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What’s Wrong with the Offense?

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NYCFC have only managed no more than 1 goal in each of their last 8 matches. What has City’s attack sputtering towards the playoffs?

MLS: New York City FC at New England Revolution Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, New York City FC led all of MLS in goals scored at 62. While the defense left much to be desired, one thing Patrick Vieira and company were committed to was the idea that they will score more goals than they give up. The insistence was on playing “beautiful soccer”, playing out of the back, and dominating possession - all with the idea of wearing out their opponents and creating as many chances to go at goal as possible. Playing out of the back had its foibles, to say the least, but over the course of a full season it worked. City finished second in the Eastern Conference, earning a 1st round bye, and the fourth most points in the entire league. The impressive turnaround felt sure, though, after the club was dressed down by Toronto FC on their way to losing to the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup.

On top of the unceremonious exit from the club’s first foray into the playoffs, the club was also long in the tooth and change was as much necessary as it was suggested by the time winter came. Frank Lampard announced his retirement, as did Andoni Iraola, and players like Jason Hernandez were no longer under contract. The team also had questions in goal, with both Josh Saunders and Eirik Johansen falling short in different ways, and it was clear the team could not bleeding goals at the rate it was if they wanted to become serious contenders in MLS.

To address the club’s biggest needs, Claudio Reyna and Patrick Vieira and targeted different types of players than we’ve previously seen come to NYCFC before. As the team parted with players like Lampard, Iraola, and Mix Diskerud; in came names like Alexander Ring, Yangel Herrera, and Maxi Moralez. These were different players as they brought both “bite” in the cases of Herrera and Ring, but also an ability to have attacking players who are willing to track back in the case of Maxi. On top of that, they made a trade to acquire Sean Johnson to place in goal while unearthing a player like Alexander Callens from Spain’s Second Division. These moves, along with getting a full season from Maxime Chanot (who was signed during the summer transfer window) were designed to bring improvements to the club’s defense. And that they did:

NYCFC Goal Differential since 2015
h/t http://americansocceranalysis.com

Heading into the club’s last regular season match of the campaign, NYCFC have currently surrendered 18 fewer goals than they did in 2016. Quite an impressive improvement. The defensive improvements have given them their best goal differential in club history, despite scoring fewer goals this season. And there is the cause for angst for many of us who support the club: Why are they scoring less goals in 2017?

The problem has become exacerbated for over a month now, as the club has been unable to score more than 1 goal in their last 8 matches, dating back to the 1-1 draw verus New York Red Bulls. While there have been contributing factors to the sputtering offense (David Villa leaving on international break, then picking up a minor injury while on said break, Herrera being injured, and Maxi accumulating too many yellow cards) none of these issues have lasted long enough to truly excuse the club for the lack of production in front of goal. After all, this club was the best offense in MLS last year, right? Well, hold that thought.

First, a major difference between this season’s offense and last season’s is the subtraction of Frank Lampard. Lampard banged in 12 goals last season, including the club’s first ever hat trick against the Colorado Rapids (all the way back to last summer when they sported the best defense at the time). City used the now vacant DP slot to sign Maxi Moralez. While on the whole Maxi has been a better player for NYCFC than Lampard was (namely because he tracks back and plays both ends), Maxi does not bring Lampard’s penchant to be in the right place at the right time and poach goals. He is a more of a string puller and facilitator who looks to set up his teammates. Secondly, the offense may not have been as potent as it looked last season as well:

NYCFC Expected Goals vs. Actual Goals
h/t http://www.americansocceranalysis.com

Taking a deeper dive into the analytics, xGF (expected goals for) shows that last year NYCFC actually scored somewhere between 12-13 more goals than expected. xG is not an absolute science, granted, and there will always be teams and clubs who outperform or underperform this statistic. For instance, Atlanta United and Toronto FC, the two top scoring teams in MLS currently, are both outperforming their xGF projections by a considerable amount. But the point remains that in terms of chance creation and rate of scoring, NYCFC is actually slightly better this season than they were last year, but the end results have been more closer to the projections. Losing Lampard hurt in terms of goal scoring, but it was highly likely that even if Lampard returned, he was not going to produce again at the rate he did last season. Reason being that Lampard was the poster child for why NYCFC was outperforming their goal scoring projections last year, as he scored 12 goals last year compared to his 6.76 xGF mark in 2016.

Another factor to keep in mind, is that while the team might be doing slightly better in creating chances, they have not been better in finishing these chances, as many of us can probably attest to from all the times we have screamed in the stands or at a TV in recent weeks. But this has been a season long issue if we really think on it. Remember all of the strikes Alexander Ring has taken at goal while still unable to open his account as it were in MLS. Yangel Herrera has had some laser strikes that were kept out by amazing goalkeeping, like in his dominant performance in the club’s 2-0 victory in Red Bull Arena. Games like that happen. A couple of those goals go in and we are looking at a goal tally much closer to last season’s mark. But Herrera and Ring are not here for their goal scoring prowess. They are here to control the midfield and protect the backline, which they both do very well.

Ultimately, the problem is that their technically isn’t a “problem” with the offense, the way the team is currently constructed. The truth is, as currently constructed NYCFC play more like Sporting KC than they do Atlanta United, and that gives fans pause. Especially considering the high likelihood City could end up facing Atlanta or Toronto in the playoffs. And as I mentioned a few weeks ago, while teams like Toronto give it to you in waves on the attacking side of the ball, NYCFC have their one shining talisman who carries the brunt of it all on his shoulders. Jack Harrison has had an amazing sophomore campaign, but adding one 20 year old wunderkind alone is not enough when you look at the firepower the competition is sporting.

As a result, when you rely so heavily on one player to generate the majority of your goals, then offensive lulls like this are to be expected. Hopefully, this offseason Reyna and Vieira look long and hard at using Pirlo’s vacated DP spot to bring a top notch goal scorer for the 2018 campaign. But for now, if NYCFC wants to stand any chance at making a deep run or even making it all the way to MLS Cup, more will needed out of Villa’s supporting cast. Rodney Wallace has not scored a goal since late May, yet he has been the de facto starter at left wing during this same time. Perhaps someone like Jonathan Lewis, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times, can be what the team needs to unlock the offense? With the rise of Ben Sweat this season at left back, perhaps the team could look at moving Ronald Matarrita further up to provide an offensive spark as well.

Conversely, the team could use the return of its best defender, Maxime Chanot. If one goal is the best this team can muster on most nights, then the team needs the defensive urgency and soundness to be ready to walk away with a clean sheet every game moving forward this season.

The good news is the club is inching closer and closer to full health right before the playoffs (with the exception of Chanot). With Vieira having as close to a full squad as he’s had in months now, it should give the supporters some solace that we can throw our best at the opposition in the playoffs.

First things first though, let’s secure that 1st round bye against Columbus Crew SC this Saturday.