York City's roster who's actually better than Diskerud in that position. Folks, meet Ned Grabavoy. No, I'm not making this up. Benjamin Baer made the case for starting Grabavoy over Mix at MLSSoccer.com. It's persuasive. He makes the case for a 4-4-1-1 lined up like this.
He's not crazy. Baer points out that if New York City wants to prioritze possession to mask Pirlo and Lampard's defensive inadequacies, Grabavoy is a better option for that than Diskerud. Grabavoy was instrumental in that capacity for Kreis' RSL teams, and he does the same for New York City, as Baer demonstrates statistically.
Where Baer and I disagree is in playing Andrew Jacobson. I think he dismisses Jacobson's defensive contributions — more than 2.7 tackles and 2.35 interceptions per 90 minutes — much too easily. Pirlo and Lampard — and New York City's backline — need someone to be that physical presence in the midfield. Jacobson is the closest Pirlo will get to a Gattuso right now. It's a mistake not to play him. That's why I came up with this lineup.
One of the criticisms of the lineup is that it takes Pirlo and Lampard out of a central role, minimizing their presence on the field, and forces them to run and run. Or as a commenter put it:
You're proposing Pirlo & Lampard are the outside midfielders that have the most responsibility of box to box running to augment both the attack and the defense??? That's just asking for a disaster to take place and it doesn't allow Pirlo to see as much of the ball - from the middle he is always available as an outlet and to spray the field, but out wide the sideline cuts his presence in half and changes the way the defense has to adjust (i.e. much easier for them). And Lampard's best position for shooting is the top of the box, not from the wing - he was brought to the team to marshal the midfield and to score, not to serve in crosses.
Let me dissect that. First, whenever people — and I'm one of them — criticized New York City signing Pirlo, one of the universal responses centered on how much ground he covered during the Champions League final two months ago. So I find it precious that suddenly, having him cover ground is a "disaster waiting to happen". It's not. If he could cover ground against Barcelona, he can do it against freakin' San Jose.
Second: if Lampard was brought in to "marshal the midfield", then precisely what is Pirlo doing? Because being a deep-lying playmaker is exactly that: marshaling the midfield. So you're going to have two marshals? And if Pirlo is play-making, then what is Lampard doing? I've said it before, I'll say it again: this is what happens when you sign players with little to no consideration of how they fit together to create a cohesive starting eleven.
Taken individually, these signings make a lot of sense. I wasn't really sold on signing Lampard, given his age, but he was a legendary midfielder, and as a foundation stone for New York City, it made sense. But the second Lampard wasn't going to be around for the full inaugural season, it no longer made much sense for New York City to have him.
In turn, signing Diskerud made sense in the immediate aftermath of New York City fans, along with the rest of the world, finding out that Lampard wasn't going to be around for half the season. He was available on a free transfer, and Diskerud nearly signed with two MLS teams in the past two seasons. As a PR exercise, it helped New York City fans get over not having Lampard for the full campaign. As a soccer signing, not so much — especially for that money, on a free transfer. But when you're a team desperate to escape a disaster of your own design, you're not in a position to negotiate.
Finally, there's Pirlo. Again: if you have the chance to sign Pirlo, you sign Pirlo. Individually, that makes sense! But then what's the point of hanging on to Lampard? And again into a circle we go.
Folks: putting a MLS team together isn't like playing FIFA 15. That the lineup "works" in my PS4 doesn't then mean it's going to work on an actual soccer Saturday or Sunday. This is not a well-put together team, and it shows. Let's stop pretending otherwise, because we're only kidding ourselves.
Anyway, back to the lineup. See those arrows?
They denote where I see players moving and covering in this formation. Nothing says that Pirlo and Lampard have to stay where they are at all times. Switching play — and players — from side to side is a perfectly good way to control the game. That's what I see Lampard and Pirlo doing here: switching from side to side, patroling the middle of the field. Jacobson, for his part, works his usual role as a bulldog midfielder, helping shield the pair.
In this setup, Angelino and Iraola have to provide defensive support for New York City to succeed. That's why I have them supporting the two centerbacks and Jacobson. Ideally, they'd intercept the ball, then immediately pass to either Pirlo or Lampard. Once either of the two have the ball, it's theirs to send onward.That's where Poku and McNamara come in. Both act as the shuttlers in this system, covering the ground that Pirlo and Lampard cannot. I have Poku positioned slightly further forward. Poku may have his issues with match fitness — he's gone the full 90 minutes only six times since 2014 — but he's too good, and makes too much of an impact for New York City, for him to be limited to super-sub duties. Check out these numbers:
- 2.7 chances created from open play per 90 minutes
- 2.3 goals/90
- 3-0 when starting.
Those aren't Diskerud's numbers, they're Poku's. In case you're wondering, Diskerud has just 1.19 chances created from open play per 90. It's a smaller sample size for Poku, obviously — just 533 minutes — but it's still striking how much better New York City are with him in the lineup.
No matter which way you cut it, Diskerud simply isn't worth keeping around long-term if you're New York City. Of course, he's a marketable player, but New York City can do way better than him on the field. I don't grant the argument that New York City simply has to have a national teamer in its roster for the sake of having a national teamer. Diskerud should be on the roster because he fills a critical need, not because he's a marketing midfielder.
But what about having Diskerud learn from Pirlo and Lampard? Won't he improve, simply by dint of that? And wouldn't getting rid of him be a "win-now" move for a roster that isn't that? And hasn't he been misplayed?
No. He's 24 years old. His core development, for all intents and purposes, is done. What he is as a player is what he will be. The idea that Diskerud will exponentially improve as a player simply by being around Pirlo and Lampard and "learning" from them is fantastical. That's not how development works. Will he pick up things? Of course. I'm sure he has already, and I'm sure the things he's learned will help him on the margins. But they're not going to make him a better player. Cristian Brocchi, for instance, didn't become a legendary player because he hung out with Pirlo in Milan. He was still Cristian Brocchi.
Mix Diskerud isn't the Norwegian-American Pirlo. He's the Norwegian-American Cristian Brocchi. You wouldn't build a team around Cristian Brocchi, and you wouldn't build a team around Diskerud. The fact that Mix has a custom-designed cap, and that he's featured alongside three of soccer's all-time legends as a "star" is the ultimate triumph of marketing and hype over substance.
And "winning now" is what New York City is oriented towards. As much as I'd like for Kreis and Reyna to have the time and space to build New York City long-term over three to five years, the reality is that if New York City is in the same kind of funk next May it found itself this past May, Kreis will take a long stroll off a short pier, and Reyna will likely go with him. Neither will have the kind of long leash that Kreis and Garth Lagerwey enjoyed at Real Salt Lake.
If that's the case, then it absolutely makes sense to trade Diskerud for players that make it easier to win now.
Finally, I don't think it's accurate to say that Diskerud's been played out of position. It's more the case that Diskerud is so mediocre that he doesn't excel in any one position. He's not a "goal-scoring" midfielder. Over the last seven years, these are Diskerud's goals scored per year: three, four, three, one, one, two, and three. That works out to an average of 2.4 goals/year -- not at all a goal-scoring midfielder.
There's no shame in admitting that Diskerud's not a very good player with an outsize reputation. There's only shame in persisting in error. We should just admit that he's New York City's version of Lord Nicklas Bendtner.