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2018 MLS season preview: New York City FC

What are NYCFC’s keys to success in 2018?

MLS: Montreal Impact vs. NYCFC Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

In just their third season, New York City FC emerged as one of MLS’ top teams in 2017. Amassing a franchise-high 57 points, the “Boys in Blue” finished as the second best team in the league behind the Supporters’ Shield winners and eventual MLS Cup hoisters, Toronto FC.

After losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for two straight years, will NYCFC be able to get over the hump in 2018? With the start of the MLS season just a few days away (NYCFC play at Kansas City on Sunday, March 4), let’s take a look at the club’s positional strengths and weaknesses.

Forwards

MLS: Montreal Impact vs. NYCFC
Even at 36, captain David Villa is still expected to be the primary goal scorer in 2018
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

(Though they can be technically classified as midfielders, we have included wingers here for the sake of convenience.)

Since their inaugural season in 2015, New York City has been renowned for their high-octane offense which has consistently been one of the league’s most potent attacks. Striker and Designated Player David Villa will, in all likelihood, spearhead the front three and be responsible for scoring the lion’s share of the Bronx Blues’ goals — in 94 total appearances, Villa has netted 63 goals for City.

When it comes to backing up El Guaje, it looks like it will be Norwegian forward Jo Inge Berget — who arrived this winter from Malmo FF, the Allsvenskan champions — as Villa’s understudy. Berget missed most of the 2018 preseason due to injury, but he seems to be the only player currently on the roster that has significant experience in the No. 9 position. In 77 total appearances with Malmo over a three year period, Berget scored 25 goals — far from as clinical as Villa, but definitely suitable to step in when needed.

As far as wingers go, NYCFC is perhaps as deep as they have ever been. During the offseason, City signed 20-year-old Paraguayan Jesus Medina to a four-year Designated Player contract. Going into the 2018 campaign, Medina is an enigma. Known primarily for his left-footed playmaking ability, it is unknown whether manager Patrick Vieira will line Medina up on the left to distribute the ball to Villa, or if he’ll line the young DP on the right and have him shoot with said left foot, effectively replacing former wunderkind Jack Harrison (who transferred to Manchester City in January and was subsequently loaned out to Championship side Middlesbrough).

Also added (from Austria Wien) is Ismael Tajouri, who primarily lines up on the right wing. According to his scouting report, Tajouri is a physical and pacey right winger who thrives in one-on-ones with defenders. The Swiss-born Libyan can also be rotated into the attacking midfield, so he is best utilized as a utility player that can come off the bench and fill a variety of roles.

Returning to the fray are wingers Rodney Wallace and Jonathan Lewis, the third overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Wallace is coming off of — in all respects — a fairly productive 2017 season in which he scored 4 goals in 26 appearances. Despite a strong first half of the season, Wallace failed to score after May 6, raising questions as to how he can contribute in 2018. Lewis, on the other hand, had a stellar rookie campaign. In 11 total appearances, the Akron alumnus scored 2 goals and showed prowess on both the left and right flanks. When it comes to on-field production, Lewis may indeed be looking at a breakout year should Patty V find it appropriate to give the youngster more minutes.

How they play: NYCFC’s front three presses high and often due to Patrick Vieira’s philosophy of defending from the front. In past seasons (namely, 2016 and 2017), possession usually started out wide and progressively phased centrally, where a majority of City’s goals were scored.

How they can succeed: For NYCFC to re-establish themselves as a top offensive side, both the left and right wingers will have to consistently and relentlessly feed the ball to David Villa. The flanks will have to contribute goals of their own as well. With Jack Harrison back home, it will be up to new DP Jesus Medina and company to chip in when it comes to goal scoring, even if only a little bit.

How they can be beat: Isolate Villa and force the shots to come from elsewhere. Despite their impressive highlight tapes, Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri aren’t clinical goalscoring threats. The same can be said for Wallace and Lewis. If you can keep the ball away from Villa — who isn’t getting any younger, by the way — you control the game and eliminate one of the league’s most prolific scorers.

Midfielders

MLS: Montreal Impact vs. NYCFC
Maxi Moralez, NYCFC’s de facto No. 10
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Returning for his second season is Designated Player and attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez. Though not without his criticisms, Moralez contributed a healthy amount to NYCFC’s attack in 2017 — the diminutive Argentinian tallied 5 goals and 8 assists in 29 total appearances. As the team’s primary playmaker, Moralez is crucial to City’s gameplan.

Also returning are Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera, NYCFC’s de facto Nos. 6 and 8, respectively. Ring emerged as a top defensive midfielder in 2017, and was recognized as an early MVP candidate. Herrera — who is in his second year of a two-season loan from Manchester City — often plays box-to-box. The Venezuelan international likes to push up field, often electing to put shots on goal from the top of the box. Combined, Ring and Herrera form one of the deadliest one-two punches in the league.

Tommy McNamara returns for a fourth straight season and will most likely be used in a utility role. Known for his high work rate and insane right-footed strike from distance, T-Mac has been deployed as both a winger and midfielder since Vieira took over. Though it’s unlikely he’ll be apart of the first team, definitely look for the West Nyack native to play a big role off the bench in 2018.

James Sands — New York City FC’s first-ever Homegrown Player — is currently in his second season as a professional footballer. Having only made one appearance with the senior team in 2017, not much is known about the 17-year-old defensive midfielder just yet outside of his passing ability and mobility in the defensive third. In addition to his primary No. 6 role, Sands is also capable of playing center back.

Set to make his NYCFC debut in 2018, Ghanaian midfielder Ebenezer Ofori is currently on loan from VfB Stuttgart. Though he has primarily lined up in the defensive midfield to this point in his career, Ofori has all the ingredients to be more of a box-to-box threat à la Yangel Herrera. Expect him to be all over the place should he gain significant minutes.

How they play: Despite technically being a flat three, each midfielder has specific roles. As previously stated, Maxi Moralez is NYCFC’s primary distributer, whereas Ring and Herrera play as Nos. 6 and 8, respectively. Moralez usually prefers to make plays centrally and will often track back and forth to facilitate accordingly, but will drift out wide and use the wings if needed. Herrera usually holds until the ball has been delivered to the top of the box, while Ring will take up space behind the play. Herrera and Ring — and even Maxi to an extent — are capable of putting shots on goal, so goalkeepers need to stay on their toes whenever any of them are in space outside the box.

How they can succeed: Good distribution will determine City’s effectiveness in 2018. History shows that the Blues work best when everyone in the midfield has had a chance to advance the ball forward and pass to the wings, who then distribute to David Villa for some kind of highlight-reel goal.

How they can be beat: Put pressure on Maxi and cut off his horizontal distribution. The team’s pace is almost completely reliant upon the Argentine’s, and if you can somehow isolate him away from the buildup, City will have some serious issues advancing the ball, let alone scoring.

Defenders

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew at New York City FC
Despite missing most of 2017 due to injury, left back Ronald Matarrita is still considered one of City’s most dynamic players
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

(Check out this Hudson River Blue article from earlier in the week for an in-depth look at Sean Johnson, 2018 first-round SuperDraft pick Jeff Caldwell, and the rest of NYCFC’s goalkeepers.)

Though his 2017 production was extremely limited after twice succumbing to injury, NYCFC are most definitely banking on Costa Rican left back Ronald Matarrita to continue being the motor of their back four. ‘Mata’ — as he’s affectionately called by New York City fans — is one of the most dynamic and exciting players in all of MLS, with prowess on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Matarrita is constantly in motion, whether he’s tracking back to take on a right winger or overlapping on the left to put in a pinging cross.

Left back Ben Sweat has proven to be a more-than-capable backup in case of an untimely injury or unavailability. Selected in the 2014 SuperDraft by the Columbus Crew, Sweat saw significant playing time in 2017 in the wake of Matarrita’s injury and was a huge reason for NYCFC’s regular-season success. Though he is not expected to earn the start over a healthy Mata, he could definitely be called upon in a pinch, whether it be at the left flank or even at center back if needed.

The star center-back duo of Maxime Chanot and Alex Callens returns in 2018 after an impressive, albeit brief appearance together in 2017. Prior to sustaining a season-ending injury in August, Chanot ranked fourth overall on the Audi Player Index, the best of any defender in the league at that point. Chanot’s impressive man-marking ability has earned him acclaim as one of the most effective center backs in the league. Callens shouldn’t be slept on, either. The Peruvian played every minute of every game last season — showing an affinity for aerial duels and distribution from the back — until he was sent off in City’s disastrous first-leg showdown with Columbus in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. With both Chanot and Callens healthy and ready to go for 2018, the sky is the limit.

Backing up the primary CB duo will be new additions Cedric Hountondji and Sebastien Ibeagha. Hountondji arrives from Gazélec Ajaccio (in France’s Ligue 2) and is known primarily for his size and aerial ability. Ibeagha joins from USL club San Antonio FC, NYCFC’s second-division affiliate. Known for his crunching tackles and ability with the ball at his feet, Ibeagha was named last season’s USL Defender of the Year and joined the Bronx Blues following a preseason trial. Though it will be tough for either Hountondji or Ibeagha to initially crack the starting lineup, expect both to challenge for first-team minutes throughout 2018.

The Boys in Blue’s right back position will have a brand new look in 2018, as new signings Anton Tinnerholm — the Allsvenskan’s reigning defender of the year — and Saad Abdul-Salaam will compete for starting minutes. If the final preseason match is any indication, Tinnerholm will line up at the right defensive flank on opening day. Tinnerholm offers a similar skillset to that of Matarrita, often sprinting up and down the right flank, contributing both on defense and in the attack. Abdul-Salaam — acquired from Sporting Kansas City in December — doesn’t play all that differently.

Still in limbo is Kwame Awuah, who enters his second professional season in MLS. Awuah has been deployed as both a fullback and midfielder in preseason matches and his exact role for 2018 is still up in the air. The former UConn Huskie has made only four appearances with the senior team thus far.

How they play: Since 2016, NYCFC’s defense has handled a significant time on the ball and is responsible for building the play from the back. When in a jam, City defenders aren’t afraid to pass backward to the goalkeeper and restart. Both fullbacks push up in accordance with where the ball is on the pitch. Occasionally, a center back (namely Alex Callens) will push the ball forward himself, allowing Alex Ring to drop in coverage.

How they can succeed: By effectively and safely building up the play and allowing the fullbacks to get in more advanced offensive positions. Also, stay compact. NYCFC’s back four are at their best when in a symmetrical shape and moving back and forth as one.

How they can be beat: Press high and hard. Due to City’s commitment to their play-from-the-back style, opposing teams will need to defend from the front and deploy anywhere from three to four attacking players to force turnovers and provide high-percentage scoring opportunities.