March 17th was a much rosier time for New York City FC. After a 2-0 drubbing of Orlando City, they had won their first three games for the first time in franchise history. Managing to win without the metronome that is David Villa made it all the sweeter.
Just two months later, however, NYCFC’s season hangs on by a thread.
After a poor showing in a 3-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo — and with Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls down the pike — Patrick Vieira’s squad could spiral down even further if they drop points at Yankee Stadium. With CONCACAF Champions League qualification and a playoff spot in jeopardy, every point counts.
Though their 2-0 win back in March was helped along by some subpar play from Orlando, NYCFC did outplay them up and down the pitch for 90 minutes. It provided an excellent roadmap on how to beat one of the hottest sides in MLS.
Though Jason Kreis’ Real Salt Lake sides made good use of a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation, Orlando decided to organize into a 4-3-1-2 against NYCFC. Sacha Kljestan made his debut as the lone attacking midfielder, with converted winger Justin Meram and attacking midfielder Chris Mueller as the strikers. Yoshi Yotun and Will Johnson — two players with experience at fullback positions — started in midfield. The back four was a mixed bag. Former Pigeon RJ Allen has been up and down, as has center back Jonathan Spector. Left back Mohamed El-Munir has been one of the best in the league so far.
Without David Villa, Vieira chose to start Ismael Tajouri-Shradi at the striker position. The front three of Rodney Wallace, Jesus Medina, and ITS was very fluid, with the three constantly switching positions. Maxi Moralez, Alex Ring, and Yangel Herrera composed NYCFC’s usual midfield, and all three of them were playing A-grade soccer. The fullback pairing of Ben Sweat and Saad Abdul-Salaam played far up the pitch, but didn’t make any major defensive errors.
Both teams will need to adjust their formations in substantial ways. NYCFC will be without Costa Rican internationals Wallace and Ronald Matarrita who have been called upon to reresent their country in the 2018 World Cup, as well as Yangel Herrera who suffered a gruesome injury in the Houston game. The injury bug has bitten Orlando big time, as Spector and Dom Dwyer will miss this clash. Orlando is averaging 2.6 points and 2.6 goals in the 7 games Dwyer has featured in, and just 0.2 points (!) and 0.8 goals (!!) in the five he has missed. additionally, Yoshi Yotun will be away on international duty.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Games like the Orlando one are what Patrick Vieira dreams about. NYCFC were able to dictate the tempo right from the start. They held possession for 61% of the game, and ran a very methodical offense. Of course, it helps when Orlando keeper Joe Bednik makes a Karius-esque mistake to gift NYCFC the lead.
No David Villa? No problem for @NYCFC.— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 17, 2018
Ismael Tajouri scores his first! #NYCvORL https://t.co/7UYyehggny
The Libyan’s first MLS goal was the culmination of a concerted effort from the Blues to control the game in the middle and attacking thirds. Despite not locking down starting spots, Sweat and Abdul-Salaam may have been the unsung heroes in that game, as the heat maps form the day show.
Though Justin Meram is an impressive talent, he couldn’t do it by himself. With 51% of Orlando’s possession coming on the left side, Meram was often backed into a corner, failing to let loose with his deadly creativity on the ball. Sacha Kljestan — a man who once lead MLS in assists — is deadly when on the ball in the middle of the pitch. NYCFC decided to pack in tight on the defensive side, only allowing Kljestan on the ball in wide areas where he isn’t nearly as effective.
Defending, Orlando was a mess in the second half. Once Jesus Medina got on the ball more, the Lions wilted in front of his skill. Ever the creator, Medina assisted Maxi Moralez’s second goal. With Medina on the bench in the last two meetings, Vieira better realize that the Paraguayan was the one player Orlando had no answer for in their first meeting.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Justin Meram is a versatile, quality player that can start routinely in MLS.
Against NYCFC, he turns into Ronaldo.
Going back to his Columbus Crew days, Meram has haunted the Boys in Blue, and any offensive excitement Orlando had in that game came from him personally. With 3 of Orlando’s 10 shots — and 2 of their 3 on target — he came to play. With Kljestan now 100% healthy and Dom Dwyer once again in absentia, it’s safe to assume the Iraqi international will end up the preferred attacking option.
Maxi Moralez’s goal was a nice finish to cap off a strong day for NYCFC, but it was rough sledding for the first half. Dispossessed nine times — most of the time by the physical Yotun — ‘Frasquito’ was once again challenged by physical defensive midfielders. Players like Yotun and Tyler Adams have been his kryptonite in the 2018 campaign.
Orlando only got the bright idea to press high after NYCFC slotted home two goals. Afterwards, Orlando looked more dangerous. 6 of their 10 shots came after the 70th minute. When pressed high by both teams who do it regularly like Red Bulls or sparingly like Los Angeles FC, NYCFC haven’t shown that they have an answer.
If Orlando learns from this, they could end up snatching some points on the road and leave their conference rivals spinning further out of control.