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What Happened to the Road Warriors?

With NYCFC winless in its last four away dates, a compelling narrative has fallen flat.

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Best road team in MLS.

All alone in first place.

Cup contender.

Throughout the summer, we heard the rumblings as they crescendoed into so much bluster, then bombast.

Indeed, for weeks and weeks, New York City FC came to counterbalance its early Yankee Stadium struggles with a resounding run of results on the road: from the last week of April until the second week of July, the Blues were undefeated outside the Bronx, stacking up impressive results against DC United (2-0), Portland (2-1), Seattle (2-0), and New England (1-0).

But count us among those who are hopelessly devoted to the concepts of progression and regression to the mean— just as NYCFC’s home form corrected itself following a heap of blown leads and squandered results in the spring, so has the “Road Warriors” story arc screeched to a halt in recent weeks.

Forget all those clean sheets and statement wins that catapulted Patrick Vieira’s squad into pole position in the East. That’s not a thing anymore.

As it stands, New York City is winless in its last four away dates.

And right on time, Toronto has claimed the top spot in the Conference, with the Red Bulls, Union, and Impact nipping right at the heels of second-place NYCFC.

What we’d call regression to the mean — New York City’s “real” baseline level of quality isn’t that of MLS’s best road team, nor the best team in the East, but something a couple clicks below that — is the result of the team back-sliding into its old, troublesome habits.

The horror-show set piece and cross defending that the team was sure to be leaving behind following the 2-0 triumph over the Red Bulls in July? Well, it came back bigger and badder: on August 13th in Columbus, the Blues vomited up two points they appeared to have stolen from Crew SC, as Ethan Finlay & Co. never stopped challenging Patrick Vieira’s team aerially. The result was a Columbus equalizer right at the death that an alleged “Best Road Team in MLS” has no business conceding. None.

Let’s not get it twisted: when opponents decide to try to boss NYCFC around in the air, they usually get their way.

Remember Dax McCarty? Remember him? Dax McCarty isn’t even tall enough to ride the Coney Island Cyclone, yet somehow has been able to gash the Blues in aerial duel after aerial duel. And don’t even get me started about BWP. Further, Orlando City’s Cyle Larin — and his immaculate noggin — have had little trouble feasting on NYCFC’s center backs in the danger area.

Given that these struggles remain as painful as they are, it’s amazing that New York City was able to string together four straight wins earlier in the year. But in a large enough sample size, over-achievers regress toward their mean.

And NYCFC has most certainly regressed of late.

Another troubling road trend that the Blues can’t seem to stave off: optimizing its back line away from the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium. Take Sunday’s maddening defeat at the hands of a generally unimpressive Orlando City side.

With both Jefferson Mena (center back) and Jason Hernandez (right fullback) tasked with covering a ton of ground to cut out the machinations of Kaka, Kevin Molino, and Matias Perez Garcia, the Lions were in a position to dictate terms. Hernandez is simply not capable of walling off the wide areas on larger fields, while Mena has routinely struggled with his positioning when tasked with closing down oncoming attackers.

The result was an emboldened Orlando City side that produced enough fast-twitch counter-attacks to wrest all three points for themselves.

Personally, I was convinced that Mena’s substitution inside of thirty minutes back in May against New England would be his personal nadir for the season. But watching Kaka run right around him without much trouble, willing Orlando City to the opening goal of the evening, was simply damning. Jefferson Mena, in a footrace, might be one of the fastest central defenders I’ve ever watched. That, of course, ends up meaning absolutely nothing by itself; one-on-one, an inventive force like Kaka will eat Mena’s lunch every time. Speed is not a replacement for skill— which is also why we’ve never had much love for Stiven Mendoza, either.

In brief, neither one of those two ought to be handed starting roles on the road. That’s conduct unbecoming of a contender.

The good news is that Patrick Vieira’s Blues still have everything to play for. With Toronto facing a tough slate of games down the stretch — and at least a month without reigning league MVP Sebastian Giovinco — NYCFC remains a decent bet to earn a first-round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But it’s troubling to see the same nagging issues rearing their ugly heads again: if you can't even defend crosses or set pieces at replacement-level, you’re not winning any plates or cups. If your back line is consistently outwitted by individual skill, particularly against opposing teams that would appear to lack similar roster quality top-to-bottom, it might be too soon to start dreaming of CONCACAF Champions League.

But to conceive of such an idea as CCL at all, to be fair, is a beautiful thing indeed for a team still in Year Two.

Seven games remain in NYCFC’s tilt-a-whirl sophomore campaign: four at home, three away. Aside from the fearsome FC Dallas (September 17th in the Bronx), we’re looking at anything but a murderer’s row.

Those three road games? New England, Houston, DC.

For my money, NYCFC ought to be favored in all three.

If the Blues can shore things up at the back down the stretch, the points will rain from the sky. They will. Then, it’s on to the playoffs.

Ooooh-wheeee.

Maybe, just maybe, it’ll be safe to start dreaming again.