The last game of the regular season was filled plenty of surprises for New York City FC supporters. For one, Patrick Vieira deployed the team in a formation never seen before. Even more surprising, he gave Eirik Johansen his first regular season cap of his career, starting over Josh Saunders - who had played every single minute of the season to that point. This was Johansen’s MLS debut, having only appeared in Open Cup ties and Friendlies before this match. Johansen acquitted himself well, making a few key stops on the way to the club’s 4-1 victory, including a save of the week candidate:
While the change of adding Johansen to the Starting XI was unexpected, it was not unappreciated. Ever since the preseason, fans have wondered if this would be this season would bring about more playing time for Johansen. He and Vieira had ties dating back to their time together in the Manchester City Elite Development Squad, where Vieira was his coach there as well. The preseason also saw Johansen getting the lion’s share of minutes as the club worked to implement Vieira’s new philosophy and tactics. And when it was Saunders who ended up in goal to begin the season, fans began to clamor more and more for Johansen as Saunders continued to make errant passes and look uncomfortable with the ball at his feet. But Vieira has stuck with Saunders, up until now that is.
After giving Johansen his first MLS start, the questions obviously turned to whether this meant anything for the upcoming playoff matches. Vieira did not dismiss the possibility Johansen could start, stating that it’s always been a competition throughout the season:
“There’s always been a competition in that position, or any other position in the team” head coach Patrick Vieira said. “I make a decision and sometimes I make the right one and sometimes I make the wrong one. But I still have one week, we have to look at the team we’re going to face and we have to look at how they’re going to train during the week. I have to speak with Rob [Vartughian], the goalkeeping coach and we’re going to make a decision at the right time.”
According to Vieira, although Saunders has gotten the large majority of playing time this season, Johansen has remained a candidate to start the entire season. By his own words Johansen has pushed Saunders and kept him on his toes so to speak. So, what has changed now to not let Saunders continue starting moving forward. Notice what Johansen himself said after the match:
“I’ve waited a long time for this – for me, I like to go about my business, keep my head down and work hard to prove I’m worth the shot,” Johansen explained.
“I think I took my opportunity in the friendly in Mexico which I think gave Patrick faith to put me in for this very important game.” (emphasis added)
What in large may have been a throw away friendly when the club traveled to take on Club Necaxa, it may have actually been a turning point for Eirik Johansen, and ultimately the club itself. If there are certain qualities or specific things Vieira has been waiting to see from Johansen before he made him the starter, he apparently may have started to see them, especially in the friendly versus Club Necaxa. Could this have been a move made sooner had the club sustained a longer run in the Open Cup? Quite possibly. But without an avenue for Vieira to get more live action results from Johansen, he apparently was reticent to give him a start in a regular season match. Those fears appeared no longer there after their recent friendly.
If Johansen is named the starting goalkeeper moving forward in the club’s playoff run, it could add an entirely new element that clubs will not be prepared for when facing NYCFC. All season long, teams have schemed to apply pressure on the defensive line either hoping to cause a turnover or get the ball back to Saunders’, who they felt was the weakest link in the club’s passing system. With Johansen in place instead of Saunders, that’s not something teams can play for, as Johansen has shown much more capacity for passing the ball. Albeit in one game, Johansen also seemed more assertive in the box, more willing to charge the ball rather than rely on making a cat-like save, as Saunders is known to do.
Having said all this, Saunders could start for the rest of the season. Things like this happen with Vieira. But as we all wait nervously to see how the club’s first ever playoff run goes, it will also come with the suspense of not knowing who will be the starting keeper moving forward.