How did the 2017 season go?
Even with a second straight exit in the Eastern Conference semifinals, you would have to say that this season was a success overall — New York City FC once again finished as a top-two seed in the East and earned another first-round bye. While there was a dip in form to end the year and the offense seemed to sputter at times, the defense looked much improved from last season.
What we learned
We learned that Patrick Vieira can learn from his mistakes. After playing a bit too committed to passing out of the back in 2016, and too naive in the MLS Cup Playoffs, Vieira instituted a more pragmatic approach and different looks to his tactics this season. Being able to play differently at times proved vital throughout the season. And the game plan he came up with in leg two after a disastrous first leg against Columbus Crew SC in the Eastern Conference semifinals nearly worked flawlessly, with the club falling a goal short of erasing a 4-1 deficit and moving on.
Game that best summarized the season
The 2-0 victory against the New York Red Bulls in Red Bull Arena. During that match, Jack Harrison was lethal, Yangel Herrera dominated the Red Bulls’ midfield and his personal matchup with Tyler Adams, and Ben Sweat announced himself to City supporters and the league in general with a goal and assist on the day. It really epitomized how fun this team was to watch at the peak of their powers this season.
What went right?
The midfield. As it became abundantly clear that Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera needed to be in this midfield on a consistent basis, Vieira made the bold decision to bench Andrea Pirlo. This couldn’t have been an easy choice, but it worked wonders for the team’s success. The marauding combo of Ring and Herrera played their way into fans’ hearts.
What went wrong?
Backline depth. I hate to single him out like this, but one of the team’s biggest weaknesses was the fact that Ethan White played the majority of the minutes at right back this season. I give White all the credit in the world for turning himself into a somewhat passable wingback after playing the majority of his career in central defense. But too often he hindered the right side of the attack, which bottled up Harrison on too many occasions. Vieira’s choice to start White in the first leg was magnified even more after summer signee Andraz Struna played so prolifically in leg two, causing a Columbus own goal that had NYCFC one goal away from advancing.
Ben Sweat. To say he filled in admirably for an injured Ronald Matarrita would be an understatement. He didn’t just “fill in,” but rather was one of the best left backs in all of MLS in 2017. Logging his first ever minutes four years after being drafted by the Crew, Sweat finished the season with one goal and six assists from the left back position. Not too shabby.
Unexpectedly awesome performance
The now legendary David Villa hat trick versus New York Red Bulls in NYC’s 3-2 victory at Yankee Stadium back in August. I call this unexpected due to the poor history Villa has had playing against the club’s Hudson River rivals. After this game, however, Villa could rightly put most — if not all — of that to rest with this amazing performance where he carried the team on his back. It may even turn out to be a pivotal swing in the Hudson River Derby moving forward.
Player who fell short of expectations
Maxi Moralez. At first glance you could probably argue that this should be Andrea Pirlo. But entering a season most of us knew would be his last, and seeing how much better the team looked with Herrera and Ring in the midfield, Pirlo’s omission was more about what was best for the team than his individual performance. Moralez, on the other hand, as the Designated Player signing that replaced Frank Lampard, had a heavy load on his shoulders. And although he is a different type of player, it’s hard to look at the club’s late season struggles and not feel like he should’ve done more to help carry the team.
What needs to change for 2018?
The offense. If New York City FC want to become one of the elite clubs in MLS, they are going to have to do a better job of building an offense that can survive beyond David Villa.
Coach grade: B
Vieira’s tactics and his eye for talent are proving to be top notch in his first two years. And the way he’s turned the club’s record around versus the Red Bulls is a feather in his cap in and of itself. But he often sticks with certain players for too long, makes odd substitutions, and has still yet to figure out knockout style soccer (U.S. Open Cup and MLS Playoffs combined).
Overall team grade: B+
In just the club’s third season, they can now boast back-to-back successful years with not only playoff berths, but first-round playoff byes. That’s something to hold your head high about. However, this club still has a ways to go before it can consider itself a real contender for the MLS Cup. With Pirlo’s departure, what NYCFC does with the now vacant DP slot will prove pivotal to 2018’s success.