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Why NYCFC Isn’t Ready to Challenge Toronto

The consensus around the league is that TFC is in its own category— what’s New York City missing to threaten the dominance of their Canadian rivals?

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Dating back to the now-infamous playoff massacre in which New York City lost 7-0 on aggregate to Toronto FC, it has been clear that the Reds have been just a cut above the Blues. In fact, since that postseason drubbing last fall, Greg Vanney’s side has clearly gotten the better of Patrick Vieira’s, outscoring them to the tune of 13-2 in all matches. Answers seem few, if any, on NYCFC’s side of the ball. Stepping out further from the two clubs’ recent clashes, Toronto has run away with the league, holding a 10-point lead for first place and the Supporters’ Shield race to go along with a +34 goal differential.

No club has come closer to catching Toronto, however, than our beloved Boys in Blue. They once again sit second in the Eastern Conference and second overall in the league on total points. Their goal differential, while far behind Toronto’s, is still at a quality mark: 3rd best overall in Major League Soccer. They also sport the second best road record while remaining one of the better home teams across the league. They have the reiging MVP, David Villa, on their club (who might win it once again this season) as well have made significant improvements to their midfield and backline with additions like Alexander Ring, Yangel Herrera, Maxi Moralez, Alexander Callens, Ben Sweat and Sean Johnson. In any other season, we could be talking about Reyna winning Executive of the Year after putting together such a much improved side from one season to the next.

But alas, it is not another year. It is 2017 and Toronto is the cream of the crop. Fun fact: Currently, after 30 games played, NYCFC sit in second place at 52 points with just over a month left to play in the regular season. Last season, New York City finished the season at 54 points, good for 2nd in the Eastern Conference and 4th overall in the league. They look to slightly improve upon that mark this year, which is a good sign, all things being equal.

In a league like MLS, where parity is more the standard than an outlier, being able to improve upon previous success is a solid achievement. (Orlando City would no doubt like to change places in the standings the last few seasons.) But that’s not the way things work. You build a measure of success and fans will want more success. It’s only natural. Nobody is happy with standing pat when it comes to sports; hence, the fanbase agitates over why it cannot be as good as Toronto FC.

So, what is it that separate the two clubs? Let’s take an in depth in the teams’ differences.

Offense

In 2017, Toronto has outscored NYCFC against all opponents 67-51, a +16 scoring differential. This is a real problem for New York City, because while they have done better on defense, that is by no means their identity as a team— this is supposed to be a goal-scoring squad first and foremost. The 51 goals scored on the season place them as the 6th best scoring offense in MLS, which is a good mark, but by no means the elite level of goal scoring one would expect from a team with David Villa as its captain.

The main issue for NYCFC, as all of us are well aware, is the lack of consistent scoring punch outside of David Villa. WhoScored.com shows that David Villa accounts for 37% of the club’s goal distribution, second only to fellow MVP candidate Diego Valeri, who clocks in at 38% for the Portland Timbers. In fact, let’s take a look at the list of New York City’s top goal-scorers versus Toronto’s to get a clearer picture at the difference between the two clubs:

Top Goal-scorers: TFC vs. NYCFC

Toronto FC Goals Scored Goals Scored New York City FC
Toronto FC Goals Scored Goals Scored New York City FC
Sebastian Giovinco 15 19 David Villa
Jozy Altidore 13 9 Jack Harrison
Tosaint Ricketts 7 5 Maxi Moralez
Víctor Vázquez 7 4 Rodney Wallace
Justin Morrow 5 3 Tommy McNamara
Marky Delgado 3 2 Alexander Callens
Nicolas Hasler 3 2 Jonathan Lewis
Drew Moor 2 2 Maxime Chanot
Jonathan Osorio 2 1 Ben Sweat
Jordan Hamilton 2 1 Frederic Brillant
Ashtone Morgan 1 1 Ugo Okoli
Benoit Cheyrou 1 1 Yangel Herrera
Eriq Zavaleta 1
Jay Chapman 1
Raheem Edwards 1
List of all Goal Scorers WhoScored.com

A couple of things pop off the table as you do a comparison of the clubs. First, Toronto has done a much better job of spreading the wealth when it comes to scoring this season. When Giovinco first signed with Toronto, he was rather literally a one-man show and did pretty much everything for this team offensively. Since then, Jozy Altidore has found health and his goal-scoring form, and more reinforcements have been added, such as the likes of Víctor Vázquez, who has tallied 16 assists (per mlssoccer.com) this season to go along with his 7 goals. With a true number 10 in Vázquez, the offense has opened up even more and allowed Giovinco to provide better link up play up front as tandem strikers.

Second, they’re getting contributions from their depth. Tousiant Ricketts, who has made only 8 starts and played a total of 927 minutes this season, has scored 7 goals for this club - tied for 3rd most. That’s exactly what you want out of your super-sub/backup striker, and he’s filled a valuable role. Heck, even their left wingback Justin Morrow has scored 5 goals this season, the same as NYCFC’s number 10 Maxi Moralez. The scoring comes from everywhere on this club and it doesn’t let up. It’s no wonder they’re the highest scoring team in the league.

Conversely, New York City is not getting much at all in terms of secondary scoring help outside of Harrison and Moralez. I think it’s time we started asking about Ugo: Ugo Okoli, NYCFC’s backup striker and 2016 USL MVP for FC Cincinnati, has scored just one singular goal this season. For as much as someone like Patrick Mullins didn’t seem like an ideal fit in Vieira’s system, thus the team trading him last summer to D.C. United, we at least knew he was capable of putting the ball in the back of net. So far, the same cannot be said about Okoli. While he’s shown flashes of promise and perhaps was a bit unfortunate on a couple of attempts at goal, the bottom line is he has just not been good enough as Villa’s understudy. This is the first time Okoli’s gotten meaningful minutes in MLS, so maybe there is more to see from him in the future, but as of right now, NYCFC sorely needs another backup striker.

And then there’s the midfield. While Maxi, Ring, and Herrera have been great — with the latter two playing a large role in the team’s defensive improvements — it still remains true that outside of Maxi (5 goals) and Tommy McNamara (3 goals), the midfield has cobbled together 1 goal , scored by Herrera. Ring, Pirlo(!!!), and the rest of the midfield have done very little in the danger area, even when you factor in assists. Again, for players like Ring, Herrera, and Mikey Lopez, we understand that their contributions lie more in bone-crunching tackles and protecting the backline, but if City is going to become a truly dominant team and legit contender to win MLS Cup, the goal-scoring needs to come from a broader range of players going forward. Which ties into another difference that stands out...

Depth

While Toronto remains one of the deepest teams in the league, if not the deepest, New York City has realized the perils a lack of depth can cause. Toronto has a real plethora of MLS-quality players to choose from, including the ones that barely get on the pitch. Conversely, City has seemed like one injury away from catastrophe all season, even before the recent rash of international call-ups and injuries bore that truth out in recent weeks.

The ironic thing is that the positions that we thought would cause problems for the team have been filled pretty sufficiently in the wake of injuries. Left back seemed to be entirely dependent on Ronald Matarrita at the start of the season, so seeing him go down was assumed to be instantly perilous. Of course, Ben Sweat has managed to fill in remarkably. He hasn’t simply just treaded water for the club either— he’s been arguably one of the better left backs in MLS this season.

Another position that should have looked like dire straits is center back. After possibly the best defender in MLS, Maxime Chanot, went down with an injury, it really seemed like bleak days were ahead for the NYCFC defense. But, to his credit, Frederic Brillant has really elevated his game and provided quality minutes in central defense.

The lack of depth this season, surprisingly enough, has come primarily in the midfield. A lot of the players we have in the midfield are either one-dimensional (Mikey Lopez), couldn’t stay healthy (Miguel Camargo), or have reached a near-unplayable level (Andrea Pirlo). Midfield depth has been exposed as well with recent international call-ups that led to injuries to Yangel Herrera and Alexander Ring. Missing those two has really hampered the club’s impact in the midfield over the past few weeks. The midfield trio of McNamara, Moralez, and Pirlo just simply have not gotten the job done. McNamara has had a couple of bright spots offensively, but the inability of he and Pirlo to make any type of real defensive contribution has at times either caused Maxi to have to drop way too far in defensive cover or has left the backline unnecessarily exposed. To say Herrera and Ring have been missed would be an understatement.

And then there is right back. Now, admittedly, this position may have been finally resolved with the club’s signing of Andraz Struna, who showed some promise on Saturday against the Houston Dynamo, but we will still have to wait and see if the 28 year old Slovenian can be a long-term answer there. Before that signing, however, while the right back position wasn’t dangerously thin or wracked by injuries, it did suffer from a lack of quality; it has easily been the team’s biggest weakness throughout this season. RJ Allen, fresh off his new contract extension, showed very little when it came to tracking back and was often a defensive liability, although he brought an element of creativity to the attack. Ethan White replaced him in the starting lineup after one week.

I give White a lot of credit for re-imagining himself into a fullback after largely sticking to central defense for most of his early career. And while he offered more in defense than Allen, he offered almost zero in the attack for NYCFC. The club just seemed short of a complete player at the position.

This has hindered, in my opinion, City’s attack for much of the season. It’s also allowed opposing defenses to either key in and double Harrison, knowing White is not a threat, or force Harrison to work harder on defense knowing they can attack that side when Allen is on the pitch. Neither have been ideal for the right side of City’s formation.

Designated Players

We also have to go back to the elephant in the room: the DPs. As we mentioned several times already, David Villa has been amazing. And regarding Maxi Moralez, I think it’s fair to say he’s been a good-not-great player for NYCFC so far. His 5 goals and 7 assists are solid numbers, but you could rightly hope to get more out of a Designated Player. We will have to see if Maxi can pick up the pace somewhat for the remainder of the season.

And then there’s Andrea Pirlo.

He’s become a part-time player, and has only managed 2 assists on the season while not contributing any defensive effort in the midfield. His playing time has been given to the more dynamic Yangel Herrera, and with good reason. Designated Players are intended to be the most impactful talents in your Starting XI. That’s partly why they are the top earners on the team. And for NYCFC, it’s fair to say that only one of their DPs even ranks among the top 3 players on their own roster.

In contrast, turn the page over to Toronto FC. All three of their Designated Players — Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley — have all been major contributors to the team. Respectively, Giovinco and Altidore are the team’s top two scorers, while Bradley’s play as a holding midfielder has allowed Greg Vanney to unleash his 3-5-2 formation that has run amok of the league. When you have this level of play from your stars, plus a world of depth behind them, there’s very little reason to wonder how TFC has become this dominant in Major League Soccer.

Now, does this mean that Toronto should just be handed the big trophy now? No, it doesn’t. The Supporters’ Shield? Probably. But not the MLS Cup. That’s because, in a playoff format, anything can happen. TFC looked like the best team in last year’s playoffs only to see a herculean effort from Stephen Frei turn them into runner ups to the Seattle Sounders last year. So having said that, NYCFC are only a well-timed run of brilliance away from toppling Toronto or even winning the championship.

Overall, this exercise has been more about figuring out what the Boys in Blue need to do this winter and beyond in terms of roster building in order to construct a juggernaut the likes of Toronto FC. The good news? It can be done. TFC has made this progress rapidly themselves. And one only needs to look at the difference in our own team, New York City, from 2015 to 2016 to see how quickly things can change. But now that NYCFC has hit the wall and shown the divide in team strength, it’ll be on them to figure out where this club goes next this season and beyond.