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New York City FC's three-man midfield doesn't work.

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If Patrick Vieira really wants to build up from the back, every link in the chain has to be... well... linked. They aren't.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Let's flash back to a long time ago in a stadium far, far away.

On March 6th in Bridgeview, Patrick Vieira's Blues screamed out of the gate in an opening day slugfest, trading blow after blow with the hometown Chicago Fire. When the final whistle blew at Toyota Park, NYCFC walked away with a 4-3 win. The stars of the match, Tommy McNamara and Mix Diskerud, bossed play on either side of Andrea Pirlo in a 4-3-3 setup. The pair scored bookend goals, and added one assist each.

But consider what has happened since that day: Chicago's defensive unit, after dropping Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent for the impressive Rodrigo Ramos and Jonathan Campbell, has allowed just three goals in its last five matches. In that same period, New York City hasn't won a game.

That 4-3 victory might be an outlier.

To that end, the evidence continues to mount, no more so than on Saturday evening in Columbus: the 4-3-3 formation that produced such a rip-roarer on opening day just isn't going to cut it against half-decent competition.

At home, Patrick Vieira has opted for a 3-2-2-3 shape -- the infamous "W-M" -- placing T-Mac and Mix in front of Pirlo and his personal bodyguard, Federico Bravo. Though the scorelines haven't been kind to NYCFC through four games at Yankee Stadium, the four-man midfield was sufficient to achieve three of Vieira's main directives this year:

  1. Dominate possession of the ball, thereby dictating the flow of the game.
  2. Build up play gradually from the very back, with reliable and coherent links all the way up the chain, from Josh Saunders to the ball-shuttlers to the playmakers to the attackers.
  3. Give Pirlo enough protection to make full use of his wizardly vision and fire off the kind of laser-guided passes that nobody else in the history of MLS could ever manage, or even imagine at all.
Indeed, based on run of play and the full range of available stats, the Blues looked like the better team in three of their four home games (that 1-1 stinker on March 26th against New England being the sole outlier). The division of labor in the four-man midfield enabled those performances. And while Ronald Matarrita and Andoni Iraola have put in tireless, selfless work up and down the pitch out of the back, Federico Bravo really is The Dude's rug within this system: he ties it all together.


Bravo is an entire industrial-grade Black & Decker tool set. He's Brienne of Tarth with a six-shooter and an Apple Watch. He's that humble multi-instrumentalist called to tour with the E-Street Band, content to hang outside the spotlight and fill in all the gaps while Bruce Springsteen does a running knee-slide.

Yes, if you don't pay close attention, Bravo's dirty work might go unnoticed. Perhaps you're too busy being transfixed by Pirlo, which is entirely the point: Il professore is intended to be the nerve center. He's supposed to touch, pass, and worship the ball more than anyone else on the field, clutching it like a rosary just long enough for the attacking group to make make the right runs, praise be.

But on Saturday evening at the Mapfre Stadium, during which Crew SC simply dominated New York City physically and mentally, Pirlo didn't get to do his thing. He was stranded in a three-man midfield without the proper support: at the expense of attacking punch, Mix and T-Mac were forced to attend to janitorial duties far better suited for Bravo.

A look at the stats suggests that Pirlo's raw numbers were back where they needed to be; his touches, passing, and chance creation all topped the list for the evening. But with Diskerud and McNamara overburdened in the middle, there was nobody left to provide creative play behind David Villa. As a result, Pirlo was on an island, which forced Villa to track far back from his center-forward position to catalyze any sort of buildup. It wasn't until the late introductions of Khiry Shelton and Kwadwo Poku -- pure kinetic energy -- that Vieira's squad looked the least bit dangerous.

And by then, on a night in which the Crew easily could have had five or six goals, it was too late.

Vieira is committed as hell to building up play step-by-step from the back. That begins between the sticks with Josh Saunders, whose lack of comfort with that manner of soccer is woefully apparent. But if Saunders is to stay on as NYCFC's number-one -- for now, he's probably the only option until they cancel Lampard's contract and, I dunno, like, sign Iker Casillas in June -- all the other links in the chain have to be solid. Without a tough midfielder patrolling the nucleus of the formation and taking the heat off Pirlo, the two advanced mids -- Diskerud, McNamara, whomever -- are forced to overcompensate. They become toothless on the attack, and the chain breaks.

On Saturday, it downright shattered.

Andrea Pirlo is one of the great midfielders of his generation, and one of the finest, slickest, most cerebral playmakers ever to strike a ball. But during his brief run in MLS, his athletic limitations have never been more consequential. Therein lies the unending headache for NYCFC. To paraphrase Rick Pitino:

"Arturo Vidal's not walking through that door, fans. Paul Pogba is not walking through that door, and Seedorf and Gattuso are not walking through that door."

Well, damn, yo, what's a man to do? Suffice to say that Pirlo ain't getting benched, nor should he be.

(The idea that benching Pirlo could make this team better, which I'm happy to debate, would amount to a massively damning, downright sad indictment of the way the NYCFC roster was constructed.)

At the same time, playing with three at the back outside the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium would be something akin to suicide. The truth is that there are no convenient answers for this team right now, especially while a whole designated player spot is taken up by New York City's absentee father and tourist-in-chief, Frank Lampard, one of the single worst signings in the history of MLS. But there's still a truckload of games to play, so here are three options for Vieira to consider, particularly on the road:

  • Play a 4-2-2-2, keeping the workable Pirlo/Bravo and McNamara/Mix partnerships intact. The key is deciding whom to partner with Villa up top-- Patrick Mullins could work if both Ronald Matarrita and Andoni Iraola are available to run themselves ragged at fullback, as the lack of proper wingers forces the remaining wide guys to work even harder to stretch out opposition.
  • Try the 4-2-3-1, probably the most #basic formation ever. This would constitute a return to the Jason Kreis era, no? Villa's ideal role isn't that of a lone striker, given his penchant for drifting left. But hey, whaddya gonna do? Shelton, Stiven Mendoza, and Tony Taylor are able to rep on either wing, and McNamara can apply his uncommon creativity as a left-sided attacking midfielder as well.
  • F*** it, go wild with a 5-3-2 with Bravo/Jason Hernandez/Fred Brillant in central defense and Matarrita playing as a wingback opposite Iraola or RJ Allen (who deserves a shot right about now). Bravo is a hybrid defender-midfielder as it is -- a "box-to-box center back" -- so you still have cover for il Maestro, plus three attacking players in front and a versatile wide man on either side. This is a nutty idea on its face, but then again, so is the 3-2-2-3! Here and now, Vieira's propensity for unorthodox formations needs to become a strength and not a weakness. So... why the hell not?
It doesn't get easier for New York City. This weekend, they head to Chester for a road date against a much-improved Philadelphia Union side. We won't have to wait long to see whether Vieira's faith remains in the 4-3-3.

What would YOU do? It's your turn to sound off!