Ahead of the opening leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal between Toronto FC and New York City FC, Jake Gofman of Hudson River Blue, SBN's NYCFC site, stops by to answer some of the pressing questions heading into the epic encounter.
Question the First
The difference in outcome from NYCFC's first season to their second has been remarkable. Speaking from experience, long, long experience, it can be incredibly difficult for an expansion club, especially one that did not have the benefit of a pre-existing infrastructure, to find their feet in MLS at such a pace. To what should one attribute this remarkable turn of events and what role has the tutelage of Patrick Vieira played in the success? What has he done differently than Jason Kreis the year before?
There's a lot that has gone into our success from year one to year two. In the club's first season, expectations were set far too high for our newly acquired DPs to produce immediate results for the club. People saw the Man City pedigree, the big names, and took that as enough to win in year one in New York. What actually transpired was much of what was feared by the people who watched the club more closely throughout its early days. The roster had far too many holes, especially defensively, to make any kind of sustained run through a season. Aside from David Villa, the DPs we were promised were set to arrive late, and were thrown into the fire when it came to playing in MLS, which can be a physically demanding league. There were certainly tactical and personnel changes we hoped to see from Kreis that we never got, but the reality was that he was dealt a losing hand despite being expected to win from day one.
Year two was already an improvement from year one as we started our training camp with a more complete roster and our full compliment of DPs in attendance (although Frank Lampard was still rehabbing an ankle injury). Vieira had the benefit of working with the players from day one, instilling his philosophy and mentality from day one. He has been able to make the tough decisions, benching the likes of Mix Diskerud after he did not fit into his plan and he has been greatly successful working with our international players, some of whom now form an important young core for our future (Ronald Matarrita and Federico Bravo, especially).
As a rookie manager, Patrick Vieira has been proactive in trying to solve issues he sees on the pitch with tactical or personnel changes. He's gotten some things wrong this season, but overall he's been more right than wrong, and our supporters have appreciated his style in comparison to someone like Kreis, who ultimately is a bit more seasoned and therefore stubborn. For example, Vieira was trying desperately for us to be successful at home using a 3-at-the-back W-M formation to start the season, but after some time abandoned it smartly for a more traditional 4-3-3 set up that still enabled Pirlo and Lampard to play together.
In all, Vieira gives us a chance to win every game, and while his aggressive style can open the door to some unwanted results, it's nice to have a manager that goes out 'guns blazing.'
Question the Second
New York is not a city that shies from the spotlight, but given that the club is only in its second season of play, what would be a realistic marker of success for this club? By making the playoffs, has the first hurdle to considering the year a good one been passed? Or does the club, and its fanbase, have loftier goals?
Coming into this season, I personally set the bar only as high as finishing 5th or 6th in the Eastern Conference. My thought process was that we would be able to repeat this season as one of the league's best scoring teams, and that if we could just be an average defensive team, we could be a low-seeded playoff team. The numbers show that I was mostly right - we were once again one of the most prolific offensive teams and while the goals allowed put us near the bottom of the league, I think we showed ourselves to be more competent than our 2015 iteration (especially when you remove for some extremely lopsided results I refuse to refer to directly).
Where I was wrong was our ability to pull out close results. Whether it was a function of good managerial presence, veteran leadership, tactics, or just plain luck, New York City got on the end of some nail biters and rarely took a disappointing result. The team won seven games by one goal, and were one of the best teams in the league at scoring in the last 15 minutes of the match. These factors combined to give us a fairly even goal differential but a strong points tally.
I would consider our 2nd place finish already to be a success for the club in only its second year. I would love to make a deep cup run, but these two-legged affairs can go either way, and TFC is an excellent club, so I'm trying my best to keep a level head going into the match.
Question the Third
Vieira has the side ticking over nicely and the offensive prowess therein will be a concern to any opponent that should face NYCFC. But the playoffs are an entirely different beast, as TFC learned at the hands of Montreal last year. As such, two concerns remain: can a team that concedes as readily really hope to make a deep run, or, is there a need to shore up the back in order to excel? And, with the impending return of Frank Lampard, is it possible that reintroducing such a player at this late stage causes any disruption in the play of the side?
I'd like to think that there are no good answers for anything that's decided over a short series of time. The variance in a 180-minute period can be substantial, so if we win or lose, overreacting can be dangerous. There are, however certain things I would like us to address as the club continues to grow and one of those is the defending. Some of our struggles at the back are unavoidable as we are playing three fairly aging midfielders, only one of which has a defensive background (no, not you Pirlo). In this situation, our greatest strength is also inseparable from our most glaring weakness, and that is just something we need to live with as long as we want to be an exceptional offensive club. However, we can be more intelligent in how we organize, especially on a situational basis, with our players. We have a propensity to concede after scoring, and that kind of vice can be killer in this Playoff format. Looking forward, I am hoping the club looks to acquire or draft defensive talent through the center. Our options at the back have really been limited to our somewhat older international players, and cultivating young talent should be a priority moving forward.
As for Frank the Tank. I think you are bringing up an interesting concern when it comes to reintroducing a player in a pivotal game when they are returning from injury. Whether or not this is the best decision for the club is always at the heart of this concern, and in the Playoff the scrutiny is ratcheted up a degree. If I had to step into Vieira's shoes for this decision, he is thinking to himself that Frank is just one of those players you have to roll the dice on and trust. He has so much experience, and his contribution on the field can be so big that leaving him on the bench for a game like this can be a huge mistake that would come from being too careful. Vieira is not the careful type, so expect to see Frankie.
I would not put it past Vieira to make some even larger changes for the match either. He experimented with a five-at-the-back formation in our last game of the year and it looked excellent this time around in our narrow stadium. He also left a fit Saunders on the bench and played Eirik Johansen for the first time, something many supporters have been clamoring for all season. Were these just specific changes we made for our Columbus match and a harmless goalie swap to close out the year, or something Vieira has planned for Toronto? We shall see on Sunday.
As the last paragraph details, this is tough to predict. On the road, the 4-3-3 has been our best formation, so I'm going to go conservative:
Saunders; Matarrita, Brillant, Channot, Allen; Pirlo, Iraola, Lampard; Harrison, Villa, Shelton
NYC FC has to survive the opening salvo from TFC, and I'm not quite sure that happens in a crazy BMO Stadium environment. I see us conceding a goal in the first half under massive pressure, after which point the two sides trade chances. Toronto jumps ahead 2-0 on some sort of Giovinco nonsense/magic but NYC salvages a late and intriguing away goal before coming back to New York.
2-1 Toronto in leg one.
Many thanks to Jake for taking the time to provide some insight ahead of Sunday's opening leg – he can be found on Twitter @JakeGofman