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Is Rodney Wallace still the answer?

Rodney Wallace was a key signing for NYCFC this season, but is it time to look elsewhere to rejuvenate the attack?

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC
All eyes on Rodney
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

To say Rodney Wallace hasn’t been a key contributor to New York City FC’s success would be a disservice to the season he’s had. He’s been a key signing, and factor, to City’s successful run toward finishing second overall and earning themselves a playoff bye for the second straight season. Seen as more of a “two-way player,” Wallace’s ability and desire to track back and defend has contributed greatly to City’s improved defense this season. He’s offered an element up top that players like Tommy McNamara and Khiry Shelton could not previously: discipline and toughness.

And at the start of the season, Wallace showed he could help bolster the attack as well. Through his first 11 matches of the season, Wallace scored 4 goals to go along with 3 assists. Since then, however, it’s been a different story. After NYCFC’s 3-0 road victory against Orlando City SC on May 21, Wallace has scored 0 goals while notching 3 assists. Not great.

Wallace’s declining impact on the offense is in itself worrisome, but especially so on this particular NYCFC team. As we’ve discussed before, City’s offense is a house of cards that at times has become one hundred percent reliant on David Villa and his supernatural ability to put the ball in the back of the net. If Villa’s not able to make magic, the offense sputters as it has for nearly two months now. While many fans want more from Jack Harrison — and the team will need more from him to make a deep playoff run — it would be disingenuous to not take a long, hard look at the left side of the attack and see why it’s not getting the job done. In the case of Harrison, the end product might not be there as frequently as it was in the beginning of the season. But even if it’s just a flash, we still see the effort and attack on goal at some point in any given game. Are we seeing the same thing from Wallace? Well first let’s examine one of the goals Wallace scored early on this season.

I picked this goal out of a hat quite frankly as I could’ve shown you the goal he scored versus D.C. United, the goal against Atlanta United, or even the goal versus Orlando City, and I could’ve made the same point. Each goal was a poacher’s goal — rebounds off the crossbar or the keeper, an inadvertent poke in past the keeper, or a tap in. While a goal is a goal — and you have to give him credit for being in the right place at the right time — the way Wallace was scoring goals in the early part of the season was not sustainable. He was not striking ruthlessly at goal like Villa and Harrison have been doing time after time this season. In fact, Wallace’s offensive contributions have varied wildly throughout the season when you look at his some of his other numbers beyond goals and assists.

As you can see, his numbers on the attacking end shoot up and down each month. And even the better numbers do not tell the story of a player who is greatly involved in threatening the opposition’s goal. At the same time, I think this is about what we should have expected from Rodney Wallace this season. Other than a stellar season in 2013, in which he scored 7 goals to go along with 6 assists for the Portland Timbers, the player Rodney Wallace has been for NYCFC is pretty much who he has been for most of his career. He scored exactly 4 goals last year in his lone jaunt out of the U.S. when he played for Sport Recife in Brazil, and over his entire MLS career has scored just 23 goals over 8 seasons, which brings you to an average of less than 3 goals per season. Rodney is actually currently above his career numbers in that sense.

But again, we know Wallace’s role was to provide defensive cover from an offensive position. After giving up the amount of goals the club did last season, Vieira looked to any avenue he could to bolster the defense and with good reason. And after the realization that the club would be without Ronald Matarrita for an extended period of time, Wallace was needed even more to play ahead of the unproven Ben Sweat at left back. But as the season’s progressed, it’s become fairly clear that this team on the whole is a much better defensive unit than it was last year. Sweat has been Best XI quality at left back for much of the season, Alexander Callens has become the team’s iron man in central defense, and with the injury to Maxime Chanot, Frederic Brillant has performed admirably in his place. Which begs the question: Does this team still need a player as defensively minded as Wallace as the starting left winger? Maybe the team could benefit from adding more attacking power to the front three.

While you don’t typically want to shake up your Starting XI right when you’re beginning your playoff run, the club is desperately looking for answers in front of goal. That means they may have to sacrifice some of Wallace’s defensive discipline in order to stretch the opposition’s defense and unlock Villa and Harrison, who get the brunt of the opposition's defensive attention on a consistent basis. It would also make sense to give Maxi Moralez another target for his probing through balls. But who should it be?

There are several options that the team could deploy. I know the name on everyone’s hearts and minds is Jonathan Lewis. And I agree, he’s shown a spark that not too many other players on the roster have when it comes to making plays in front of goal. It’s reminiscent of Harrison’s rookie season in some ways. That being said, I’d be very surprised to see Vieira give Lewis the starting nod in a crucial playoff tilt against the Columbus Crew. McNamara is an option there, but his lack of pace makes him better suited to play centrally than out wide. One idea could be to push Moralez out to the wing and bring McNamara into Moralez’s no. 10 role in front of Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera in the midfield. Moralez has experience playing out wide, and McNamara is always good for a 35 yard rocket from the midfield.

But for me, I’d like to see Vieira go with Mata starting at left winger ahead of Ben Sweat. Mata’s quality and pace could present nightmares for the Crew. He’s someone that Vieira trusts, and they’d get that same pressure up top with, what I believe can be a more threatening attacking presence. And if he’s still not 90-minute fit, that’s where I see Jonathan Lewis coming on — as a 65th minute sub to keep the defense on its heels.

Either way, when it comes to Wallace I think A Tribe Called Quest said it best: We got it from here, thank you for your service.