In the club's inaugural season last year, through six matches the record stood at 1 win, 3 draws, and 2 losses. Flash forward to now, the 2016 season, and NYCFC stood through six matches at 1 win, 3 draws, and 2 losses. If you're looking at the box score and the schedule things look pretty much the same as they looked last year at this time under Jason Kreis. And even if you look at this team on it's superficial surface you will see a team that has a lot of the possession, and suffers on defense. Similar things people could see last season as well.
The one problem with that is things are definitely not the same. First and foremost, the team does not have the same coach in place. Only allowed one season with the mantra of "Playoff or bust", Jason Kreis was shown the door after what was seen as an underwhelming season. Taking his place is former Arsenal legend, Patrick Vieira. And right off the bat you can clearly see the difference between the two men. Where Kreis is stern-faced and terse in his on-field and post-game persona, Vieira is a man who exudes all the swagger and gravitas one would expect of such a legend. He answers every question with a smile and a willingness to hold court and speak on whatever is being directed towards him.
Be that as it may, results matter. They matter to us as fans, and they ultimately matter to the organization as a whole. CFG and Vieira are not looking to just experience what New York life is like. They want to come into uncharted territory and see what success tastes like here. So, the question needs to be asked: Is Vieira making the club better?And if so, how?
Unfortunately, to answer this question we cannot simply go to the team's current record or point differential. It's only seven matches into the young season. Also, Vieira has also been noted for saying he wants to build something sustainable in New York. A consistent winner. So let's examine a few ways we can already see that Vieira has separated himself from his predecessor and what to make of them.
Roster Building and Development.
Last season we saw a club that had a few young promising players, but was fairly heavy on MLS veterans who have played in this league for several years, and some having played for several teams in MLS. It also was heavy on players Kreis was very familiar with either because he coached them at RSL or because he had played/coached against them in his time with MLS. Not to say this was wrong or right, just a reality. Kreis and Reyna last season relied heavily on the MLS expansion draft to fill much of the roster they would be bringing into the club's inaugural season. Much of those acquisitions are no longer with the club, but there are a few gems that it produced who have remained (McNamara and Mullins).
Coming into this season, the approach was very different now with Vieira at the helm. He and Reyna have instead to broaden the net they use to catch possibly productive players for the club. Perhaps due to Vieira's European ties, this year has much more of an international flair to it. Long time MLS veterans like Brovsky, Wingert, and Grabavoy have been replaced with players new to the league like Brillant, Matarrita, and Bravo. While Brillant has been a mixed bag so far in the early going, Bravo and Matarrita have been pleasant delights so far.
Another factor to consider is how much younger the club has gotten this season as well. The previously mentioned Bravo (22) and Matarrita (21) are both in their early 20's. Other acquisitions include Mikey Lopez (23), Stiven Mendoza (23), Ethan White (25), Diego Martinez (24) etc. Even lower radar signings like Shannon Gomez (19) and this year's SuperDraft pick Jack Harrison (19) help to further illustrate the team's focus on acquiring young talent. And unlike last year's loanees Shay Facey and Angelino, this seasons' acquisitions are more geared to the long term investment of the club.
And this can be attributed as a step in the right direction for this club. One thing that I really felt was lacking from this club last year was a sense of what is the team going to do post our current DP era. What was the foundation being set last year? While I do not expect any of this year's signing to become good enough to be the next crop of DP signings this club, they do present a clearer picture of what the foundation of this team will be moving forward and what future DPs could have to work with. Not only that, we are seeing players like Mix, McNamara, Matarrita, Shelton, and Mullins get valuable minutes now already in the early going of the season. Yes, the team still needs to figure out ways to play with Lampard and Pirlo in the midfield. But the vision, the strategy of Vieira's game plan is something they are getting the chance to execute now in games that matter. That is very valuable for these younger players. Not only that, it can hopefully lead to them being able to be called upon and relied on to perform even when the DP players are not available (or especially when they are not available). This leads into our next point:
While we know what type of formation and playing style Kreis preferred for the club last season, it was very hard to really get our mind around what the identity of this team was. Last year resulted in a lot of words being typed and spoken regarding what was called "The City Way". We kept worrying whether or not this club of ours in New York was going to be nothing more than a "farm team", somewhere they could park expensive players (i.e. Frank Lampard) or could loan their Youth Academy players (Angelino, Facey) that offered them complete control of the situation. Admittedly, even the hiring of Patrick Vieira this offseason was initially met with some of the same concerns. Is CFG using NYCFC as a way to groom Vieira for the Man City job in a few years? Is this somewhere they think they can let their green coaches get their feet wet before returning to England? These were just a few of the questions people asked at the time of his hiring.
But to Vieira's credit, however, he has sought out to prove that he is his own man, and that NYCFC is it's own club regardless of where it's financial backing comes from. He is very committed to the team ideal, and for NYCFC to have it's own style of play. And this thought process is something he is remaining consistent with even with the team's recent run of matches without a win. Here's a comment Vieira made before the loss to the Philadelphia Union:
"I have to be patient and the club has to be patient, the players have to be patient because the way we play is really positive," Vieira said. "We are trying to build something in the long term, something really strong and really positive and we are working well. We are working hard and let’s see what’s going to happen in the next two, three months. At the moment, I’m quite pleased with the level where we are and the positive attitude from the players when they are on the field."
It is clear that Vieira is prioritizing the team's identity and style of play over results at the moment. And while that may be frustrating to us as fans, especially as the team creeps closer and closer to matching the 11 game winless streak they suffered last season around this same time under Kreis, it's also necessary. What Vieira is trying to build is much more than a playoff berth this season. He's establishing a culture. He's working towards an ideal and culture that can put this club in a position to succeed for years to come. A task of that magnitude takes time. It also requires the next point we will examine.
With only a couple of months into his tenure, we are still learning who Vieira is as a manager and leader of this club, but even still we have already gotten a few key indicators for how he plans to manage this club. From the outset of the season, there was one familiar name who kept finding itself on the lips of the NYCFC faithful: Kwadwo Poku. Many had wondered why we saw so little of him preseason. The wondering turned into outcry as NYCFC continued to drop points at home and Poku had yet to be seen on the pitch. Through it all, however, Vieira remained consistent in his remarks regarding Poku.
"It’s all depending on how he works in training. If he works well in training, if he works hard in training, he will have a chance," Vieira said following training Wednesday. "But if he doesn’t and other people do it, other people will have a chance in front of him. You need to earn that spot because there’s so many players who want to play."
Vieira said Poku has found adjusting to his new formation and tactical ideas "a little bit more difficult."
"This is our job as well, for me and my staff to be a bit more clear and spend more time to explain what we want regarding the position he plays," Vieira said. "It’s just a question of time. It’s not about the talent, because he has the talent. It’s about how he can use the talent to help the team. This is what is important."
Vieira has been consistent in asserting that Poku needs to 1) prove himself in his understanding of Vieira's tactics, and 2) prove himself in training as deserving of more playing time. And truth be told, the dirty secret behind all of this Poku drama is that early on Poku simply didn't look very good. Definitely not someone who was deserving to play over guys like McNamara and Mix. Poku has since responded with some better performances as of late. But it shows us that Vieira is not going to cave under the pressure of the fans or perhaps even CFG themselves to play someone just for the sake of playing them. He is looking for players who will fit into his team concept and will produce the way he is expecting them to.
Another example of this comes in the case of Khiry Shelton and Mikey Lopez. A few weeks ago Vieira chose to leave both players off the 18 man roster for the club's recent match against the Chicago Fire. The reason? A video that Mikey Lopez posted earlier that week of he and Shelton talking about the upcoming match, pretending to forget who they were supposed to be playing. Many can look at the video and say that it was for the most part innocuous. But here's what Vieira had to say about it:
"Khiry and Mikey Lopez were supposed to be part of the team, but I wasn't really pleased, unhappy, about the message on the internet... I think that was disrespectful to Chicago, and that is not the message I want from the players, because I want this football club -- I want this team -- to be humble, to work hard, and to try to perform and win games, and not to spending too much time with social media and sending negative messages that don't reflect the football club. Because it is important for me to send the message, and it is important for them to understand that the message they are sending is bigger than themself, and I don't want that to have a negative impact on the team. But bigger than the team, is to the football club-- we're not talking about the football club, we're talking about the groundsmen, the people who are working in the office, because that doesn't reflect who we are as a football club. And this is why they haven''t taken part of the game today."
While it's possible the two players could've helped what ended up being another game NYCFC failed to get three points at home, in particular Shelton, it was again another instance Vieira demonstrated he is prioritizing the team's identity over results. Vieira does not want players on his team that will act like or give the appearance of that they are better than others. He doesn't want to see complacency in his squad. And truth be told, this team has done nothing yet in it's first 40 plus games as a franchise that would even warrant such behavior. Vieira knows this as well and wants his team to play like it.
During the club's recent road match against the Philadelphia Union, there was one notable omission to the 18 man roster: Andrea Pirlo. The media wasted very little time in asking Vieira as for what the reason was the DP Midfielder was not with club. While many may have been concerned he was injured, while other pondered if he requested a day off, Vieira had a much simpler response.
"I was really just choosing the best team to try to win football matches," Vieira told reporters after the match. "[With regards to] the team we are going to play against, and how we can hurt them, and how we can defend regarding their strength.
"It’s my decision."
That match against the Union marked the first time Pirlo was purposely omitted from the 18 man roster since coming to NYCFC. It also answered a question many wondered when Vieira became the manager: Would he have the ability to sit DP players if he thought it was best for the team? The answer seems to be that yes he does, and yes he will if he deems it necessary.
So as we look reflect on the first two months, can we say that the team is better than it was last year? Objectively, no we cannot. The club is at, or near, the same amount of points it was at last year under Jason Kreis. That being said, it's evident that Vieira was not hired for immediate improvement. Vieira was brought in because ownership felt he was the best man for the job now and for the long haul. Many people wonder if, and expect, the same set of standards Kreis had to be put upon Vieira as well. In other words "playoffs or bust". And while I understand the fairness in that logic, and that many people thought it was unfair for Kreis to get fired, I would not expect the situation with Kreis to bear any precedent with how the club will deal with Vieira.
Jason Kreis was an unknown to CFG before the inception of the club. They went with Kreis because on paper there was sound logic behind it: He's an MLS lifer, knows how to win in the league and even had success as a coach winning an MLS cup with Real Salt Lake. For an ownership group that was just getting it's feet wet in MLS, it made sense to bring in a coach who was familiar with the league. But at the end of the day, Kreis wasn't a CFG guy. When things got hazy it was, fair or not, an easy call to let Kreis go. Patrick Vieira is a CFG guy. He was an ambassador for MCFC, he coached their Elite Development Squad, and he's been around ownership and executives for quite some time now. They know him, they've seen him in action for sometime. Not only that, he's a legend from his playing days and that always holds sway. And as we've seen already in interviews and post game conferences, the man knows how to explain himself and carry himself amidst adversity. Qualities like these can go a long way in a coach's staying power. But ultimately even the smoothest of talkers can't gloss over a lack of wins. So if we're having this same conversation mid summer of next year, Vieira will definitely be on the hot seat. Just don't expect him to be fired this season, playoffs or not.
And I say that with the belief that it is a good thing he won't be. Vieira has come into this job tasking himself with being the man who establishes the building blocks of this franchise and what it will be 5 years from now, maybe even 10 years from now. If he's successful he could be New York's very own version of Bruce Arena, consistently churning out contender after contender. Able to fit practically any player you throw at him into a system that's a well oiled machine. A machine that merges big DP signings with young academy prospects year after year. It's the kind of club you'd expect in a market like New York. Let's hope we get it.