New York City FC start the 2018 MLS regular season down in Missouri tonight for a matchup with Sporting Kansas City at 7:30 p.m. EST. We talked with Cody Bradley of The Blue Testament for their perspective on KC’s offseason and what we can expect from the matchup.
Jake Gofman: Given KC’s finish last season and their impressive run to win the U.S. Open Cup, what are your expectations for the team this year? Is there a feeling within the fanbase that the team can build on last year’s finish?
Cody Bradley: Fans of Sporting KC will always be expecting trophies. The club promises silverware and SKC Nation is disappointed when they don’t see something shiny. That being said, it feels like most people are in a hopeful “we’ll see” position. This was one of the most productive offseasons they’ve ever had, but we’re all waiting to see if that one big problem is solved — actually scoring goals. The final touch across the line has been the issue with Sporting KC for the last one hundred (or so) years. So while they signed a winger...then a midfielder...and then another midfielder, everyone was left waiting for that big DP striker signing the team has been searching for.
I was really impressed with the moves Peter Vermes made and I think this team is significantly better than last season. Khiry Shelton wasn’t exactly what fans were hoping for, but he could end up being a key player for this squad. At the very least the competition between he and Diego Rubio will mean whoever is out there will be fighting for their life. But like I said — we’ll see. There are still plenty of questions. They’ve got several new players and we don’t know how they’ll adjust to MLS. And we still don’t know if there is anyone who can just freaking put the ball in the back of the net.
JG: Sporting brought in two new Designated Players over the winter, Yohan Croizet and Felipe Gutierrez. What do these players bring and how do you think they’ll be utilized?
CB: Felipe Gutierrez appears to be the guy who will replace Benny Feilhaber as the attacking midfielder. A new maestro is going to greatly change the way this team looks. There will be a bit of a learning curve for him as he gets a feel for his teammates and the minutiae of MLS but there was a lot to like from Felipe in preseason. He will bring a little more speed to a position that didn’t have a whole of it last season, that is for sure so far.
The jury is still out on Croizet. He had himself a rough preseason, but started to find himself a bit in the last tune-up. Up to this point he has been used on the right wing and starting ahead of Gerso. He was finding success by cutting inside in the last match and I think he would probably rather be deployed as an attacking midfielder. Johan is very skilled with the ball at his feet and he likes to take on defenders. He was muscled off the ball quite a bit as the physicality of this league surprised him a little, but once he gets settled in he could be very dangerous.
JG: Onto Sunday’s match — As it is well documented, NYCFC’s strength is its attack, and the team subsists, generally, on out-possessing and out-scoring their opposition. KC, meanwhile, is coming off a season where the club featured MLS’s best defense, and Tim Melia and Ike Opara were MLS Goalkeeper and Defender of the Year, respectively. Do you see KC’s defensive dominance extending into this season? And what weaknesses, if any, can NYCFC’s offense exploit?
CB: I do see this team very solid in defense again this year. A Peter Vermes team will always have a very organized and gritty defensive core. Ilie Sanchez, the holding midfielder, is a huge part that group and everyone from last year is returning. However there does appear to be a change at left back as Cristian Lobato has been starting over Seth Sinovic. Lobato has been converted from a midfielder/forward and while he should be much better going forward, his defense is still something of a question mark. That is what David Villa and the NYC attack should probably be testing on Sunday. The Graham Zusi experiment worked like a charm, we will see if PV can do it again.
JG: Bonus — What is your hottest take for the Oscars tonight?
CB: Give them all to Get Out.
JG: How do you expect KC to line up?
CB: Melia; Zusi, Opara, Besler; Lobato, Ilie, Espinoza, Gutierrez; Russell, Rubio, Croizet
JG: What’s your match prediction?
CB: Sporting Kansas City 2 - 2 New York City FC
Cody Bradley: We liked Saad Abdul-Salaam here in KC, but I am a big fan of the trade for Khiry Shelton. What was the reaction from NYCFC fans to losing Khiry? Also, how do you think SAS will fit into the team?
Jake Gofman: For the most part, we were ready to move on from Khiry Shelton and wish him the best of luck. No one I know in the fan base has ever harbored any ill will towards Khiry, but I think many fans believe he wasn’t able to reach his potential in New York. Being from this contingent of fans, I find myself more disappointed than anything with Khiry’s time in New York. He is an exceptional physical talent — strong on the ball, fast, and ultra-athletic. Where he falls short has always been on the technical side. His control can be spotty, his hold-up play leaves something to be desired, and his scoring record (6 in 54 games) speaks for itself. That said, we’ve all seen flashes of what he can be and he’s still fairly young. I hope he finds success (not against us, but in general) with KC.
SAS will start the season as our first choice to come on and replace a FB. I’m excited to see what he can do when he’s given the chance to play, given he’s proven himself as both a solid defensive player and a fullback that has some attacking ability. NYCFC have needed depth at FB and bringing in someone like Abdul-Salaam is an excellent move to strengthen the defense and hedge against injuries. I think this was a very smart deal for both teams to make.
CB: With the departures of Andrea Pirlo and Jack Harrison in the offseason, what will be the biggest difference between last season’s squad who finished as runners-up for the Supporters’ Shield?
JG: I’ve done enough slandering of Pirlo in my time writing for HRB, so I’ll just say that it was time for Pirlo to go and his departure will be a net-neutral for the club.
On the other hand, losing Jack Harrison sucks. Jack had a huge sophomore campaign, scoring 10 goals and assisting on 3, and I believe his numbers would have been even better had he not been fatigued in the second half of the year. He was truly progressing into one of the league’s best young talents, and I expected his career to feature many ASG appearances.
His departure leaves a big hole in New York’s attack, one that Jesus Medina will need to fill. Medina is the club’s first young DP signing, and he’s got a very similar skill set to Jack — Pacey, attack-minded, and tricky on the ball. He will struggle to replace Jack’s output in his first year, but it was smart of the club to go in the direction they did. NYC did what they could to sign a player that is as close as you can get to a like-for-like swap.
Medina slotting in as the first option RW is the biggest difference for the club coming into 2018. I’m also excited to see how Anton Tinnerholm, Swedish national team RB and last year’s Allsvenskan (Sweden) Defender of the Year, performs at LB for the team. He has the potential to be a very good player.
CB: After improving each year since entering the league in 2015, are fans in NYC expecting silverware from Patrick Vieira’s men?
JG: I would say that, among the fans I’m around, the goal for this year is to advance past the conference semifinals, rather than to win the MLS Cup or the Supporters’ Shield. It will be very difficult to supplant Toronto as the best team in the Eastern Conference and, as a whole, the East is much improved (looking at you, Atlanta).
Getting another top-two finish and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals seem like realistic goals for the club, and personally I’d like to see the team make a run at the U.S. Open Cup. Beyond that, I find it very difficult to see the team dethroning Toronto. That said, crazier things have happened.
CB: How do you expect NYC to line up?
JG: Johnson; Matarrita, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm; Moralez, Ring, Herrera; Wallace, Villa, Medina
CB: What’s your match prediction?
JG: *Throws hands up in the air* MLS! March! Who knows? 3-3 draw.