I write this in some amount of pain, because I want Andrea Pirlo to serve up wizardly, laser-guided balls for NYCFC well into his forties. And he’s good for it. You know he is. But the stinging truth of it is that Andrea Pirlo’s deficiencies become increasingly apparent the more New York City sticks to Patrick Vieira’s preferred philosophy.
In essence, “The City Way” is Pirlo Kryptonite. And since it’s a downright terrible look to bench a $5 million designated player, Claudio Reyna & Co. need to finagle a graceful exit strategy for the Italian legend, and they need to do it as soon as a willing (and athletic) DP replacement becomes available.
The crazy thing is that this isn’t even a hot take. Not by a damn sight. Especially in a three-man midfield, Pirlo’s inability to break up play—or set his feet correctly against oncoming aggressors of any and all kinds—makes him a liability. You saw it last weekend against San Jose. We all saw it.
We mean no offense to Marco Ureña. And to be fair, the generally stalwart Alexander Callens should have done much better here, too. But what is Pirlo even attempting to do here, exactly? Really, the answer doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t. The simple fact is that, in a league with such intense roster (read: salary) restrictions as MLS, a guy like Andrea Pirlo is a luxury that no team can truly afford. Not yet, anyway.
Think about it: it’s one thing if you’ve got the kind of skrilla to afford to surround Pirlo’s particular set of skills with, say, Seedorf and Gattuso, or Pogba and Vidal. All due respect to the relentless Alexander Ring (who can teleport) and the industrious Maxi Moralez (who loves the taste of blood), but they ain’t quite that. Pirlo needs to be shielded. That shielding requires significant investment. Major League Soccer’s rules do not permit significant investment, full stop.
As our esteemed founder tends to remind us: if you want Pirlo, you’d best be prepared to build your team around him in order to minimize the blowback from his athletic limitations. NYCFC never pretended to do anything of the sort; remember, Jason Kreis preferred Xavi, who opted for Qatar at the last minute. And suddenly, here we are, wondering out loud if Tommy McNamara deserves to start in central midfield over a World Cup-winning legend.
Again, this isn’t even a hot take. Case(s) in point:
- Goal.com: “McNamara's winner raises questions about why he isn't starting”
- Empire of Soccer: “NYCFC can win without Pirlo”
- MLSSoccer.com: “NYCFC's McNamara ‘makes an impression’ with decisive cameo vs. San Jose”
This is far from an exhaustive list, mind you. The truth remains that Patrick Vieira insists on a particular style predicated on meticulous buildup, a high defensive line, and a need to keep things compact. We’re talking about a lot of moving parts. And Andrea Pirlo works best as the star in the center of the galaxy, not as one of eleven celestial objects in concentric orbit.
This isn’t even to say that McNamara is necessarily the prototypical player to slide into that space, Saturday’s game-winner notwithstanding. Athletically speaking, he has limitations of his own. But in this Age of Ruthlessness here in the Five Boroughs, few live out that prime directive quite like Mac the Knife. (Or Sammy Khedira or Andres Iniesta or Xavi, but that’s a different column.)
It was always going to be tough task for Pirlo’s level of play in MLS to match his level of sheer celebrity. That’s not his fault; it’s ours. As fans, we’re the ones who elevate him. But nearly two years in, the story of the Maestro Experiment is peppered with free kicks blasted over the crossbar, costly giveaways, and head-scratching attempts at defensive positioning.
It’s important to note that if the man weren’t a millionaire DP, none of this would be much of an issue; he’d still be a starter against certain types of opponents, and we’d appreciate him for his ability to hold it and ping it. But designated player politics are what they are. You only have three spots to work with. Until MLS liberalizes spending rules on a grand scale, it’s generally a mistake to bring on a DP with flaws as obvious as Pirlo’s.
If the rumors about a sideline reunion with Antonio Conte are true, NYCFC should try to make it happen this summer and chalk it up as one of those “everybody wins” situations. Of course, Pirlo clearly still wants to play, and remains under contract through the end of 2017. But narrower needles have been threaded before.
The future that New York City FC is crafting is one in which Pirlo ought to be lauded for legacy as he looks on from a luxury suite, glass of Montepulciano swishing about in his immaculate hands. The good news is that there’s no scenario in which he’s regarded as anything less than a hero around here. The love and admiration were always going to be unconditional.
But we only want the world.