New York City's playoff hopes are alive. They're alive because, just when it needed to, New York City put together one of its best all-around performances in a single game. That performance wasn't without its wobbly bits; nails were bitten, breaths were held, hackles were raised.
But the result was the same regardless: a victory. New York City have now won four of their last six home games. They have one more: the season closer, against New England, on October 25. What matters is that, for now, that game retains much more than symbolic meaning.
New York City came into tonight's game -- their third in a span of eight days -- needing a victory. But the realities of squad rotation, weariness, and an injury to star striker David Villa, threatened to make things tough for the Blues.
This is how New York City lined up for tonight's game.
Looking at the initial starting lineup, I'd imagined a 4-5-1; others thought a 4-4-1-1. In reality, formations and tactics are fluid, subject to no master but the moment. But in looking at the first few minutes, it struck me that what coach Jason Kreis was using was really a fluid 4-3-3 with five midfielders.
This makes sense. One of the most pressing needs Kreis has as a coach is successfully integrating players as disparate as Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo into his lineup in an extraordinarily short span of time. Saying it's been rough is an understatement. At times, both of the mid-season designated players look lost, perhaps even disinterested.
You can't change the players; for as much as many Blues fans might want Lampard gone, or at the least benched in favor of Kwadwo Poku, that's not going to happen. But you can change the tactics. A 4-3-3 is a formation that Lampard is quite familiar with. It suits how he plays, and that comfort, that familiarity, cannot help but make him a better player for New York City.
Similarly, Andrea Pirlo is somewhat more liberated from his defensive responsibilities in, and set free to spray passes around the field. Or: as free as he'll ever be in a league like MLS, where he'll never have the kind of time on the ball he enjoyed in Serie A.
The first half was rather unmemorable. Full of vinegary disposition. The Blues and Quakes played the kind of half teams play when they're desperate for a victory, and convinced the world conspires to deny them that. Four yellow cards marked the occasion. Andrea Pirlo was first up, in the 33rd minute, for dissent. Pirlo's reaction?
San Jose's Clarence Goodson was next in the 36th, followed by RJ Allen in the 45th and Marc Pelosi in the 46th. The half closed scoreless, but with New York City clearly in the front foot, dictating the run of play.
The second half began much as the first, neither team willing to budge an inch. But a draw suited neither team; the game was meant to open up, as both the Quakes and Blues chased all three points, and a playoff berth. But it needed a goal to make that happen.
It came from the unlikeliest of sources. In the 51st minute, Ned Grabavoy latched onto a peach of a pass from David Villa, and scored. Ned Grabavoy scored. Ned Grabavoy scored? Ned Grabavoy scored! Much maligned by many New York City fans, who feel he contributes little of note to the team, Grabavoy is a vintage Kreis player: self-effacing, workmanlike, taciturn.
His value lies not in what you see, but in what you don't see. Grabavoy possesses a certain genius for breaking up the opposing team's flow. More than a lot of players, he can anticipate how an opposing player is going to set up, and thus disrupt that passage of play. In other words: it's not so much that he tackles to prevent a play, so much as he sees that play ahead of time, and places himself to prevent that play from even happening in the first place.
Conversely: Grabavoy on offense is a deliberative player; where he looks tentative, it's because he's working out all the angles for where players are going to be two, three, four steps ahead of the game. Moreover, he shuttles back and forth, covering acreages of space.
None of these are qualities glorified in this age; they hearken back to a time less fraught with highlights. But they are no less important for that. Pirlo, Villa: these are your icons. Grabavoy? He's the glue that holds a team together.
By dint of his effort, New York City led 1-0. Time ticked away. In the 63rd minute, things got even more surreal. Grabavoy scored. Again. This, surely, is the unlikeliest brace scored in quite some time. Over two years had passed since his last one.
Wait: it gets even stranger. Two minutes later, David Villa rose high into the Bronx night to power home a header, and like that, New York City led 3-0. It seemed a rout was on, with the stadium rocking hard.
Which it did, for about seven minutes. Quincy Amarikwa managed to slot home for the Quakes in the 72nd minute, to make it 3-1. Suddenly, a nervous shudder ran through the 28,321 in attendance. New York City wasn't going to give this away, were they?
That nervousness became a deathly stillness four minutes later. Angelino, for all his precocious gifts, is 18 years old. 18 year olds are prone to doing the occasional dumb thing. Usually, it has no consequences. But most 18 year olds aren't playing in a packed house for a team desperate for a victory, against a team that's even more desperate.
Angelino is. In the 76th minute, as Amarikwa ran about in the penalty area, he pulled him down. In any league, that's a stone penalty. It was. Chris Wondolowski -- San Jose's leading scorer -- took it. He scored it. It made the score 3-2, New York City.
Yankee Stadium was a tomb. Too many fans had seen this sequence of events before: New York City takes a lead, only to gift their opponents a draw or a win. Criticize New York City fans for going silent, if you want, but realize that for these fans to remain in full voice, they have to have some faith that their team will rise to the occasion. Too many times, New York City has fallen some distance short of the occasion.
Not this night. Gradually, if a bit spasmodically, the Blues settled themselves. Chances presented themselves to New York City; that they weren't able to capitalize on them mattered less than that New York City repeatedly forced the issue. Pirlo, particularly, carried the team when it need most doing. First, he found himself all alone in front of goal; failing to shoot, deferring instead when he should've shot. Then, deep into stoppage time, Pirlo nearly scored an Olímpico, denied only by the aluminium.
Finally: the whistle sounded. New York City put all three points abed. They remain two points behind Montréal, one point behind Orlando, for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Blues will play Vancouver next Saturday at 10 p.m. ET.