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Would Kreis’ NYCFC have improved this season?

There’s no way to know that, but people will speculate nonetheless

MLS: New York City FC at Montreal Impact Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

There we were, feeling good about four wins on the spin, and then Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes’ mused on a bit of MLS alternate history. Specifically: would New York City be doing as well as it currently is under Patrick Vieira had they decided to stick with Jason Kreis instead of firing him days after the season ended.

"I think if Jason would have stayed there, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have gotten them in a better place this year than they were last year," said the Kansas City head man after practice on Wednesday. "There's no doubt in my mind. I think he's proven it over the years, and I think he would continue to do the same."

Before everyone gets riled up, let’s pause a minute here and acknowledge the obvious elephant in the room: being both former MLS players and MLS coaching rivals, the two men are somewhat close. If not friends, we can maybe call them friendly rivals. We also don’t know the context of the question.

Finally, for all the frustration that New York City fans felt with Kreis last season, two things are clear:

  1. His record with the Blues (10 wins, 17 losses, 7 draws) stands fairly high among expansion teams in the modern era. Remember: the only team to make the playoffs in its inaugural season was Seattle, so despite CFG’s stated ambitions, that was probably a bridge too far.
  2. Despite getting sacked after one season, Kreis is still held in high regard within the league. He’s clearly shown no desperation in chasing after the first available opening, passing up coaching seats in Chicago, for instance, to work with the USMNT.

Fans are fans. They’re going to feel any number of ways about the people who are managing the team they root for. Patrick Vieira gets lionized right now, but you best better believe that fans were ripping him a new one after the Red Bull Wedding. I know, I read and heard the comments, so let’s don’t pretend like it wasn’t happening.

So: would Kreis have done better in a second season with the Pigeons? That’s unknowable. The reason it’s unknowable is because we don’t know what roster moves Kreis would’ve made to improve the team had he been given a second season. Vermes actually said as much. It’s key to remember: at root with fans’ frustration with Kreis was his dependence — many would say over-dependence — on his RSL stalwarts like Ned Grabavoy and Chris Wingert, game after game, over playing players like Tommy McNamara, who’s one of the few players present for both coaching reigns.

Would Kreis have signed Federico Bravo or Ronald Matarrita? Would he have pursued Jack Harrison with singular determination? We don’t know that, but based on how he eschewed playing young players over veterans, we can surmise that Kreis probably wouldn’t have signed Bravo or Matarrita in the offseason. Why?

Remember: this past off-season was the first in which MLS had free agency of a sort. Instead of going after players like Bravo, Matarrita, or Diego Martinez, or Mikey Lopez, Kreis likely would’ve gone big on the available free agents. This being the first free agent class in league history, there weren’t a lot of gems available, but there were some truly solid players in the list. With CFG’s resources at hand, I could see Kreis overhauling the roster somewhat. What would that look like?

It’s Monday, October 26. Despite beating New England 3-1 to close the season on 40 points, New York City have missed the playoffs. At the end of the season, here’s what New York City’s roster looked like:

Let’s assume that some of these players go by the wayside. Just like in this timeline, say goodbye to Brovsky, Jacobson, Watson-Siriboe, Meara, Angelino, Velasquez, and Facey. Let’s also assume that, this being Kreis, he hangs on to Grabavoy and Wingert (I know, I know). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Grabavoy chewed up minutes on the left. Wingert was a solid, stalwart left back.

One key difference between Vieira and Kreis is their tactical setup. Vieira is devoted to a 4-3-3; Kreis generally used a variation on a 4-4-2. While he was noted for using a diamond 4-4-2 at RSL, he only used that deployment a few times in New York City. More often, he used a flat 4-4-2, an empty bucket 4-4-2, or a 4-2-3-1.

That last is intriguing, for a couple of reasons I’ll get to in a bit. At any rate, Kreis has three DPs, but a weak backline, no hold up striker, no defensive midfielder, and no real creative midfield force other than Andrea Pirlo. On top of that, beyond Villa, New York City lacks any scoring punch. How would Kreis fix that using free agency?

The first signing I think Kreis makes is Drew Moor. A durable defender with Colorado, Moor logged over 27,000 match minutes in 11 seasons. Not only that, but he’s managed to score 22 goals and get seven assists over that span as well, so he can contribute offensively. Moor would be the anchor of a backline that desperately needed one, thus keeping Wingert in his natural left back role, Allen at right back, and Hernandez as Moor’s partner at center back, with Jefferson Mena gradually supplanting him and hopefully reprising the role that Jámison Olave played for Kreis at RSL.

Next up? The midfield. Andrea Pirlo is a bad defensive midfielder. There’s no point in saying otherwise. That’s why he needs a partner to shield him and allow him to concentrate fully on offense. Luckily, Patrick Vieira settled on Andoni Iraola as a makeshift defensive midfielder when Federico Bravo went down with injury, and that gamble paid off.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Kreis makes the same discovery. We still need another creative midfielder. That’s where Justin Mapp comes in. Mapp is one of those players who American soccer hipsters love. He’s a sneaky good midfielder who’s excellent at creating offense from wide positions. Here’s the thing, though: what makes him so lethal isn’t just his speed and creative abilities from out wide, but also his ability to drift inside and generate offense from that position if necessary.

Again: for an offensively-deficient club like New York City, that’s a critical need, and Kreis is going to snap someone like Mapp who can deliver on that.

Finally, the forward line. Originally, the Blues signed Slovakian forward Adam Nemec to be the hold-up partner for David Villa. Needless to day, Nemec was a bust. New York City never really found anyone to provide the hold up play that they badly wanted or needed for Villa to really prosper. Kwadwo Poku provided glimpses of that, but he was never truly deployed in that fashion to really find out whether he could be.

I think Kenny Cooper could be that guy. Cooper’s played ten seasons in MLS, scoring 75 goals and notching 20 assists. He’s well-traveled, playing for Portland, Seattle, the Red Bulls, and Dallas; he got his professional start with Manchester United, played for 1860 München, and is now cooling his heels in Montreal. Two years ago, he tore apart the US Open Cup for Seattle, scoring six goals in four games, including a two-goal, two-assist effort in the semifinals against Chicago.

Cooper’s size and strength offer the perfect complement to Villa. In addition, his self-effacing personality means that he’d be an excellent fit in a high-octane locker-room. In fact, all three players possess that kind of personality, which allows New York City’s DP’s to take center stage.

Now, that lineup does have flaws. Specifically, it’s an old lineup. That means that the imperative is on New York City to win now. But if CFG really is serious about the Blues making the playoffs sooner rather than later, then Kreis doubling down on veteran players he was comfortable with probably makes a certain kind of sense.

In reality, we have no way of knowing how successful that lineup would’ve been this season. Maybe Vermes is right, and Kreis would’ve found immediate success. Maybe that lineup would even be riding high atop the East, just like the Blues are right now. Maybe they would’ve even whipped the Red Bulls in May, and be in the process of playing in the Open Cup semifinals.

Or not. Maybe they would’ve started out just as roughly as New York City did this season. Maybe they would’ve gotten just as thoroughly destroyed on May 21st against the New York Red Bulls, before gaining some small measure of revenge this past Sunday.

And we can't forget that Kreis had effectively lost his locker room. That, not missing the playoffs, was what really cost him his job.

It’s also worth remembering that this New York City team could’ve easily packed it in after the Red Bull Wedding. The season stood on a knife’s edge after that game. It could’ve gone wrong so quickly, so easily.

It didn’t.

It didn’t because Patrick Vieira, for all that he’s stumbled a bit in learning how to manage full-fledged professionals, is displaying that he’s a damned good manager, full stop. Lots and lots of experienced foreign managers have come to Major League Soccer and failed. Carlos Queiroz. Carlos Alberto Parreira. Juan Carlos Osorio. Laurie Calloway. Ron Newman. Walter Zenga. Ruud Gullit. Aron Winter. Owen Coyle. You get the picture.

Vieira hasn’t. It’s early yet, but he’s displayed a capacity for learning and adapting. Hopefully that pays off with a playoff appearance this season, but it looks like it will sooner rather than later. It’d be nice if MLS recognized that, rather than speculating over an unknowable and meaningless what-if.