Tuesday, July 12, 2016

NYCFC and the Power of Modest Adjustments

Irrelevant. Also, accidentally awesome result from a search titled, "Plans Gone Wrong."

Late last season, the Portland Timbers may or may not have made The Switch, aka, the subtle little coaching decision that set them off on two months’ worth of success and, ultimately, an MLS Cup. I’ve torn this idea apart in earlier posts, so elaborating on it now, well past the date of its relevance…my point is, Portland has moved on, for good or ill, and so shall I.

When mid-season loomed into view, and with results not being all they could be, a few teams adjusted how they fielded their players in order to fix this eternally-recurring slip here or boost this danger there. Here, I want to focus on the teams who made one specific move to shore up their respective defenses, specifically by moving to the 4-1-4-1. A couple teams have gone this way, DC United by dropping Marcelo Sarvas behind Nick DeLeon and (on a good day) Luciano Acosta, and the Houston Dynamo did it by parking Collen Warner on top of their oft-shaky back four. One other team went this way and with far, far better results than the two just named: here, I’m talking about New York City FC and Andoni Iraola.

As Cody pointed out during the podcast, this wasn’t a complicated choice. So long as NYCFC insists on fielding the elderly (Andrea Pirlo/Frank Lampard), they’re going to need cover, i.e. someone to do the running they won’t, or can’t so long as they want to remain forward-looking and/or relevant. It’s working pretty well so far – four straight games worth of better-than-OK results (also called wins) – prior to NYCFC’s recent loss to Sporting KC…of which, I know nothing.

For what it’s worth, I’m happy for New York Junior. They’ve given fans a good share of pleasant moments, but, overall, they’ve had a pretty terrible time in MLS. So, happy for them in the here and now. So long as it doesn’t get immediately keep the Portland Timbers from walking toward a second coronation, I don’t care if they win MLS Cup…

…and there’s the warning. Of all the myths that persist about MLS, none will ever live as long as the promise of getting hot at the right time and winning it all. On the surface, this has been the Los Angeles Galaxy’s M.O. for most of the 2000s; it’s part of what propelled Portland to MLS Cup in 2015, but that’s where the caveat comes from. (Also, there’s a corollary, one that NYCFC happens to have filled – e.g. doing well enough all year to make that late run matter.)

When Portland came into 2016 as reigning champions, fans could be forgiven for expecting that, finally, the Timbers wouldn’t endure another cold start to the season. In spite of the opening day win at Columbus, nope, didn’t happen: March sucked just as much as it does every season, if not a little more thanks to expectations. No one’s really sure as to why the Timbers reverted to type – well, beyond the obvious, e.g. it’s what they do. Another argument came along, and it’s one that applies to NYCFC: Teams will study what New York has done with their midfield, and they’ll start game-planning against it – e.g. can they get Iraola to cheat toward covering Pirlo and then switch to the other side in the middle third? Simplistic as that might be, the teams NYCFC will play have the time, energy and professional interest to review the tape for holes and they will find them.

The point is, timing matters. New York made the switch and it paid off now. The question is, how long it keeps paying off. The post-season is still a damned long way away.

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