Just a month ago, New York City FC were on cloud nine. They had the best record in MLS, took points on the road against Atlanta United —arguably the toughest task in MLS — and had a matchup with the cellar-dwelling Portland Timbers next on the docket.
Oh, how things have changed.
Against the toughest schedule in MLS to this point, NYCFC sit in 3rd place in the East after taking just 5 out of a possible 12 points in their last four games. The embarrassments against the New York Red Bulls and Portland will linger over around this squad for a while, but taking a point against Carlos Vela and white-hot Los Angeles FC, as well as beating the previously impenetrable FC Dallas defense deserves praise.
On Saturday, they welcome the Colorado Rapids to Yankee Stadium on “David Villa Day”. The Rapids once again find themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference, despite appointing former New Zealand manager Anthony Hudson and spending heavily on former PSG striker Yannick Boli and Wolves forward Joe Mason. Beating Colorado should be considered shooting fish in a barrel, but I’m sure many NYCFC fans chalked up the game against Portland as a win before kick-off as well. Here is how manager (for the time being) Patrick Vieira and NYCFC can exploit Colorado’s shaky roster.
- Line Up Like This
4-2-3-1: Johnson; Sweat, Hountondji, Callens, Tinnerholm; Ring, Herrera; Tajorui-Shradi, Moralez, Medina; Villa
Bench: Stuver, McNamara, Ofori, Ibeagha, Abdul-Salaam, Matarrita, Berget
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi has been so good in recent weeks that he might be considered un-droppable when healthy. ITS’s 5 goals in just 7 games have saved points for NYCFC in LA and in New England. He’ll get the start on the left flank, with David Villa at striker and Jesus Medina on the right flank. Medina has cooled off following a torrid start, but the talent and quality is still there. Jo Inge Berget returns to the bench after weeks of being played out of position as a left winger.
The switch to a 4-2-3-1 means Maxi Moralez will play more forward than in Vieira’s 4-3-3. This leaves Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera as the defensive midfielders. For a couple weeks, it looked like Ebenezer Ofori was ready to take his spot in midfield. While Herrera isn’t exactly secure with his starting spot, he has done the bare minimum to hold onto it.
Ronald Matarrita is once again on the bench in favor of Ben Sweat. With Maxime Chanot still nursing an injury, Cedric Hountondji gets the start over Sebastian Ibeagha. Ibeagha’s own goal and general poor play against LAFC didn’t inspire confidence. In addition, with only one (!) minute logged on the season, NYCFC needs to see what they have in the Beninese international. Alex Callens, Anton Tinnerholm, and Sean Johnson all get the start.
2. Find a way to combat the high press offensively.
If Red Wedding Part II did anything, it showed how well high-pressing NYCFC can work. While Red Bulls do this against nearly every opponent, LAFC is usually team that sits back and doesn’t press high. When NYCFC came to town, they pressed the daylights out of them.
When teams that don’t high-press start pressing one opponent in particular, a change is needed.
While calling for the complete abolition of a system that has been highly productive for NYCFC would be short-sighted, some tweaking is needed. If Vieira fails to notice that his style is being exploited, NYCFC may start conceding points to the minnows of MLS.
3. Clamp down on Colorado’s forwards. The Rapids’ offense is centered around providing service into the box from wide areas.
Anthony Hudson has tried his hardest to establish a system and culture in Colorado. In every match so far, they have deployed a 3-5-2 formation with two wing-backs. In theory, a pacy wingback (like Marlon Hairston) would work far up the pitch and cross the ball into the box, wherein tall strikers would slam it into the back of the net.
Hudson had to deal with several obstacles that have prevented his idealistic vision from coming to fruition. Hairston was lost for a while with a severe knee injury, and the crop of forwards (the aforementioned Boli, Mason, Dominique Badji, and Jack McBean) has yet to have two dominant figures emerge. This leads to a lot of lineup shuffling. Hudson has frozen designated player Shkelzen Gashi out of the lineup, with just 118 minutes and one start to his name in 2018.
It appears as if Badji and Mason will be the starters in this one provided the Rapids are at full strength. Badji’s hat trick against the Philadelphia Union shows that when given good service, he can make a defense pay. Due to the lack of a standout attacking midfielder, both forwards will play abnormally far back for strikers. Shutting them down would neutralize what little offensive firepower the Rapids have.
4. Colorado has a discipline problem. Exploit this early and often
Two short years ago, Colorado finished second in the Western Conference and sported arguably the best defense in MLS. Pablo Mastroeni’s defenses were rarely in disciplinary trouble (save for their 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Boys in Blue in 2016), and would suffocate even the toughest offenses.
In 2018, just the opposite is transpiring.
The Rapids lead MLS with 29 yellow cards. Their discipline issues often manifest in ill-timed concessions, as they are tied for 5th in MLS with 2 penalties conceded, and tied for 3rd with 5 goals allowed via set pieces.
Colorado’s habit of shooting themselves in the foot should do wonders for NYCFC. The possession dominant City going against a Rapids side that only has possession for 44% of the time should lead to plenty of offensive opportunities for NYCFC. With a shuffling, inexperienced defense in front them, an errant leg clipping of an attacking blue shirt or an arm nonchalantly parrying a ball away in the box could give NYCFC the opportunity it needs to shut the door on the basement-residing Rapids.