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CANADIANS CLUBBED: Three things we learned in New York City's 2-0 win over Toronto FC

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With the help of WhoScored and Opta, we turn to the stats to assess how NYCFC rode Andrea Pirlo, R.J. Allen, and a proper division of labor in the midfield to boss the pace of play and lock down the result.

When New York City signed R.J. Allen in May and started him less than a week later, I had a theory.

This theory was borne out of watching the Monmouth grad flail about like a well-meaning but skittish house pet, sprinting empty-headed up and down the right wing while Lloyd Sam beat him like he was eggs.

Amid a string of disastrous results, I could only assume that one of two things had to be true:

  1. Allen had compromising photos of Claudio Reyna. Like, he saw him eating at Olive Garden or something.
  2. Terminally ill, he was contacted by the Make a Wish Foundation and given the opportunity to live out his dream of playing close enough to Mix Diskerud to smell his hair.
To be clear-- I don't believe either of those things is true anymore. Not after last night, in which R.J. Allen really actually kinda looked like a serviceable MLS fullback. Seriously! We've got stats to back it up, beginning with his 8.5 match rating from WhoScored.com, which makes him their Man of the Match.

Hey-ya!

There was lots to love about Wednesday night's 2-0 shutout victory over well-funded, playoff-bound Toronto FC: Andrea Pirlo held the ball in the center circle like a brahmin offering some kind of cosmic oblation far beyond the comprehension of the laity. Mix Diskerud kept to the wings -- both of them! -- so Pirlo and Frank Lampard could lay central without overcrowding. Andrew Jacobson continued to be a damned menace, demanding attention from defenders as he advanced the ball.

But, in today's edition of THREE THINGS WE LEARNED, we have to start with someone who didn't even play.

  • New York City proved it can win a massive game without the services of David Villa, their leading scorer and captain.
At the beginning of the year, before the arrivals of Pirlo and Lampard, before the emergence of Tommy McNamara and Kwadwo Poku, we wondered out loud if New York City could even score a single goal without Villa's unrelenting dynamism.

That makes Wednesday's win a truly splendid development. Villa's goalscoring has occasionally felt like a bit of a band-aid when tactics fall to crap and creativity is scarce (to be fair, Sebastian Giovinco's situation in Toronto is similar). Goals all count the same, but pulling rabbits out of hats isn't a sustainable strategy.

Villa has accounted for 37% of NYCFC's total league goals, a rate only exceeded by San Jose's Chris Wondolowski (40%) and Crew SC's Kei Kamara (43%). In New York City's eight wins, Villa sports an even higher rate, just under 43%.

Watching the Boys in Blue find the net twice with Villa sidelined, I thought one thing in particular: this reflects really well on Patrick Mullins, who looked the part as a lone striker.

The University of Maryland product is still finding his sea legs in MLS, but may turn out to be the club's smartest signing in last fall's expansion draft. Though not a physically imposing number nine, he has the height and athleticism to play in the air-- a trait that, for a team known for shoddy set piece defending and pedestrian performances on 50-50 balls, will prove to be exceedingly vital in the coming years.

Look at it this way: New York City has two headed goals on the year. Only two!

Both scored by Mullins. And both against Toronto.

It isn't just NYCFC-ers that are taking notice: number fourteen's stock is rising across the league. As MLSSoccer.com's Matthew Doyle wrote before last night's nifty victory:
"In his 2,200 MLS minutes, split between New England and NYCFC, Mullins has 9 goals and 6 assists (one of those coming in MLS Cup). He's also drawn a penalty and set one up. He back-pressures at a high level, he runs the channels, he combines with David Villa. To put Mullins' numbers in perspective: Octavio Rivero has 10 goals and 3 assists in 2,264 minutes this season; Will Bruin has 10g/2a in 1,887; and Dom Dwyer has 9g/2a in 2,080. Mullins is rarely mentioned in the same breath as those guys, but perhaps he should be. Perhaps he's being underrated once again, as he was coming out of college despite all his success and accolades, and as he was ahead of last year's expansion draft."
What's that line from Pulp Fiction? "That's how you're gonna beat 'em, Butch. They keep underestimating you."

Unlike Bruce Willis's fading pugilist, however, Pat Mullins is no palooka. He exploited space down the left -- what's good, Josh Williams? -- as Villa does so reliably.

MullinsheatmapTFC
Mullins's heat map (most frequent action zones) against TFC. (Image: WhoScored.com)

By the time the referee's whistle spurred Yankee Stadium into gleeful bacchanal, Mullins had registered two shots on target: one with his left foot and the other with his head.

Amid the jambalaya that is New York City's roster, the New Orleans native has brought the right amount of spice at certain times this year. But seeing him bring it as a lone striker against a sure-fire playoff team? Gosh, that might just make a man feel like funkin' it up.

Further:
  • R.J. Allen probably won't become a world-beater, but his frequent touches, off-the-ball runs, and defensive legwork were essential in securing Wednesday's big win.
In his college days at Monmouth, Allen built a sterling reputation as an overlapper and a creator. He produced 23 assists in his four years, but had rarely been a key cog in attacking buildups at New York City (if and when they occurred). His inability to create chances or defend one-on-one was the impetus for the club's signing of Basque legend Andoni Iraola.

With the eminently disappointing Iraola sidelined with an ailing calf, Allen is back in the fold and successfully finding ways to mesh with Pirlo's midfield lockdowns and Lampard's attacking angles.

We knew the guy could run; Jason Kreis considers industriousness incredibly sexy. But his flying touch back to Lampard off of Pirlo's tasty lob was something else. Something else else.

How? AND FROM WHENCE?

That assist was sexy, 'tis true, but let's get to the really sexy part:

  • Allen took 56 touches, which ranked second on the team behind the Bearded One.
  • He was routinely involved in the action; in addition to his assist, he led NYCFC in both defensive clearances and tackles.
  • He tied with Jason Hernandez for the team lead in interceptions.

AllenstatsTFC

Allen's clearances (purple), interceptions (green), and tackles (blue) against TFC.
(Image: Opta/MLSSoccer.com)

Yikes! A superlative performance from a fullback whom Claudio Reyna pulled off the street? A man could get used to that.

Finally:

  • NYCFC figured out the right division of labor in the midfield-- Pirlo and Lampard ran the show centrally, Jacobson carried the ball forward and fired shots, and Mix Diskerud stuck to the wings without drifting. Both wings, somehow.
We haven't seen this kind of discipline from Ol' Mixy this year, who often roams free without much regard for tactical efficiency. He gave NYCFC's star men room to work and, in the process, displayed some impressive lateral movement.

Let's check out Mix's heat map:

MixheatmapTFC
Image: WhoScored.com

This is really striking to me-- lining up as ostensibly a right winger, Mix took up impressive amounts of space on the complete opposite side of the field without dawdling in the middle, which was especially important without David Villa, Tommy McNamara, and Angelino out there conducting the left half.

By staying disciplined in his positioning for a change, Diskerud accomplished a couple of essential tasks:
  1. He was able to provide linking support not just for Allen but also left fullback Chris Wingert, whose skills on the ball are limited. With Mix in tow, Wingert was free to press much further forward.
  2. Since Mix only pinched into the middle to provide support in NYCFC's own half, deep man Andrew Jacobson had room maraud up the center of the pitch on the attack like some kind of banshee, or perhaps a man whose hair is on fire but doesn't care.
Indeed, Jacobson was a major beneficiary of Mix's economy and restraint.

"The 4 Train" has been seeing a lot more of the ball in recent weeks, accentuated by his long-range cracker of a goal at home against Columbus. Like Mix, A.J. doesn't appear to have a truly ideal position on this squad given its particular personnel: he's largely been saddled with a defensive midfielder's responsibilities whilst sporting an expertise more in line with that of a box-to-box attack dog. But with Diskerud's commitment to defensive cover, Allen's standout effort, and Josh Saunders' mojo working overtime in goal, Jacobson was free to scream forward.

A.J. fired off four shots, which tied him with Mullins for the team lead. None of them found the target, but there's value in putting an opponent on notice and alerting them of the fact that, yes, there are quite a number of willing shooters on this squad that demand defensive attention. The doggedly aggressive Jacobson was successful in drawing extra defenders and opening up space elsewhere in result.

On this night, space itself was the difference between a rampant, agile performance and the type of sputtering, aimless fare that nearly sank NYCFC's entire season in late spring.

This team may still miss out on the postseason, but there was plenty to like on Wednesday. And just in time, too: San Jose comes to town on Saturday in this shortest of short weeks. Hey, look out, Wondolowski-- R.J.'s comin' for ya.