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PREVIEW: New York City FC vs DC United

Blues open their home season tomorrow afternoon against MLS’ original powerhouse

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC
El Guaje
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
New York City vs DC United
2 p.m. EDT, 11 a.m. PDT
Yankee Stadium, The Bronx
Watch on YES; WJLA-ABC7 in DC

Both New York City and DC United found success last year scoring lots of goals. That’s something that didn’t happen in their season openers last week. For New York City, that’s not surprising, given how much of the roster turned over in the off-season.

Gone: Frank Lampard. So, too, are many of the utility men that manager Patrick Vieira relied upon last year; men like Andoni Iraola and Mehdi Ballouchy. But the team has gotten younger and fitter in their stead, something that will prove wise as the long, wearisome MLS season trudges onward across the vast American continent.

There are two constants, though. One is 2016 MVP David Villa, who has scored 41 goals for New York City. The other is the team’s playing style under Vieira: a patient, clockwork buildup from the back. Call it tiki-taka, call it uuwerk Oranje; it is a hypnotic, beautiful passage of playing that one fervently hopes results in a goal.

However: the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium do not kindly lend themselves to this kind of play. Rather, they favor a frenetic, pinball frenzy that comes from the riotous randomness of set pieces. Time and again, the Blues were victimized by atrocious set piece defending at home; time and again, their playing style was suffocated by teams who happily surrendered possession and bunkered in, content to walk away with a road draw, or even better, a road victory — courtesy of, you guessed it, a badly-defended set piece.

Vieira is one of the most cerebral managers in MLS. Tactically, he’s likely the most advanced manager in the league — and it’s probably not even close. One of the things that routinely surprises players coming to the league from Europe and South America is how technically advanced the league is, and how tactically backwards it is. There was another league like that, once upon a time. I’ll leave you to wonder about it.

In any event: set pieces can garner you anywhere between eight to eleven goals a season, if exploited properly. If exploited properly. It’s safe to say that New York City haven’t done that. For a team that has trouble scoring when Villa isn’t doing it (which explains why he takes two or three crazy shots a game), leaving that many goals on the table seems suboptimal. Set pieces are not incompatible with building from the back in any way!

Especially in a place like Yankee Stadium, where the dimensions lend themselves to a player like, say, Sheanon Williams whipping a “long” throw into the box for, say, Alexander Ring to head home — the possibilities become tempting. The thought of relieving the pressure on Villa to score all the goals becomes pleasant.

But Williams doesn’t play for New York City; he plays for Vancouver. I suspect that Vieira’s commitment to building from the back is fundamental enough, pure enough that he’ll eschew playing like Tony Pulis even if it means giving up having the notional equivalent of the third-highest scorer on the roster.

So that leaves us with a team that plays gorgeous soccer in a place singularly suited to stifling it. We’ll see if that changes throughout the course of the season.

There are no suspensions for this game. No one will be missing on international duty. The only player absent through injury? Midfielder Mikey Lopez, recuperating from ankle surgery.

The lineup should look something like this:

Predicted NYC lineup vs DC United, 3-12-17
Predicted lineup vs DC United, 3-12-17

Don’t put too much stock into the 4-3-3 alignment. Vieira’s known for the fluidity of his deployments. The two things I’d pay attention to are:

  • how involved Andrea Pirlo is in the passage of play;
  • how that influences whether Vieira introduces another one of New York City’s young acquisitions — whether that’s Miguel Camargo, Manchester City academy player Yangel Herrera, or USMNT U20 player Jonathan Lewis, whom the Blues selected with the second overall pick in this year’s SuperDraft.

Pirlo didn’t impress last weekend. Let’s be real: he hasn’t impressed in his time in New York City. That’s less on Pirlo, who’s one of the all-time great midfielders, and more on the fact that, as I pointed out prior to his signing, Pirlo won’t perform at his best unless you build the team around him and to fit his talents.

CFG set Pirlo and the team up to fail in that sense. It was the kind of signing you make if you’re playing FIFA on amateur level, not the kind of signing you make if you’re playing Football Manager — or if you’re actually running a team. Thankfully, CFG are beyond that now. So we’ll see how Vieira manages Pirlo’s sunset, because it is coming.

Prediction: It’s a raw, nervy, cold game. New York City scrapes out a 2-1 win; score early, surrender a silly set piece goal in the second half, score late off a pinball goal in the box.

Remember: spring forward tonight.