This. Is. It.
I can't emphasize how badly New York City needs a win tomorrow in Harrison. It's the final game of the Hudson River Derby this year. The Red Bulls have won the first two, so they get the season spoils. But a win tomorrow — in a packed Red Bull Arena — goes quite a long way towards easing the sting of the previous two losses, since it's the game that will be hanging over both fanbases during the long, cold, winter months waiting for the new season to begin.
About those previous games. They didn't go well for New York City. The first was a disastrous performance from start to finish, the second saw the team wilt in the second half. Here's the thing: for the first time, New York City will feature all three of its designated players on the field. I fully expect Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and David Villa to start tomorrow.
They'll need them — and quasi-DP Mix Diskerud — to have good games, if not great ones, against a Red Bulls team that is currently second in the East, and playing steady, attacking soccer. The Bulls took advantage of the summer window to add to their already-solid roster. They signed Shaun Wright-Phillips — yes, he's Bradley's brother — and added Argentine starlet Gonzalo Verón last night to their roster. I don't expect Verón to play, let alone start, but Wright-Phillips has already made his mark. The two brothers, along with Lloyd Sam, Mike Grella, Sacha Kljestan and others, will test New York City's back line. They come into this game on a four-game unbeaten run; their most recent game was a draw against Montreal.
Enough about the Bulls. Let's talk about New York City.
I wrote yesterday about Mix Diskerud. It's easily the most controversial piece I've ever written here, and it got push-back. Despite my thoughts there, I expect Diskerud to start tomorrow. It's as simple as this: if Diskerud is going to be the player we want him to be, he needs to start showing it consistently. That begins tomorrow. Great players rise to the occasion; will Diskerud? I'd like him to. I'm not talking about "flashes of brilliance"; I'm talking about a consistent, game-long performance. New York City can't afford for him to disappear on the field, which he's prone to do.
In the first game, he clearly didn't, and was subbed off early in the second half. His performance was sharply criticized by coach Jason Kreis in the postgame press conference. His performance in the second game was a bit better, but still some distance short of what it needed to be. It didn't help that he's been moved around the field a bunch, as Kreis looks for the best way for him to display his apparent gifts. I've said all along that he's best when playing an advanced wing position; that's where I'd like Kreis to play him, and I suspect that's where he'll be.
What does that look like? Like this.
Let's start with the back line. Barring injury or rest, this is what the back line should be for the remainder of the season. Jefferson Mena's had a rough start, but he's adjusting quickly. Combining him with Shay Facey gives New York City a strong center back pairing. Angelino and Iraola, you know about. In the hostile confines of Harrison, these four make up a far better defense than we saw in either of the previous two encounters.
So: the midfield. My lineup is missing bulldog Andrew Jacobson. As much as I like his contributions to the game, for a game like this, I want to start McNamara and Poku, along with Mix, Lampard, and Pirlo. I've got the two legendary midfield marshals at the bottom. In Pirlo's case, especially, this means that the defense will have to cover the space he isn't able to. That's why I've got Angelino and Iraola helping out, rather than marauding forward more.
I've put McNamara on Lampard's side, helping to cover the kind of ground that Lampard can't cover as effectively, working as a shuttler. In this role, he's also able to latch on to the long balls that Lampard launches towards the Bulls' box, setting up Villa and Poku to score, or scoring himself. This is something he's done well all season long.
In Mix's case, I've lined him up further forward, on Pirlo's side. One thing I didn't note about Diskerud is that he's been fairly effective as a defensive helper. He'll need to do that with Pirlo. The good thing is that Pirlo will, in turn, help set him up to perform offensively.
At that point, it's on Mix to cash in on the opportunities served up by Pirlo, whether it's by scoring himself, or creating scoring opportunities for other players. He hasn't done that very effectively thus far this season, but then again, he hasn't had Pirlo and Lampard hooking him up, either. Now he does. Will he take advantage of it? If he does, New York City wins. If not, well...well, it becomes much more difficult, doesn't it?
Finally, the forwards. Poku is a midfielder here, but I like him backing up Villa and, in effect, playing as a second forward. His physical presence and speed are a nightmare for defenses to deal with, and as he gets more playing time and experience, his vision and tactical awareness only get better. If everything clicks, he's almost certain to either assist or score himself. As for Villa: he's turned it on. He's second in the Golden Boot race with 13 goals.
This is it. This lineup — despite my misgivings about Mix — should be the starting lineup for New York City for the remainder of the season. This is it. The time for experimentation and juggling is over. It has to end, if only so that these eleven players can best exploit each other's talents and shield each other's flaws. As harshly as I criticized Mix, it's not his fault that this is a poorly-constructed roster; that's down to Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis.
This is it. If New York City entertains realistic hopes of playing for the MLS Cup, it has to start winning games. Not drawing them, and certainly not losing them. It starts tomorrow, with a win against the Bulls. Can they do it? They're certainly capable of it. Every game going forward, in effect, is a playoff game. This lineup, with these players, is capable of winning.
I'm fundamentally an optimist. That's why I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the past remains the past, and New York City starts making their playoff case with an emphatic 3-1 win over the Red Bulls.
New York City: OUT -- George John, Tony Taylor (season); Connor Brandt (6 weeks).
QUESTIONABLE -- Chris Wingert (hamstring), Khiry Shelton (left quad), Ryan Meara (back)
New York Red Bulls: OUT -- Chris Duvall, Ronald Zubar