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How You Doin'? New York City FC

Raf Noboa y Rivera of Hudson River Blue stops by for a chat prior to Sunday's match in New York City

Beware the blue smoke and the big money - does the City way work in MLS? It remains to be seen...
Beware the blue smoke and the big money - does the City way work in MLS? It remains to be seen...
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing Waking the Red's build in the seventeenth game of the 2015 season, WTR exchanged some questions once more with Raf Noboa y Rivera of SB Nation's New York City FC site, Hudson River Blue, to shed some light on the opponent from their perspective.

Question the First
The past month has been much better for the expansion New York City FC, putting behind that long winless run with a positive turn. Does Jason Kreis' side have the depth, especially at the back, to last a whole MLS season? The season is just reaching its summer peak before the slog to the playoff begins; lots of teams have looked good in the past – Toronto, for example - only to crumble when it gets serious.

I think that’s an open question. Certainly, over the first half of the season, that depth was tested. One of the major factors, if not the major factor, in that skid was a hellacious injury crisis. That injury plague, at one point, took out something close to a third of the team. It got so bad, in fact, that New York City literally signed a guy off the street, and started him a week later.

Yes, that’s RJ Allen I’m talking about there.

So: we know that’s an issue for the Blues, and if we know it, certainly the scouting departments of 19 other MLS clubs do as well. So does New York City, and over the past few weeks, they’ve addressed that depth. Everyone’s attention is on Pirlo and Lampard, obviously. That’s allowed a couple of signings that are just as important to go virtually unnoticed.

Over the last few weeks, the Blues finally found a center back pairing in Jason Hernandez and Shay Facey that’s worked. That pairing’s bolstered the defense and helped key New York City’s marked rise in form. But they’re still weak on the wings. Josh Williams has been out most of the season, Chris Wingert’s been injured as well, and while their replacements have done yeoman work, they’re simply not that good.

Enter Andoni Iraola and Jose Angel "Angelino" Tassende. Iraola was a rock on the right for Athletic Bilbao, serving as the Basque club’s captain for the better part of a decade. At 32, Iraola isn’t young anymore, but he’s a massive upgrade at right back for New York City. Angelino, on the other hand, is another Manchester City EDS (academy) product. Everything we’ve seen from him indicates that he’s a spectacularly talented player. He’s 18, so we can expect the inevitable adjustments and mistakes from a player that young, but at the very least he’s better than Jeb Brovsky, and his ceiling is far above Wingert’s.

With the transfer window barely open, New York City’s looking to add even more players. Tefu Mashamaite, who starred in defense for South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs, is another likely addition on defense. It’s unclear how the club is managing all these signings, but my hunch is that we’re going to see a few players hitting the road over the next month. It’s a business, after all. If Kreis can get all these players to jell together, then New York City is simply too good a team, talent-wise, not to make the playoffs. If not, then Kreis will be on the hot seat starting next season. That may not be fair — I don’t think it is — but this is a business.

Question the Second
NYC FC have stolen a lot of headlines with Frank Lampard finally joining and the announcement of Andrea Pirlo's addition. But is there a risk that adding two such players to the middle of a club that has just established the relationships on the field that have brought the recent form will cause another downward spiral before coming good? Can New York spare those growing pains with the season on the line?

Yes, there is a risk. It’s a huge risk. And I’m unclear that they can spare those growing pains.

The thing that most people talk about is just that: whether having three players with the gravitational pull of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard is going to destabilise a fragile and painfully-earned equilibrium in the team. Sure, there’s a a risk of that. But both Pirlo and Lampard have distinguished themselves by their locker-room presence and professionalism, Pirlo in particular, and I don’t think that suddenly changes this late in their careers.

No, the risk lies elsewhere. It’s in how Pirlo and Lampard fit on the field for New York City, particularly when you add Mix Diskerud to the equation.

I’ve discussed Pirlo’s strengths and flaws at length. In short, club and country cover for him, so he can concentrate on doing what he does best. Lampard, meanwhile, has become increasingly more brittle with age, and no longer possesses the same levels of stamina he once had. So the question becomes: where do you play them? The working theory is that you play Lampard as an attacking midfielder, Pirlo at his usual deep-lying playmaker position, and then have some combination of Mix, Tommy McNamara, Ballouchy, Grabavoy, and Poku as your box-to-box mids.

I’m uncertain that works, for two reasons.

First, Mix isn’t a box-to-box midfielder. He’s not good enough defensively for that role, and his offensive vision is lacking. When tasked with that role earlier this season, he flailed; in trying to do all the things a shuttler does, he was working so hard at doing all of them that he ended up doing none of them. You’d see him drifting around aimlessly, pinging balls to nowhere in particular. For great evidence of this, watch the first half of New York City’s first game against the Red Bulls.

Second: we’ve already seen Lampard at attacking midfielder. Carlo Ancelotti, no slouch as a manager, tried him out there as Chelsea’s manager, and the results were mediocre at best. Now, that something didn’t work in the Premier League doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work in MLS. Lampard is a fantastically flexible midfielder. But it’s certainly something to watch for.

For the Pirlo/Lampard/Villa spine to work as it needs to, Mix has to be a much better box-to-box midfielder than he has been thus far. Otherwise, he’s going to force Pirlo and Lampard to cover for him, when it’s his job to cover for them. Their success rides on his slim shoulders. I’m uncertain that he’s up to it, but we’ll see.

Question the Third
With their connection to Manchester City, it has been difficult to shake the label of feeder-club. A recent quote uttered by Angelino brought the issue to the fore once more. Stating, "Now that I’ve got this chance, I need to take it to improve and learn loads of things from them. I need to make myself big and get a good name here, then go back to Manchester to have the chance play first team. We’ll see what the future has for me." How does the club approach this image problem and what to the fans think about the situation?

I’ll answer the second part first: the fans, by and large, couldn’t possibly care less about Angelino’s quote. Neither could I, for that matter. In fact, I loved the quote. Here’s why.

As a sports writer, banality is the bane of my existence. Messi and Ronaldo may be two of the greatest players ever, but they are absolute zeroes as personalities. Neither has ever said anything, at any time, worth quoting. They’re content to serve as corporate pitchmen and merchandising canvasses, and private enterprise loathes risk, so the chances of an actual normal sentence escaping their lips that causes eyebrows to twitch fractionally is nil.

The safe thing to say in a press conference like that is a variation on what Lampard and Pirlo have said: I’m just happy to be here. I’ve wanted this experience for a long time. I’m really looking forward to playing in CITY. I can’t wait to play with players like INSERT MLS LIFER. And so forth.

Those are all nice things to say, and probably nicer to hear. But I just saw Pirlo crying a month ago at the end of the Champions’ League final. That was real. It was raw. It was amazing. Am I really supposed to believe that if Juventus wanted him back, he would’ve turned his back on them? Are you really telling me that if the choice for Pirlo was another shot at a European Cup, or playing out the string elsewhere, he’s passing up that shot at the Cup?

Come on.

That’s not a slam on MLS, either. I have no doubt that Pirlo is going to be insanely competitive at New York City, and that’s going to pay dividends for the Blues. But one of the reasons he’s coming here is that his playing time was decreasing at Juventus, and he wants playing time in order to play for Italy at the European Championships next year. So both sides win. But let’s don’t kid each other here.

What Angelino said was real. It was honest. I love that he said it. MLS needs a lot more players like that. Put it another way: the E in ESPN stands for Entertainment. So: who are the players in MLS that are providing that spice? Who are the players who are embracing that role, and saying the things that are real?

Everyone who follows the league complains that people don’t pay attention to MLS. Fine. Who are the players saying and doing things that make you sit bolt upright? In other words: who are the Ballotellis, the Zlatans? Hell, at this point I’d settle for a Lord Bendtner.

That slides into the first part of your question, which is that impression of New York City as a farm team. Will Parchman wrote a fantastic article about that earlier this week. I don’t agree with all of it, but he made some great points, and it’s worth reading.

The problem that New York City has isn’t that it’s a "farm team", whatever that means. It’s that City Football Group don’t quite know what to do what they want to do with New York City. I’ll explain.

Ferran Soriano, who’s the CEO for both Manchester City and New York City, has been quite explicit about wanting New York City FC to be a world-class team. Which, okay. That’s great. But that’s easier said than done. The tricky part is the how. And the conundrum is this: which is more important — the short-term or the long-term?

Turning New York City into a "world-class" team, however you define that, is most certainly a long-term play. But no one in soccer is judged on the long-term. Everyone is judged on the short-term — especially in the Premier League. That’s just the way it is. That’s where the money is, right now. Twenty-five years ago, it was in Italy. Twenty-five years from now, it’s probably going to be here in the U.S. But right now? It’s in England. And the jewel of the CFG empire is in Manchester.

Faced with that choice, is it any surprise that Soriano, who’s interested in holding on to his job, is going to privilege doing what benefits Manchester City? Or at least going with the safe, default choice? It’s not to me. The problem is that there’s a pretty well-defined template for success in MLS, and it’s basically the opposite of what Manchester City does, which is throw money at the problem until it’s either solved or ameliorated.

That’s where the "farm team" thing comes in. Making the jerseys sky blue and the shirt sponsor Etihad was the safe, default choice. Having Lampard stick around with Manchester City still in contention for a repeat Premier League title and Lampard in excellent form was a safe, default choice. There’s nothing wrong with these choices, in and of themselves.

But they help reify that tired "farm league" crack. They certainly don’t help quash it. You could even argue that getting loanees like Angelino and Facey furthers it. But then you’ll have to tell me how that’s different from the arrangement that Chelsea have with Vitesse Arnhem, except that it’s more readily apparent.

Let’s be clear: signing players like Pirlo and Lampard, or even Iraola and Mix, isn’t what a "farm team" does. Real talk: every fanbase in MLS would love for their players to be linked with that quartet, let alone sign them. Ask the Timbers Army how they feel about seeing Mix rocking sky blue instead of forest green.

That goes into the flip side of this problem, which is that CFG is trying to fix a problem by spending, rather than coming up with a workable plan. I’m happy that they signed Pirlo! He’s one of my favorite players ever. I’m looking forward to discussing fine Italian reds with him again. If you can get Pirlo, you get him. Even if you have to pay him way more than he did last year. At $8 million per year, supposedly, he’s the highest paid player in the league.

But he’s not the only one. There’s Villa and Lampard, at $6 and $5 million apiece per year, reportedly. I’m guessing Iraola didn’t come cheap; Mix didn’t. In short, it’s a pretty open secret that New York City’s roster is the most expensive in MLS. And it’s going to have a real fight to make the playoffs, even in a weakened Eastern Conference.

Remember what I said about the short-term? It also applies in MLS. A lot of New York City fans like to talk about how CFG is going to lead the charge in getting MLS teams to spend more, or at least raising the cap. That’s all well and good, but let’s face it: guys like Stan Kroenke and Bob Kraft aren’t charity cases. They’re perfectly happy with how things are right now, and they’ll fight any changes tooth and nail.

The point that Parchman makes in his piece — and I agree with him — is that if CFG wants New York City to succeed, then the best way to ensure that success is to do what other successful teams in MLS do. Namely: actually build a coherent roster from top to bottom. Look at the LA Galaxy, or the Seattle Sounders, for instance. Seattle’s 3 DPs — Martins, Dempsey, and Alonso — are nowhere near on the level of Pirlo, Villa, and Lampard. But they each fill critical roles. Same with LA.

I’ll grant you Villa; he’s a fantastic striker. But what’s the need that Pirlo addresses that Lampard doesn’t for New York City? In what way are those two complementary of each other, instead of cancelling each other out? Same with Mix — what’s the hole that he fills?

I ask these questions because I look at things critically, as a way of making sense of the world, not because I’m hating on the team. And these signings scream of short-term fixes, not the kind of long-term planning that leads to consistent success in MLS. Guess what: that’s exactly what Manchester City does. Which is ironic, because the reason Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain were brought to Manchester from Barcelona was precisely to instill the kind of long-term planning that Barcelona is noted for.

I’ll leave it at that.

Barbed Question
How does it feel to support the dirtiest team in MLS? No bitterness here about that first meeting.  Any thoughts on the possibility of a rivalry building between these two big-spending clubs?

Well, it’s not our fault that Giovinco is pinball-sized, thus ensuring that he’d bounce effortlessly off our backline. More generally, I’ll say that soccer is a contact sport. That the Blues get whistled for a lot of fouls is merely proof of the hard, gritty edge that Jason Kreis is painstakingly trying to instill into the team. That kind of tireless, grim resolve is rightly celebrated, whether on the beaches of Dunkirk or the fields of Toronto and New York City.

On the rivalry side: I think it’s there. Look, we all crack jokes about TFC, but once more with the real talk: TFC was Cascadia back when those three teams were playing in front of hundreds. TFC fans set the standard for fanatical support, and it’s beyond time that fervour got rewarded with success. As I said at length, my concern about NYC is that they end up doing the same thing that TFC did, with similar levels of failure. That would suck.

I think the potential is really there for a cross-border rivalry that really means something. I’d love for the big-spending to pay off with games featuring world-class players.

Many thanks to Raf for spending some time with Waking the Red – he can be followed on Twitter @hudsonriverblue (his personal handle is @noboa) – and be sure to check out all the latest NYC FC news over at Hudson River Blue.

Waking the Red's answers to their questions can be found here