Few can complain about the on-the-field product New York City FC has produced this season. Currently, they are sitting third in both the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield hunt. To the casual onlooker, all would appear to be right as rain in the Concourse section of the Bronx.
However, beneath the surface, there is a problem that is boiling to dangerous levels.
Despite the healthy recent results, NYC is currently battling a plethora of injuries, a significant portion of which pertains to the team’s defense whether it be in the midfield or the killing fields of the backline.
Let’s run through some, shall we?
Ronald Matarrita? Out. Maxime Chanot? Weeks away from training. James Sands? Same story.
Now, on paper, three injuries doesn’t appear to be a lot. But the fact remains that unlike their midfield and attacking positions, City’s defense seriously lacks depth, especially in comparison to other MLS Cup contenders such as Toronto FC.
That’s not to say that it’s been all bad, though. Despite this lack of depth at the backline, NYCFC has weathered the storm thus far.
For all the flak we all have given to Frederic Brillant, he has stepped up valiantly in recent weeks at the right center back position. And while he may never be as highly regarded or preferred as his Luxembourgian teammate - and rightfully so - nobody can really complain about his contributions while Chanot is on the mend.
The same can be said for Ben Sweat. When Ronald Matarrita initially went down in April with a high ankle sprain, all looked bleak for the Boys in Blue moving forward. At the time, Sweat was still an unknown commodity. The former South Florida Bull had never had an MLS start since being drafted by the Columbus Crew in 2014 and was quite underwhelming in the 2017 preseason for New York City while starting from the center back position. However, all that uneasiness changed to contentment with a series of quality performances: a coming-out party against his former team in which he logged an assist, plus a blockbuster performance against the New York Red Bulls in which he grabbed another assist and his first-ever MLS goal in a 2-0 victory that secured NYCFC’s first-ever win at Red Bull Arena. And since Matarrita again fell victim to circumstance in late June, Sweat has continued to produce on the field. Now, Sweat may never be as incendiary as Matarrita up and down the left flank, but he will more than suffice for right now.
So, yeah, the results are there to make a case for why New York City isn’t completely doomed. But listen to this tidbit:
Believe it or not, New York City currently only has three pure center backs on their first team roster: Brillant, Chanot, and Alex Callens. That’s it. Which means one injury could be devastating to this team.
To prove this, let’s put forward a few hypothetical scenarios.
Say Brillant gets injured while attempting to man-mark (emphasis on the ‘attempt’ part). Who replaces him? One might suggest Ethan White. But that comes at a great risk; despite spending most of his tenure with the Philadelphia Union at CB, White has been converted in recent months to a pure right fullback, according to coach Patrick Vieira.
Same with Callens. Should he “slip in the shower on Friday,” as MLS writer Matt Doyle eloquently put it, what do you do? You could slide Sweat into the left center back position out of pure desperation, but then you are left with finding someone to man the vacant left back spot. While defensive midfielder Mikey Lopez has proven to be at least somewhat effective in the fullback role in recent weeks, there are reasonable doubts concerning whether he could do the job on a week-to-week basis, much less as a starter. And despite RJ Allen’s history of being deployed on either side of the defense, it is no secret that his services are more optimal on the right.
Every potential “answer” begets more questions.
For argument’s sake, let’s say New York City’s best-case scenario rings true and both Frederic Brillant and Alex Callens hold sturdy for a month or so until the return of both Maxime Chanot and James Sands - the latter of which for depth if anything - and Ben Sweat continues to prove his worth while Ronald Matarrita recovers from his surgery.
You are still left with a shell of this team’s true and optimal form.
Is Brillant adequate? Yes. But he is far from ideal. Despite his aerial ability, he still struggles with marking and is too often caught ball-watching on key plays in the box.
Has Sweat been damn solid? Absolutely. But we are still dealing with a player who has vastly limited first team experience, and that could prove costly in a playoff scenario if Mata can’t go.
And while NYCFC minutes leader Callens has earned his right to start every game available with his quality performances this season, one wrong twist or turn could send the pendulum swinging in the wrong direction for City’s defense as a whole.
Needless to say, the Bronx Blues are currently walking on eggshells in regards to team fitness. Since the secondary transfer window has closed, it has become apparent that there are no reinforcements on their way, either.
And should something - anything - go wrong, their current contender status could turn to pretender status in a New York Minute.