It has been eight months since that fateful night in New York, where TFC dropped a five-spot on their hosts, leading to the most lop-sided aggregate victory in MLS history and a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals against Montreal.
Tonight's game should be a good one, though both sides are missing key pieces.
On to the questions...
Question the First:
With the conventional wisdom stating that the unique nature of MLS makes it nigh impossible for foreign coaches to succeed, especially those with little-to-no experience in North American soccer, what is it about Patrick Vieira that has seen him persevere and rise above that impediment so early in his coaching career to find success at NYCFC? And in what esteem is he held by the fans?
Before I try to dissect this question, which is complex, I want lead by recalling the one time I saw Patrick Vieira in-person at a live podcast taping. I have always been a big fan of Patrick back to his playing days, so bringing him on to coach New York was an exciting proposition. Many of the supporters concede to a degree that Jason Kreis was never given a fair chance to be successful, with City Football Group setting unrealistic standards for the coach. Vieira, therefore was under a lot of pressure when he took over to assemble a team that could win while simultaneously building his identity as a coach.
The podcast taping was less than a year ago, so NYC had already found success under Vieira; however, I couldn't help but gleam two important qualities from Patrick: First, he is as resolute a coach as he was a player. It borders on stubbornness born from a conviction that the way he has New York playing, and the identity of the team itself, is the right one. The second thing I noticed in the interview is that he is as direct and honest as a coach can be. I think there is a tendency in MLS that comes from American sports that dissuades coaches from being fully honest with media and that can sometimes hurt the team. Patrick is the opposite: He's open and has a charisma that makes him a very likable guy, especially among the supporters.
Vieira has made the right decision often times when it comes to tactics, in-game strategy and player management and that has had a big impact on his success with the club. That's not to say he's always right, nor has he refined his personal style and philosophy. However, I think it all starts with who he is as a person, and he has commanded the respect of his players and the admiration of his supporters, which has in-turn led NYC FC to be successful under his direction.
Question the Second:
From afar, it seems that the emergence of two players has really made a difference for NYCFC this season: Jack Harrison and Alexander Ring. Harrison provides a legitimate secondary scoring threat (with apologies to Tommy McNamara), relieving some of the pressure off David Villa doing it all himself while distracting some of the defensive attention away from the Spaniard. Ring has really solidified the middle of the park in a way that neither Andrea Pirlo nor Frank Lampard were able to. What has that duo brought to the team this year and are there any other players whose contributions should be highlighted?
Undoubtedly the continued development of Jack Harrison and the addition of Alexander Ring have been two of the biggest reasons why we find ourselves in third in the Eastern Conference.
New York took a risk trading up for Jack in last year's Superdraft but their risk has been rewarded, with Jack looking more and more like a star in this league with each appearance he makes. He has 8 goals and 2 assists in 18 games this year, and his 7.24 match rating according to whoscored is the team's second best (behind Villa, of course). Jack's at his best in space, dribbling at his opponent before he chooses to proceed down the flank or cut inside for a shot. The stats back this up, as Jack is the 6th ranked player in MLS in terms of successful dribbles created per game.
Ring, meanwhile is the rock in the defense. He is a rangy no. 8-type player, capable of thwarting the opposition's attack and springing his own team forward. He replaced Andoni Iraola from last year's team who, despite playing as hard as he could, was overwhelmed in the midfield covering for Pirlo and Lampard and effectively playing outside of his normal fullback position. Ring's impact is also evident in the leaderboards, as the Fin leads all of MLS in tackles, racking up an insane 4.7 of them per match.
I would also highlight two others: Sean Johnson, who has played exceptionally well in goal, and Maxi Moralez, who is the dynamic midfield player we were missing these last few years.
Question the Third:
Any sore feelings after how last season ended? And if so, how will the team react to the spanking that Toronto FC gave them in that 7-0 Eastern Conference semi-final?
Yeah that sucked, a lot. I think there will be a strong desire in the team to get some retribution for that loss, and I imagine Patrick Vieira will have the team fired up to play. New York is very strong at home playing in the bizarre dimensions of Yankee stadium, losing only once all year. I think this will be difficult on both teams and should make for an excellent watch.
(4-3-3): Johnson; Sweat, Callens, Chanot, Allen; Ring, Herrera, Moralez; McNamara, Villa, Harrison.
I think this one plays fast and loose, with NYC taking it 3-2.
Many thanks to Jake for taking the time to dive into the questions and provide a glimpse beyond the Toronto media bubble.