Around this time last season, I wrote an article expressing concern over New York City FC and the decline in their attack as well as their overall performance. Fast forward to today, nearly a year later, and practically the same concerns have resurfaced as City tries to end the season hoisting the MLS Cup. The thought of that seems almost laughable at this point, considering how they’ve fallen much closer to finishing 6th than a top of the MLS Eastern Conference standings. A team that at one point was considered to be battling Atlanta United for the Supporters Shield and a CONCACAF Champions League berth is now hoping to simply have home field advantage in the knockout round of the playoffs.
What makes this even more disturbing is that this similar dip in form, at a similar point in the year comes with a new manager, an updated roster, and without some of the same issues the team faced last season. Despite being injured earlier in the year David Villa is healthy at the right time, several more attackers were added this year unlike the previous offseason, and the offense has been altered- ever so slightly- to not be as dependent on Villa as it has been in years’ past. Despite those changes, City is in what I would say qualifies as a definitively worse situation than it was in last season. So, what gives?
Going the Wrong Direction
To say Torrent’s overture to MLS and as NYCFC’s coach has not been smooth would be an understatement. While many had to wonder what the impact would be for City to lose Patrick Vieira midseason as their coach, much of that sting was collectively assumed to be muted by the fact Pep Guardiola’s right hand man would be manning the helm in the Bronx as Vieira’s replacement. And while his first few games as manager started off fairly promising (a win against the New York Red Bulls, playing time for Jonathan Lewis and Kwame Awuah, more pragmatic about playing out of the back, etc.) the full body of work has revealed less than what was expected when he took over. Since June 11th, when Torrent was named the manager, City has a record of 6-5-4 with a goal differential of +3 in those matches. Overall, that’s the form of a midtable team, and while decent it’s not the expectations we’ve held City to after being in the top 2 of the Eastern Conference the last two seasons.
To make matters worse, most of Torrent’s success came early when he was first brought in. City’s form in recent games is even worse. Their last win came on August 12th, when they beat Toronto FC — a team that has really fallen apart this season — 3-2 in BMO Field. Since then, the club’s record is 0-3-3 with a goal differential of -4. That’s over a month of games without a win and without scoring more than a goal in any given match.
The attack is sputtering, as evident by the fact that their recent 1-1 draw against the Montreal Impact was a byproduct of an own goal by an Impact defender. While possession has remained consistently dominant, the quality in chances has diminished as the year’s progressed.
While it can be an extremely difficult situation for a team to go from one manager to the next midseason, especially moving on from a relatively successful coach, the CFG dynamic and communal style of play seemed to make many of us less concerned about any rough transition period. After all, the style and formation that Vieira was using (the 4-3-3, possession style soccer) was very much in step with what Pep Guardiola and Manchester City FC are doing in England. For me, I expected Torrent to come in this season, leave things as they were, and perhaps maybe begin molding this team more to his image in the offseason. Honestly, if it’s not broke don’t fix it, right?
Well, Torrent has come in over the last few months and I’d say has established himself as much more of a tinkerer than Vieira ever was in the Bronx. He’s tinkered with the way Maxi Moralez is used, with Alexander Ring, and even with the way David Villa is used as well. All of these have come with what I would say are anywhere from mixed to less than ideal results overall. Especially Ring, who has seen his role change from being holding, last line of defense ball winning midfielder to someone who has been asked to play further up the pitch and be more involved in the possession and attack for City. To take someone who was arguably the best or one of the best in MLS at his role and to move him into a new role is thought provoking at best, concerning at worst. Especially with losing Yangel Herrera to injury for entire second half of this season, which I’ll discuss even more further down.
The tinkering reared its head in a big way to me once again in the match against Montreal. City is clearly struggling to not only win games, but to score goals in general. With that being said, Torrent has chosen to stick to his new formation over the last few games to using a two-forward front with Jo Inge Berget (or Valentin Castellanos) along with Villa and in the process has relegated Ismael Tajouri-Shradi to the bench, who is tied with Villa for the team lead in goals at 11. Although Torrent brought him on later in games, the results show that may have been too little, too late.
While a couple of moves have worked for Torrent, like playing Ronald Matarrita in the midfield for example, it is quite evident that most of these tweaks have not come off the way Torrent was hoping they would. Which is frustrating when you consider all of the talent at his disposal too.
We often criticized Vieira for his lack of squad rotation over the course of a season, and on his relying on veterans who seemed to have outlived their effectiveness (i.e. Rodney Wallace). It appears Torrent has adopted some of those same habits, while adding some wrinkles of his own that are part of the reason for City’s struggles as of late. Despite being more open to playing some of the younger players (Lewis, Awuah, Sands etc.) earlier on when the club was winning, Torrent has seemingly become much more adverse to using these players as we get closer to the end of the season. In fact, despite some impressive substitute appearances from Lewis, Torrent and the club decided it’s better for him to go out on loan for a few weeks in USL.
One would’ve assumed they would give Awuah the same opportunity, as he’s played even less than Lewis has this season. But he still remains with the team. And James Sands, the team’s first ever homegrown player, received his first ever starts a few weeks ago. And despite some solid performances, Torrent has buried him back on the bench. Fresh blood like these players would seemingly be a good thing to inject into the lineup when the performances have started to become stale. Yet, their usage has been sparingly at best.
Torrent has not had the same aversion, however, to playing the players he brought himself: Eloi Amagat and Valentin Castellanos. Despite only joining this in late July, Castellanos and Amagat have already passed Jonathan Lewis in minutes played this season. Combined they have equaled 1 goal and zero assists, both marks behind Lewis on the season, who hasn’t started and has only appeared in substitute situations this season. While Amagat has added some value in City’s passing (he’s averaged 1.5 key passes/chances created with NYCFC), he offers little in terms of controlling the midfield, often leaving Ofori or Ring to fend for themselves which has led to defensive issues in recent weeks. Castellanos, on the other hand, while talented also appears extremely raw. I could see the value in adding him as a player for the future, but if we’re sending players like Lewis on loan and limiting Sands because of their lack of refinement, Castellanos should be held to the same standard.
But all of this really undersells the real problem for City this year: the lack of replacing Yangel Herrera’s impact. Ebenezer Ofori was a player that came in with a fair bit of hype and praise as apparently NYCFC have been in on trying to acquire him for over a year. Once the Midfielder of the Year in the Swedish Allsvenskan, Ofori looked to be a primetime player who many hoped could fill in when Herrera went down with injury. Sadly, that has not been the case. Herrera was a marauding midfielder who won the ball all over the pitch working in a good dynamic alongside Alexander Ring. Ofori does not seem to have that same impact, and to add to that issue he was not put in the same role. Torrent has instead swapped him into Ring’s role, and pushed Ring up the field. Amagat appears more there for keeping possession and only keeping possession which means that really no one is actually deployed in a way to fill the role Herrera plays, which undoubtedly was a necessary role given the club’s downward spiral since his injury.
The Final Stretch
Starting with this week’s midweek match against the Chicago Fire, City is down to their final four games. With only a 3-point lead ahead of the Columbus Crew SC, and just four points ahead of the Philadelphia Union, it is imperative that Torrent get NYCFC back on track and in form heading into the playoffs. The chance for a first round bye is almost long gone, so knockout round soccer is coming to the Bronx for the first time in its brief history.
Or is it?
Well, if NYCFC keeps this recent form through to the end of the season, NYCFC could actually even find themselves in 5th place instead of 3rd, which would mean the team has to fight for their life on the road, where they have a 4-7-4 record this season, their worst since the club’s inaugural season in 2015.
That doesn’t seem promising at all. And for a team that still has yet to find any sort of playoff success at all, finishing the season backpedaling into the playoffs is the last thing anyone wants to see. This team and the fanbase entered into this season with Supporters Shield, and potentially even MLS Cup hopes as the team reloaded and came in looking as one of the best teams in MLS.
Now, we are just hoping they avoid further embarrassment.