If there is any such thing as an “injury bug”, New York City FC definitely has caught it this season. Mainstays such as Maxime Chanot, Yangel Herrera, Alex Ring, and even ironman David Villa have been reduced to watching from the stands at Yankee Stadium at least once this year. Not to mention more supplemental talents like !!!JAMES SANDS!!! and Miguel Camargo, the latter of whom will miss the rest of the 2017 MLS season, who have also fallen victim to circumstance in recent months.
But one name has continued to particuarly haunt the NYC faithful this season with each released injury report: Ronald Matarrita.
The dynamic Costa Rican left back caught his first bad break back in April when he sustained a high ankle sprain during training. After being on the mend for about two months, Matarrita made his return to the pitch on June 29th in New York City’s first-ever match against Minnesota United. However, within minutes, things went sour as the left back began to hobble up the pitch. The following day, NYCFC confirmed that Matarrita had sustained a broken toe and would be out for up to 4 months.
After almost three months of missed action, the man we affectionately call “Mata” took to Twitter yesterday afternoon to inform the public of his triumphant return to team training.
NYCFC’s Instagram would also give Matarrita a shout, implying that while he had returned to training with the club, his on-field return would be “soon.”
So, what will Ronald Matarrita’s impending return mean to New York City in the pivot toward the playoffs?
Well, for one, it helps in part avoid that crisis we keep warning you about.
And two, the left side of the pitch just got a whole lot deeper, and right on cue. After all, NYCFC is on the back stretch of their 2017 campaign; any and all reinforcements we can muster will most definitely make a difference when it comes to securing a top spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and perhaps even make a deep playoff run that can potentially culminate in hardware.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
While Matarrita’s return being on the horizon definitely warrants excitement and optimism, it comes with it’s share of questions.
The most obvious of which? Ben Sweat.
The former Columbus Crew SuperDraft pick has asserted himself well in place of Matarrita at left back throughout the season. Whether it be giving his old team nightmares or almost single-handedly providing New York City with their first ever win at Red Bull Arena, Ben Sweat has certainly made a case for why he should at least be considered as Patrick Vieira’s first choice when it comes to the defensive side of the left flank.
The numbers speak for themselves: 6 assists, the second-most among MLS defenders. 4 defensive clean sheets. And a goal for good measure.
Sweat is a badass. And if ‘Mata’ wishes to reclaim his spot, he’s gonna need to earn it.
This brings up another question: where do you play him?
Some of you may not remember, but prior to his injury-shortened appearance against Minnesota, Matarrita was originally supposed to play up top at the left wing position. This plan, however, was scrapped after RJ Allen and Ethan White were late to a pregame meeting, prompting Vieira to bench both players.
Ben Sweat was subsequently moved over to replace Allen at the right back position, Matarrita dropped back to cover left back, and Rodney Wallace assumed the vacant position at the left wing.
To this day, I have wondered how Matarrita would have been able do at David Villa’s left flank.
I have always seen Mata as a better offensive weapon than he is a defensive one. That’s not to say he isn’t a good defensive option. But having already touched upon the contributions of one Ben Sweat, there is a case to be made that the Tico could be better deployed in an attacking position.
He’s fast, has good ball control, and good vision to boot.
I mean, look at this gem of a play he produced earlier this year against the San Jose Earthquakes:
Don’t get me wrong. Whether or not Mata is best suited for the left back position doesn’t rely solely on Sweat. It comes down to the depth at left wing, too.
As stated earlier, Miguel Camargo is out for the rest of the season. Regardless of whether or not he would have been effective to this point, that is one less attacking option New York City can call upon in a jam. This has left Rodney Wallace, rookie Jonathan Lewis, and former golden boy Khiry Shelton as the only viable options to man the #11 position.
Maybe I’m alone in this assessment, but Wallace has been ineffective in his most recent games. As the season progresses, he seems to exhibit less and less of that ruthlessness and opportunism he displayed early this season. This definitely isn’t irreversible, but it’s cause for concern for now.
Lewis has been solid since he began to earn more consistent playing time. We are now at that point of the season, however, where experience and consistency are paramount to producing results. And despite his undeniable talent, Lewis may be a fish out of water when it comes to the nitty gritty of October and November football.
Am I OK with playing Lewis against a meandering LA Galaxy in the middle of August? Absolutely! Am I comfortable with putting him out there against Toronto FC in the playoffs? Not really. Not yet, at least.
As for Khiry, what can be said that we haven’t said before? He’s had plenty of chances to prove that he has more to offer than his speed and his size. But thus far, nothing. Nada. Zilch. That’s the extent of what we know about him. I’ve always been a fan of his and I do believe that he has every chance at a promising future, but with Wallace and Lewis both vying for their boss’ attention, there’s little reason to believe that K19’s chance to make an impression in the Five Boroughs hasn’t already come and gone.
With Wallace’s inconsistency, Lewis’ inexperience, and Shelton’s enigma, this is a perfect time for Ronald Matarrita to throw his hat into the ring. At the very least, it’s definitely something for Vieira to think about.
Regardless, these are good problems to have.
Welcome back, Mata! We hope to see you back on the pitch soon.