Four minutes of horror. That was the difference. Tonight, those four minutes loom large in the mind for New York City fans. Those four minutes have all but shredded New York City's playoff hopes, already faint. Those four minutes ensured the Blues lost their third straight game, a fifth in seven.
Are they mathematically eliminated? No. At worst, going into Wednesday's game against Toronto FC, New York City will be six points under the red line, with 18 left to play for. It's hard to imagine that New York City can make up that kind of ground. It assumes a kind of cohesion, fleetingly present this year, that eludes them game after game.
So: no playoffs. However mathematical the chances, common sense dictates that New York City won't be playing in November. Six games remain; they likely will be the last six games New York City plays this season.
FC Dallas, their opponent on the night, have won 3 on the hop. They controlled the first half with thrumming intensity. Coached by Oscar Pareja, Dallas has avoided their annual swoon into mediocrity, instead keeping pace with Vancouver in the Western Conference and New York in the Eastern as the three teams vie for the Supporters' Shield.
The goals came quickly, after a first half where FCD controlled the state of play. As New York City tried catching Dallas asleep on the counter, Dallas did exactly that. Tesho Akindele flew down the right touchline. A long, probing pass from Michel found him. Akindele brushed defender Jason Hernandez aside, shot. His shot was a cannon-blast; goalkeeper Josh Saunders had no chance of saving it.
Stoppage time came. Akindele nearly scored again, but his shot was deflected. Michel stood over the ball at the corner spot. He unleashed a wickedly twisted line drive; it flew past a stock-still New York City defense and goalkeeper. It nestled, gently, in the back of the net.
Jason Kreis relieved New York City's leading scorer, David Villa, at the half. Given the reality of a game on Wednesday, and the minutes Villa logged thus far in steadfast effort, it was a wise choice. It turned out, however, that Villa suffered a hamstring injury after enduring a nasty tackle in the first half. Patrick Mullins replaced him.
In the 66th minute, Kreis withdrew Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, the other two designated players. Taking their place were Mix Diskerud and Kwadwo Poku. It cannot be coincidence that New York City began, gently, asking questions of Dallas' defense.
As the half wore on, the questions became sharper. Finally, in the 70th minute, FCD failed to answer. Dallas defender Atiba Harris fouled Ned Grabavoy in the penalty area. Mullins calmly scored the ensuing penalty shot to halve Dallas' lead.
2-1, and the momentum was swinging New York City's way.
New York City hasn't distinguished itself in many ways this season; but one thing they do well is score at the death. No other team in Major League Soccer betters them in this regard. Once the last 15 minutes of the game begin, the Blues find themselves scoring freely.
Despite that, no joy was found tonight. Only despair. Six games remain. The next two at home: Toronto and San Jose. Then: away at Vancouver, DC, and Orlando. Finally: the closer, as it began, against New England.
Back to the game. When Kreis subbed off all three of his DPs with 24 minutes left, many saw it as a capitulation. Instead, Diskerud and Poku, and Mullins before them, infused New York City with grit and energy, nearly drawing even with Dallas. Kreis made note of that in his post-game comments.
"I was actually really pleased. I felt this was a really solid effort on our group’s part," Kreis said. "I thought that collectively they were willing and able to battle a little bit more than I had seen them over the past several weeks. So really pleased with the effort and commitment level, and obviously just a little disappointed we couldn’t quite get that goal tonight to level things."
It was a dramatic change from the previous week, where the New York City head coach put his team on blast, questioning their effort and desire. There was no questioning that tonight; despite the loss, the Blues looked likely to score, and were unlucky not to snatch an equalizing goal at the end.
The difference? It's revelatory that despite having a bye week, and plenty of time to rest up, neither Lampard nor Pirlo could finish the game out. It's also revelatory that their substitutes gave New York City a vibrancy and intensity that was lacking whilst the two midfield legends were playing. I've been harsh on Diskerud, but putting him in for Pirlo jolted the midfield to life, and gave the Blues added teeth on defense. Poku was far more lively than Lampard, meanwhile, and gave New York City badly needed strength and pace against one of the fastest, youngest teams in the league.
Isn't that because it takes time for European players to get used to MLS when they come mid-season? Sure. But growing familiarity can only do so much to help. It doesn't change the fact that Lampard is 37 going on 38, and far more likely to take in a game from a luxury box than from his midfield assignment, thanks to the ravages of time.
Meanwhile, Andrea Pirlo needs players around him to compensate for his deficiencies on defense. At the bare minimum, he needs an actual "number 6" holding midfielder or defensive destroyer to free him up to be a deep-lying playmaker. Think: Dax McCarty; Uri Rosell; Kyle Beckerman.
New York City have no such player on their roster, currently. Andrew Jacobson holds that role, but he's properly a box-to-box midfielder (or number 8). Diskerud isn't, either; he's best as an attacking right midfielder or winger. The lack of such a player severely hurts New York City, and puts their defense at a disadvantage. Instead, City Football Group have effectively spent $12-14 million on essentially two of the same player. It's unclear what Frank Lampard does for New York City on the field that Pirlo doesn't do. Of the two, Pirlo's game is far more suited to the rigors of aging. It shows on the field.
Given a choice this offseason, New York City should strongly consider terminating Lampard's contract. That's $6 million or so per year that New York City can spend on getting the next Sebastian Giovinco, instead of another season of disappointment from Lampard, who looks highly unlikely to ever justify the amount CFG are paying him with his play for New York City.