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How Can the Boys in Blue Replace Mata?

Short Answer: They can’t. But there are alternatives NYCFC can utilize.

MLS: D.C. United at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Prologue: Calvin begins his morning like any other, gets himself a nice cup of coffee, fires up the ol’ laptop, and proceeds to look up the latest news story of the day, sports and otherwise. He goes on Twitter, reads a few tweets, takes a nice sip of coffee, and violently spits it out all over his computer screen after reading this tweet:

Ronald Matarrita is set to miss a whole month or more of playing time with a high ankle sprain, according to all reports. To make matters worse, considering it’s an ankle sprain, it probably means he won’t look up to speed for awhile after he returns on the pitch either. Ankle sprains are tricky and can tend to linger, sometimes even throughout the majority of a season.

This is definitely bad news for New York City FC, who are not only somewhat thin at the left back position but also count on Mata as one of the better players on this team. So how will Patrick Vieira and his staff try to cope with this significant loss?

Finding an Approximation

First and foremost, you can’t truly replace someone like Ronald Matarrita. What he is able to do at the left back position is not something you commonly find in a player you start in your backline. That being said, here are some of the players that Vieira could look to fill in for Matarrita in the interim:

Rodney Wallace

Although he’s performed very well for NYCFC in his left winger role, Wallace has spent time, even in MLS, as a left back or left wingback at times. His athleticism and physicality could make him as close to an approximation as we could hope for to replace Mata for the time being. That being said, he’s already excelling in his current role and it may not be worth breaking up that front 3 to try and fit him in a less optimal role. While McNamara could step in as left winger, he doesn’t offer the pressing ability up front that Wallace does, which has really helped solidify the defense. May be best to keep him up top considering all of the factors.

Kwame Awuah

The 2017 SuperDraftee played primarily as a central midfielder in college, and also played there in preseason for NYCFC, but in the combine there was talk of converting to a left back due to his size, pace, and left footed dominance. Vieira likes to challenge his players to learn more than one position at times, but it remains to be seen if he would be willing to trust Awuah at left back so quickly.

Ben Sweat

A trialist this preseason who impressed Reyna and Vieira enough to earn himself a place on the roster, Sweat comes from a previous stint with Crew SC where he was drafted as a left back. While that is something he can still do given his experience there, I’m not so sure that’s where Vieira would like him best. In preseason, Sweat played primarily as a left footed center back, much like how Vieira uses Alexander Callens, rather than a fullback. Sweat also did not demonstrated the pace and athleticism Vieira has favored in his fullbacks either. He may be nothing more than centerback depth at this point.

RJ Allen

Allen is the most likely left back replacement of the bunch, although his playing status is unknown. After losing his starting spot to Ethan White at right back, Allen has not appeared on the 18, which may be due to injury or may just be he’s fallen out of favor at the moment for one reason or another. If he is healthy, however, he is probably the best bet to play left back if Vieira is looking to play the more frequently used 4-3-3 formation.


Don’t Bother Finding a Replacement

What ultimately could be the most likely scenario is that NYCFC just fully commits to a 3 man backline moving forward. This is something they have been playing around with throughout the preseason and into the regular season as well, with the spotlight coming from a 2-0 loss to D.C. United two weeks ago, where they brought in Frederic Brillant in over Ethan White and played in a 3-4-3 formation. And Patrick Vieira has stated how the 3 man backline is his preferred defensive alignment for this season.

Now that formation has it’s worries as well. One is requires one of the team’s best attackers, Jack Harrison, to play deeper as a wingback on the right flanks. The other is you still need to replace Matarrita on the left hand side, which would most likely be Rodney Wallace - thus opening up the chance for McNamara to enter the Starting XI. But you also have the issue of shielding Andrea Pirlo, who got exposed by D.C. United; other teams will try this as well. Alexander Ring et al are forced to pick up a lot of slack on the defensive side of the ball, which limits your attacking options as well going forward. Ring has undying motor and can play box-to-box effectively, but this formation would probably be better suited with Yangel Herrera or someone else playing centrally next to Ring. This also puts Maxi Moralez somewhere up top in the front 3 and not in the central midfield, where he’s done a good job so far this season.

And last, but not least, it means that we will see a lot more of Brillant in games, for better or worse. It’s no surprise that the game we saw the most giveaways in the defensive third came in the same game Brillant started in. NYCFC’s backline was notorious for turnovers like that all of last year, and Brillant was a fixture in the backline the majority of the time. Personally, I think the 3 man backline can work, but would probably like to see someone like Ethan White in there instead of Brillant. White’s done a great job at right back so far this season, but he started off as a central defender and I think his pace and discipline would serve the team better than Brillant in a back 3.

Needless to say, however, that losing Matarrita is a big blow for the Boys in Blue. But it’s also important to know this is the deepest NYCFC team in it’s brief history, which gives me at least some comfort that they can weather the storm of this (and Shelton’s to a lesser extent) injury.

We will see how NYCFC adjust to this loss as early as this Sunday, when Vieira’s squad plays host to Jason Kreis and Orlando City SC this Sunday.