An exciting time has arrived for soccer fans around the globe, as World Cup qualifying begins during the September FIFA International Break. Top players leave their clubs to represent their country as they begin their quest to play on the game’s biggest stage, and the club game largely is put on hold.
However, Major League Soccer appears to have turned a blind eye to what the rest of the world is doing, with a full slate scheduled for this weekend. This includes NYCFC’s trip to Nashville on Friday night. Unfortunately, this punishes clubs with players that have the quality to represent their national teams, and NYCFC’s largely outstanding back line has been impacted greatly with the departures of four key contributors to national team duty.
James Sands, Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, and Gudmundur Thorarinsson will all be absent on Friday night, and each has played significant minutes along the backline this season. So, what does Ronny Deila do to deal with this situation in a difficult road match against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference?
We got a hint in Deila’s press conference this week, in which he stated that he’s “90% sure” that Alfredo Morales and Vuk Latinovich will start as center backs. Latinovich, a pick from last year’s super draft, has only appeared in 5 minutes of game time this season. Morales, a veteran offseason acquisition, has played the vast majority of his minutes throughout his career and this season as a center midfielder.
It begs the question as to why Sebastian Ibeagha was transferred in early August. Ibeagha was rumored to have asked for a trade in his quest for more first team minutes, but has yet to start since moving to LAFC. These call-ups were predictable less than a month ago for this international window, and Ibeagha would almost certainly have started and provided much needed experience at the MLS center back level for this match.
Still, NYCFC will have to formulate a strategy without him. One option is to play a back four, with Anton Tinnerholm retaining his place at right back and Malte Amundsen sliding in at left back alongside Latinovich and Morales. This would allow NYCFC to retain the 4-2-3-1 shape that they have been playing consistently of late, and likely train most frequently with. However, this represents a major risk given the lack of experience in the center back pairing Deila has hinted will start.
CJ Sapong, the starting forward for Nashville SC, has scored 4 goals in his last four games and is a physical nightmare for a young player and a career center midfield to mark as a center back pairing. Leaving them together in a back four is an option, but not one that I believe makes the most sense if NYCFC wants to get anything from this match. In my opinion, starting 3 center backs is a must.
Some may believe that given his experience, Anton Tinnerholm may slide into the right center back spot among the back 3. In my opinion, that would be a mistake. Tinnerholm is a top player, but what makes him great is his attacking quality and unlimited energy. At center back, he will be undersized and not playing to his strengths. As a result, the best partner for Latinovich and Morales in the back three will be Tayvon Gray.
Gray has been used exclusively as coverage at right back for Tinnerholm this season, but came through the Academy as a center back. He has impressed in each of his performances, but is yet to be able to show what he can do in his preferred position. When playing, Gray has shown strong levels of physicality, calmness beyond his years, and good potential as a ball winner. These attributes trend towards him fitting very well at the wide area of a back three.
Playing with three in the back also would be positive for Alfredo Morales. As City fans have seen from James Sands, a strong center back at the heart of a back three should have some similar properties to a holding midfielder. Distribution is important, and aggression is more acceptable with two other center backs alongside him for cover. As a result, this suits Morales much more than being in a back four.
Admittedly, Vuk Latinovich is somewhat of an unknown given he is new to the team and has hardly played this season. However, I expect him to line up on the left side of the three man defense. It will be interesting for NYCFC fans to see how he plays, but I feel that the club would not have let Ibeagha go if they did not believe that Vuk could perform capably if need be. This is the kind of opportunity for a player to stake their claim for more playing time, and I for one am excited to see him play.
Finally, Malte Amundsen has struggled of late, but will likely be the starter at left back over Tony Rocha, who we have seen play there in the past. He and Tinnerholm will likely have to play a bit more defensively than we are accustomed to, so this may end up looking more like a back five at times. This extra cover will be necessary playing alongside an inexperienced back line, but it will also be important for the team not to play too conservatively. In order to get a result against Nashville, NYCFC will need to pick their spots to push forward and do what they do best, and that is create chances and score goals.
Have any thoughts on who Ronny Deila should select? Feel free to comment below!