Another home game, another blown lead, another game lost. Like it or not, this is now the short story of New York City's 2016 MLS season. There's simply no other way to couch this. Far from the fortress it needs to be, Yankee Stadium is a charnel house of nightmares for New York City and its fans.
Tonight's game was no different. The Blues dominated the opening 45 minutes. David Villa missed a number of golden scoring opportunities, repeatedly letting a road-weary RSL escape unscathed. In the 56th minute, though, New York City's Jack Harrison scored his first professional goal, giving the Blues the 1-0 lead.
But in sickeningly familiar fashion, New York City gave up the lead. Scarcely three minutes later, RSL's Yura Movsisyan scored to tie the game at one goal apiece. Eight minutes later, Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez scored off a set-piece to give the visitors a 2-1 lead. And then seven minutes after that, Frederic Brillant gaffled an own goal to seal the victory. New York City managed to narrow the score to 3-2 with a Villa penalty in the 87th minute, but yet another Villa miss meant that the game-winning goal was Brillant's error.
That's the game in two paragraphs.
It goes beyond that, though. For the second time this season, New York City is mired in a multi-game winless streak. This one is four games strong now; it's no small thing that we now break for the Euros and the Copa América. A pause this long gives a team a chance to reset itself, to review what has worked and what hasn't, and to get its collective head straight.
What does Blues manager Patrick Vieira think? Is it the mental state of the team?
"I don’t think it is mental. I think that it is humility. I think that we maybe have over-confidence, and I think it has become a problem," he said. "We have to be more aggressive in front of the goals, we have to be more ruthless. For me, it is based in humility."
When asked to talk about the team's atrocious home record, Vieira elaborated.
"I have been asking myself the same question as well. I think, when I analyze all of our home games, there are both positives and negatives. The positives are the way that we play football, and the chances that we are able to create. I think that today, we did that, our movement was really good."
He continued. "Then, on the other side, there is the fact that we did not score. We do not score enough with all of the chances that we create. We have to change something. For me, it’s the mental aspect of the game, and we have to be more humble. I think that the team, at times, has showed too much arrogance, and too much confidence, but we will get that straightened away."
That's certainly part of it. I don't want to give short shrift to the mental aspects of the game. Half of any game is 90 percent mental, as it goes.
It's telling, though, that Vieira manages to contradict himself in assessing the team's troubles at home. I helpfully bolded the statements; he starts out by denying that the team's performance is related to its mentality, then proceeds to assert that, in fact, it's centered around that. I have no clue whatsoever what Vieira means when he maintains that the team is too arrogant or confident. That's certainly not something I see displayed on the field, and I'd dearly like for him to expand on that. If anything, I think that New York City's players are too tentative around goal, and consistently fail to close out games because they're not confident enough.
But that's squabbling over words. Notice what he doesn't mention: New York City's defensive struggles, particularly around set pieces. RSL's go-ahead goal came off a set piece. It was the 23rd goal New York City has given up off a set piece in 26 home games. Repeat: in 26 home games, the Blues have given up 23 set piece goals.
26 home games, 23 set piece goals allowed.
To quote the esteemed Jacobim Mugatu:
This isn't about mentality. This isn't about humility, or arrogance. This is about simple, basic soccer. You can create all the chances in the world; if you cannot defend set pieces -- and New York City are as bad at this as a pack of beached octopi -- you. will. not. win. games. Period, and full stop.
Watching the Blues fail at this with such monotonous, tiresome consistency goes beyond frustrating to downright infuriating. At this point, this is my reaction when I watch them surrender yet another set piece goal and give up the ghost on yet another home game:
What's even more vexing is that defending set pieces is such a basic element of the game. Look, if a Sunday league team playing in Brooklyn can do it competently, then surely professionals getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars -- or millions, in the case of Andrea Pirlo -- can do it. Right?
So why can't they? I cannot believe that they lack this basic competency. They don't. You don't get to a professional level without it. So it's not that.
There's been all kinds of words spilled over whether New York City fans should or shouldn't jeer the team after performances like this. But the argument is misplaced. They jeer because they care. Giving up set piece goals like this over and over and over and over and over again is professionally embarrassing. Players should expect to be raked over the coals over this. It's an ongoing deficiency that hasn't been addressed in any way, shape, or form! How do we know this? Because it keeps on happening.
So what else are fans supposed to do? How else are they supposed to express their disapproval? I don't jeer, because most home games I'm in the press box, but I've lost track of how many times I've pounded the desk in frustration or mock-flung my phone in anger at watching the Blues gaffle away games like this. It's crazy-making.
Look: the team's fundamental problem is that it's not setup to play in a place like Yankee Stadium. Its narrow dimensions are best suited to a team that concedes possession, presses high up the field to force opponents into turnovers, attacks on the counter, and uses set pieces like throw-ins, corners, and free kicks to create scoring opportunities.
In every single way, New York City is set up the opposite way from that. I'm not just talking about creating from the back. Villa isn't a target forward; he's not great at winning aerial battles. Neither is Khiry Shelton, though Vieira would like him to play as such. So lumping the ball up the field isn't an option for the Blues. Neither Pirlo nor Frank Lampard play at their best in a high-pressure system; and beyond those two, it's unclear that Vieira has any midfielders that could play that way. And on, and on.
It's frustrating enough that despite all the evidence indicating otherwise, Vieira is utterly committed to setting up the team to play the way he has. There's no changing that, and with Pep Guardiola now managing CFG's flagship in Manchester City, alia jacta est. New York City will build from the back, they will possess the hell out of that ball, and you will like it. Or not. But it's not changing.
MLS rules being what they are, New York City have no real option but to wind down the clock on at least Lampard and Pirlo's contracts, if not Diskerud's as well. The two aged legends will start more games than not, regardless of how their varied deficiencies hamstring the team. But Vieira's made it damningly clear that Diskerud's future in New York City is exceedingly dim.
New York City real estate and municipal politics being what they are, it's going to be highly difficult for CFG to get the land needed for a stadium in the near term. We're in the second year of what was billed originally as a three-year stay at Yankee Stadium. Real talk: the Blues aren't leaving it after next year. They will be playing there for the foreseeable future. The Red Bulls tried to get a stadium in the city for a decade, and finally gave up. At what point should the Blues do the same? Blame Bill de Blasio if you want, but if CFG want to build a 30,000-plus seat stadium, where exactly is it going to go? After the Atlantic Yards and New Yankee Stadium imbroglios, public enthusiasm for yet another stadium is non-existent. That's not changing anytime soon.
Most fans -- and I include myself in this number -- are extremely aware of this. Would it be great if New York City made the playoffs? Sure, but I have no expectation they will. At day's end, I want to see some decent soccer being played, enjoy some victories at home, watch young players get better, and watch veteran players burnish their legacies, whatever those may be. That's pretty much it.
But when a team consistently boots away victories at home by screwing up basic things like set pieces, is it any wonder frustration is boiling over? It shouldn't be. For the sake of our collective sanity, here's hoping that Vieira drills the hell out of set piece defending over the next two weeks. All fans want is to celebrate wins at home. It's tough enough for New York City to win games at home considering the way they're setup to play. They really can't afford to make it even tougher by screwing up something so simple as a set piece, over and over and over again.