When it comes to New York City FC’s success over the past year, there are few as instrumental as defensive midfielder Alex Ring. The Finnish destroyer’s work rate and technicality are among the best Major League Soccer has to offer and led to him being an MVP candidate towards the end of the 2017 MLS season.
On Friday, it was announced that Ring would be called up to the Finnish national teams for their March 23 and March 26 friendlies against Macedonia and Malta respectively.
While we love to see any of our Boys in Blue be called up to represent their nations, it always comes at the cost of having to temporary replace said player for overlapping fixtures: New York City has a match against the New England Revolution on March 24, smack dab in the middle of both Finland’s games. Which, in turn, raises the question: who can replace the Ringmaster?
The short answer is “you can’t.” Ring — who arrived in early 2017 from German club Kaiserslautern — has been an invaluable asset to NYCFC. In fact, one could argue that he is possibly the best player not named David Villa on the team.
Let me give that viewpoint some clout.
On Saturday, NYCFC blanked Orlando City 2-0 at Yankee Stadium, despite missing the aforementioned Villa as well as new star right back Anton Tinnerholm. In the sport of football (or soccer, you filthy Americans), clean sheets are usually attributed to lock-down performances at the back four. However, this particular shutout was unique. Combined, center backs Maxime Chanot and Alex Callens amassed two tackles, one interception, and five clearances. Not bad by any stretch, but not quite indicative of hard work having to be done at the back all game.
Alex Ring finished with three tackles, nine interceptions, and four clearances — all by himself. Had it not been for an absolute banger of a game from fellow midfielder Maxi Moralez, Ring could have easily — perhaps rightfully — been given man of the match honors on Saturday.
No, one cannot simply replace Alex Ring. But the Bronx Blues are gonna have to try to against the Revs next weekend.
So what are NYCFC’s options? Well, they don’t have too many. When it comes to filling the no. 6 position on the pitch, New York City are limited to, more or less, two options. One would be defensive midfielder Ebenezer Ofori, who recently arrived on a one-year loan from Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart and made his first appearance for the Blues off the bench in their 2-1 victory against the LA Galaxy on March 11. The other would be the 17-year-old James Sands, who has yet to make a gameday squad through City’s first three games in 2018.
Logic would say Ofori should get the start due to experience alone. But Ofori is still new to the league and it could still be some time until he fully adapts to his new surroundings. Not to mention, Ofori might also be playing the wrong position. According to his scouting report on WhoScored.com, the Ghanaian midfielder is proficient at passing, dribbling, and shooting from distance among other things. He struggles, however, with typical defensive duties such as aerial duels and discipline. Though these aren’t completely alien qualities for defensive midfielders, it could also be indicative of Ofori better fitting the mold of a box-to-box midfielder, ala Yangel Herrera.
Like I said, that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work. After all, Ring isn’t opposed to getting into advanced positions himself and is usually covered valiantly by Herrera when he does. And one doesn’t even need to mention his discipline, or lack thereof: he’s booked constantly. But it’s still a valid concern that should be addressed.
The second option would obviously be the homegrown Sands. The teenaged New York native had a breakoutshowing in the 2017 preseason at the tender age of 16. His impressive performance led to him becoming NYCFC’s first ever homegrown signing that summer. Sands, however, was limited to only one appearance off the bench in a 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids in September.
In the buildup to the 2018 season, Sands struggled in non-competitive games. He was practically invisible in NYCFC’s preseason matchup against the Galaxy and was bullied in the defensive third against Mexican club San Louis. Obviously, you can’t really judge anyone’s form in the preseason. But without anything of value to build upon, it will be that much harder for Sands to assimilate to the nitty-gitty of regular season MLS play. Though he has tons of potential and loads of raw talent, his lack of legitimate first team experience could prove to be a hindrance.
There are no easy answers here. And should NYCFC wish to continue setting the pace in MLS, it’s gonna take some creativity and tactical prowess to make up for missing perhaps the best defensive midfielder in the league.
What do you think of these options? What would your strategy look like? Let us know in the comments!