In Major League Soccer, the Designated Player Rule is commonly defined as a rule that:
"Allows each MLS franchise to sign players that would be considered outside of the team's salary cap (either by offering the player higher wages or by paying a transfer fee for the player), allowing MLS teams to compete for star players in the international soccer market." - Wikipedia (emphasis added by me)
So in principle, this rule is to do two things: 1) give MLS clubs the capacity to sign big-name players, and 2) sign them in a way that still gives you cap flexibility to build a proper team around said star. And currently in MLS we are treated to a growing list of excellent DPs (Designated Players) who are really contributing to their clubs, and giving their fans hope their club could be the next MLS Cup winner.
There's Didier Drogba in Montreal, Sebastian Giovinco in Toronto, as well as American International Jermaine Jones in Colorado just to name a few. And at New York City FC, the club has employed not just one DP, but three: David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo. And yes, we all know about the elephant in the room that is Frank Lampard, his contract, and his rocky relationship with the fan base. It still remains to be seen what a healthy, consistently involved Frank Lampard will bring to the pitch but we already know what he has brought off of it and it's nothing but drama. Surprisingly, though, I come before you not to pile on the hate party on Frank Lampard, but rather, to set our sights on another underwhelming DP for NYCFC: Andrea Pirlo.
Hey I get it: Pirlo is awesome. He's a suave guy, someone fans love to love. And he's had some world-class moments in an NYCFC shirt in the past year he's been with club, like this peach of a pass in last Sunday's match:
Pirlo to Villa has made for a few of the most brilliant moments in the club's brief history. Definitely not going to dispute that. However, for all the positives Pirlo has brought to the pitch, there are also more than a fair share of negatives as well. Since his arrival last summer, one thing has continued to be made abundantly clear to the fans (and the club): Pirlo cannot play as a defensive midfielder in MLS. And this revelation, sadly, has not come about from lack of trying it out. Andrea Pirlo has been used in both a double pivot (last year under Jason Kreis) and also as the lone defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation (both last year under Kreis and this year as well under Patrick Vieira).
Thankfully, after this season's 4-3 victory over the Chicago Fire, Vieira has since moved on from that experiment. Instead he's moved Pirlo further up the pitch and placed Federico Bravo as the team's first choice defensive midfielder. And more recently in the club's return to the 4-3-3 has added extra defensive support in Mikey Lopez. Having a midfield trio of Pirlo/Lopez/Bravo has definitely had it's bright spots. However, even adding the defensive duo of Lopez and Bravo, it still has not prevented defensive lapses like this one:
It's also underlined the consistent issue with building an ideal lineup this season: major concessions must be made to get Pirlo into the lineup. The New York Blues are a team that has more than it's fair share of midfield talent. With Kwadwo Poku, Mix Diskerud, Tommy McNamara, as well as the aforementioned Frank Lampard there is a lot of attacking and technical talent on the bench right now for NYCFC. Vieira's job now will be to find some way to play Pirlo, maintain a sound defensive shape, while also fitting in these other players as well. Not an easy task.
One thing that can make the job slightly easier is understanding one simple fact: Pirlo is not a 90 minute player in MLS. Pirlo himself has basically admitted this with his own comments:
"It's a very hard league to play in. It's very physical, there's a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play," - Andrea Pirlo
MLS is indeed a physical league, where athleticism can win you games even more than technical ability can at times. But, you know what: that fact isn't going to change anytime soon. Definitely not during the time Pirlo will be in a NYCFC shirt. And if NYCFC is going to become a team that consistently challenges for the playoffs, and eventually MLS Cup, it's going to need to keep this in mind. So where does that leave us, and the club, with Andrea Pirlo?
Vieira has shown he is not averse to making tactical substitutions and changes within a single game. During the club's recent successful road trip, Vieira consistently made defensive substitutions to help secure the 3 points. Players like Andoni Iraola, Ethan White, and the like have been brought on late in games, even to the point where Vieira has had mainly defensive players on the pitch and switched the formation to a 5-3-2. More of these substitutions need to be made for Andrea Pirlo, in particularly in home games. As valuable as Pirlo is in keeping possession, we have seen time and time again that is not going to guarantee victory in Yankee Stadium. In fact, teams want New York City FC to have the ball. With the small pitch, they can focus their energy on defense with the smaller channels to cover. This leads to more frequent turnovers which benefit the opposition on the counter.
And if we need to defend against counters, the team simply cannot afford to keep Pirlo on the pitch at the end of games. Players like Poku and Mix can be subbed in for Pirlo and provide enough skill on the ball, while also having the athleticism and work rate to recover on counters in the end of games. Vieira has already shown he has no problem parking the bus to close out games on the road. The club currently sits on only one home win heading into their next match versus Real Salt Lake. Precious points have been lost. In this playoff race, where winning at home is crucial to any chance the club might have staying above the red line, a player like Pirlo becomes more of a luxury than a necessity at the end of games.
In other words: No wins, no party.