Blame Canada all you want. But if New York City FC can’t finagle a result on Sunday at BMO Field, they’ll have naught but themselves to blame.
Such is the condition of a team with not just quality, but some real fight to them.
Indeed, last weekend’s oh-my-gawww victory down a man against Chicago signaled that this team, 21 games into the campaign, is officially past the point where the usual petty recriminations that accompany odious results — Vancouver, RSL, the Open Cup suckfest — will mean anything but the beginning of the end of NYCFC’s hopes for 2017. As the dog days give way to the back stretch, what you’ve got is what you’ve got.
The question is whether NYCFC 3.0 is streets ahead of the version that got defenestrated by a combined 7-0 by Toronto’s Reds last year in the playoffs, or whether they really are ready to hack-and-slash their way to the throne like some kind of smoldering King in the North (or King in the South Bronx; whichever).
On Sunday, if that question is to be answered in the affirmative, these are the bannermen in blue that will have to step up their game.
When Ronald Matarrita went down in a heap one month ago, R.J. Allen had already largely displaced Ethan White at the right fullback position on the NYCFC team sheet. Now, especially with Ben Sweat fresh off a head-to-head collision with Frederic Brillant, Allen will no doubt have every chance to prove his worth in the most important part of the season. The Beast of Old Bridge’s aggressiveness has been his downfall at times in 2017; the playmaking overlapper we came to love last year has often given way to a man liable to find himself caught out of position up the field when opponents snatch possession. With defensive linchpin Maxime Chanot still out of commission, Allen can’t be trusted if he doesn’t keep himself on a swivel. This team’s margin for error at the back is just too narrow.
Point blank, Tommy Mac just has to play better— particularly given last week’s attractive performance by winger scion Jonathan Lewis. With Yangel Herrera’s midfield spot up for grabs Saturday thanks to the Venezuelan phenom’s sending-off against Chicago, T-Mac has a chance to feature even if Vieira chooses to stick with Lewis in the front three. But if the fan favorite can’t figure out how to recapture some of the magic that made him a breakout star in NYCFC’s first two years (and helped salvage a handsome point on the road at FC Dallas back in May), he may very well find himself transfer-listed this winter. And we’d cry ourselves to sleep for weeks.
The cavalry charge of the regular season is when depth begins to be truly tested and a squad’s weakest links can no longer be hidden. While Patrick Vieira would ideally not find himself relying on Ugo to pull a series of rabbits out of his hat at any point this year, the reserve forward needs to prove that he can hold down late minutes off the bench — and hold up the ball for his teammates — far better than he has up to this point in 2017. God forbid something happens to David Villa, but even if the Gauje continues to prove indestructible, Ugo has an expanding role to play if this team’s dreams are to be as big as they appear. If he trots on only to struggle to get himself a touch, Maxi Moralez and Jack Harrison will find themselves straining in the quest to create danger.
Earlier this year, when Yangel Herrera was away at the U20 World Cup, Maxi Moralez picked up an injury nick, and Alex Ring got himself a well-deserved yellow card suspension, Mikey Lopez was Vieira’s glue guy in the midfield. With a relentless motor that tends to make up for his lack of size, he’s made himself into a reasonable enough stand-in for the first choice guys, and one of the main reasons why Andrea Pirlo found himself buried in the midfield pecking order. But on June 29th, when Ronald Matarrita went down with yet another injury just minutes into NYCFC’s home tilt with Minnesota, Mikey trotted on from the bench to take on a new responsibility— fullback. We saw him assuming the role in intermittent bursts yet again last weekend against Chicago after Ben Sweat got his bell rung and couldn’t continue. Vieira clearly trusts the Texas native to do a bit of everything. In the pivot toward the playoffs, that won’t be a bonus as much as a necessity.
Who are you counting on to make a difference this weekend in Ontario— or on August 6th against the ol’ rascally Red Bulls? Did we nail it, or are we completely nuts? Leave us a comment or blow us up on Twitter @hudsonriverblue.