Five straight and counting. Five games since New York City last tasted victory.
That's the thing about streaks. You don't know you're in one until it's already going. Then, it takes a life of its own, creating its own gravitational forces. Last year, the Blues' season effectively ended in June, after a twelve-game winless streak. Losses and draws piled upon each other, until the weight of it all snuffed out whatever early hopes might've been stoked.
It now looks a little like a bit of history repeating. The Blues went tonight to Columbus, playing an equally frustrated Columbus Crew SC. The defending Eastern Conference champions had yet to win this season. No matter; they were up to the task.
Columbus struck first. Seven minutes in, Justin Meram tore down the right side, and expertly crossed the ball into the box. It took a slight deflection, but that was all Ethan Finlay needed to slot it home to give the Crew a 1-0 lead.
New York City tied things up eight minutes later, as Andoni Iraola delivered a cross to David Villa, who hammered home the header. But that's as dangerous as the Blues got in the first half. Columbus repeatedly got runners in behind New York City's high line, and it was only through sheer, dumb lock that the Black and Gold didn't add to their tally.
That sorry tale continued in the second half. Four minutes in, Kei Kamara scored off another Meram delivery. That gave Columbus the lead for good. Manager Patrick Vieira waited until the 66th minute before deciding to change things up, removing an ineffective Tommy McNamara for Kwadwo Poku, and an equally impotent Tony Taylor for Khiry Shelton. The Blues, toothless till then, immediately became more threatening, creating a number of chances; but to no avail.
With ten minutes to go, Justin Meram finally scored to seemingly put the game abed, giving Columbus a 3-1 lead. But with scarcely three minutes left in the game, Poku was fouled in what looked like a denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity, giving New York City a lifeline. Villa scored the ensuing penalty, narrowing the game to 3-2. Not content with giving the Blues the penalty, referee Ted Unkel also sent off Columbus captain Michael Parkhurst instead of the actual offender, Tyson Wahl.
Vieira withdrew Stiven Mendoza for Patrick Mullins, but Crew keeper Steven Clark twice denied Mullins the equalizer.
The loss drops New York City to 1-2-3 in the season. Since that opening win against the Chicago Fire, the Blues are winless in their last five, having surrendered seven goals in that span of games.
Next up for New York City: another road game, this one against the Philadelphia Union. That's next Saturday.
Josh Saunders is a great shot-stopper, and just as awful at ball distribution. His worst moment came when he nearly gifted Columbus a second goal, getting stripped of the ball at his feet by Kei Kamara. But it's been an ongoing concern this season. Patrick Vieira, like nearly every coach in soccer right now, wants the team to build from the back. That's fine; but it starts, first and foremost, with a keeper who's comfortable with the ball at his feet. That's not Saunders, nor will it be.
But if not Saunders, who? Eirik Johansen hasn't seen any game-time outside of a serviceable performance in New York City's only Open Cup game last season. Andre Rawls is incredibly raw. They may be better at ball distribution than Saunders, but are they better shot-stoppers? That's decidedly unclear. So Vieira has a choice: does he stick to having Saunders distribute the ball, however badly? Or does he switch things up? Towards the end of the game, Vieira essentially instructed Saunders to roll the ball to one of the defenders, who then began the passage of play. But that's a stop-gap.
New York City's back four isn't suited to a high line. There's no doubt that the Blue's four defenders - Iraola, Brillant, Hernandez, and Matarrita - are far better than the inaugural edition, of which Hernandez is the sole remnant. But as good as they are, they're not good at using a high line to catch offenses offside. Chicago repeatedly made a mockery of it in Week 1. Tonight, Columbus did the same. It was only by sheer luck that Columbus didn't score four or five goals in the first half. But eventually, the goals came. Kamara scored to make it 2-1 Columbus, then Justin Meram slid the dagger in twelve minutes from the end. What's frustrating about this is that deploying a high line is the kind of tactical instruction that can easily be adjusted as a game develops. Vieira never did so, stubbornly sticking to it even as the Crew ran riot.
New York City need to use a four-man midfield. Vieira, by and large, prefers to set his team up in a narrow 4-3-3. Most games, that looks like a trio of Andrea Pirlo, Tommy McNamara, and Mix Diskerud in the midfield. While that worked for the Blues in the first couple of games, it hasn't lately. There's a simple reason why: Pirlo isn't a defensive midfielder at all. In fairness, he's done a lot better job of being involved defensively this season, but that's just shown how glaring his weaknesses are in that area.
In turn, Pirlo's inability to defend means that Tommy McNamara and Mix Diskerud have to basically work as shuttling midfielders, rather than concentrate on their attacking responsibilities. That makes them less effective players overall. And that places even more pressure on wingers like Stiven Mendoza and Tony Taylor, and forward David Villa, to essentially create their own chances. The result? A disjointed team that's unable to score or create chances.
Vieira, to his credit, saw this early on. He's got a capable defensive shielder in Federico Bravo. That's why he resorted to the W-M in two games; it lets Pirlo do what he does best, be a defensive playmaker. It lets Mix and Tommy be more involved in the offense. But maybe you don't want to go with three at the back on the road. That's fine; use a 4-4-2 instead. But as it stands now, a 4-3-3 isn't the best fit for this group of personnel.
Blues need creativity and scoring punch. Right now, they have neither. Pirlo's too busy trying to defend to be able to create, Diskerud and McNamara are too busy shielding Pirlo to help create, and Villa is the only forward able to create scoring chances from scratch. It'd be really nice if New York City had a third designated player who could either create chances or score them, or do both.
They don't. Oh, Frank Lampard is a DP, but he's only played 773 minutes of MLS soccer. He's still training individually, recovering from a calf injury that's sidelined him all season long. At this point, New York City would be best served by cutting him loose and finding someone -- ideally, younger -- who can contribute right away. But right now, that spot is basically a wasted slot.