New York City FC is an interesting attempt by MLS to gain traction in America's biggest city. In some ways it is working. The fans are coming out to Yankee Stadium and loving the sport. In other ways Seattle Sounders FC's Sunday night (FoxSports1, 4 PM) opponent is not working. Yankee Stadium is an awful place for soccer and the team is under-performing.
Rafa and Sam tag teamed this edition of Three Question. The founder and editor of Hudson River Blue are about to make you a lot smarter.
SaH: What will NYCFC need to get right defensively to stop the Sounders?
HRB: The word "hydra" neatly encapsulates what's so dangerous about the Seattle Sounders. The mythological beast was nigh impossible to fight because if you were to cut off one head, two would rise in its place. Sounders fans started using it in the stretch drive to the MLS playoffs last year to describe the offensive potency of Seattle's lineup, particularly when stars Clint Dempsey and Obamfemi Martins were in full flow.
That's what New York City faces on Sunday.
What will they need to get right? In short: everything.
It's noteworthy that in the run-up to Sunday's game, the Sounders are training on a shortened and narrowed training field in order to simulate Sunday's playing conditions. There's one element they should plan for that I'll touch on later, but Sporting KC was the first to come to the Bronx with a site-specific game plan. I'm sure that Portland did the same thing, and now we see Seattle doing it as well.
I'm guessing that's going to involve a lot of long throws on Seattle's part, Rory Delap-style. It's probably going to involve much more direct play than what we see from the Sounders. So: Jason Kreis needs to plan for that. He needs to have a defensive strategy that takes into account the fact that he's playing on a postage stamp, that accounts for and defends set pieces.
The problem New York City has is that, first, they're an expansion team; second, they're in a desperate injury crisis, the likes of which are usually only seen in bad Football Manager game saves. The first means that their backline, like every other element of the team, is still learning to play with each other and to seamlessly read each others' playing rhythms. The second means that they're missing key parts of that backline.
Luckily, goalkeeper Josh Saunders — who's easily been New York City's player of the year, so far — returns from a one-game suspension. They'll need him to be in imperious form in order to have any shot at winning this game.
SaH: Life without David Villa has been rough. Who needs to become scoring threat number two?
HRB: Someone. Anyone.
In seriousness, New York City suffers from two issues. One is no David Villa; he's been battling a nagging hamstring injury that's hampered his effectiveness on the field.
But the bigger problem is New York City's midfield. It's worth noting that Kreis hasn't really employed his trademark diamond 4-4-2 formation this season. Instead, the team has lined up in a flat 4-4-2, or more frequently, an "empty bucket" 4-4-2, like so:
In that setup, Ned Grabavoy and Mehdi Ballouchy lineup almost as wingers, while Mix Diskerud and Andrew Jacobson are central, almost holding mids. Here's the problem: for three of those players, if not all four, that positional alignment doesn't make much sense. Grabavoy isn't fast enough to be a winger at his age. Ballouchy maybe could work out there, but mostly he's just been utterly invisible for most of the games he's played. Mix isn't a holding mid; he plays best where Ballouchy is positioned. And Jacobson is a box-to-box midfielder, not a holding mid.
So what ends up happening is that there's tons of horizontal passes and back passes to the defense, and the strikers — Villa and Nemec — are forced to track back to get the ball. In turn, any attacking impetus that New York City has is stifled. I don't see that changing any time soon, either — for whatever reason, American coaches, and I include Jurgen Klinsmann here, are bizarrely obsessed with turning Mix Diskerud into something he's not, nor will he ever be.
They should stop.
How do you fix this? I'm no coach, but a humble suggestion would be this.
Yes, the 4-1-3-2. It's not something you see every day; Croatia used it when they eliminated England in the 2008 Euros. It's a trademark of theirs. It's a very attacking lineup; it's also a narrow lineup — which plays to New York City's home field. I've made lots of changes to the lineup here, too. New York City prospect Kwadwo Poku starts, and acts as a defensive midfielder, bolstering the defense. Jacobson moves up from a number 6 slot to his natural number 8 position. Shelton takes Grabavoy's place, as he possesses the energy to bomb up and down the field. Mix moves to a more natural position in the midfield, which doesn't compel him to use vision and defensive skills that he frankly doesn't possess. Mullins comes in for Nemec, who hasn't scored and has been fairly mediocre.
That formation would likely put New York City's strikers in a better position to become secondary and tertiary (quartenary?) scoring options.
SaH: How does Yankee Stadium play?
HRB: Not very well. The problem isn't the narrowness or shortness of the field; it's that the ball literally goes dead. You know how Seattle's turf allows the ball to pinball crazily? This is the exact opposite of that. The ball will literally hit portions of the field and come to a complete stop, which forces players to have to recalibrate how they pass the ball. You cannot train for this; it's maddening.
You'll see more than one attack, by either team, come to a complete stop just because that's what the ball does. Playing a possession-oriented game, like Kreis and, indeed, the team's ownership wants to do, is exceedingly difficult in these conditions. It really compels you to pursue a much more direct course of action — lots of long-balls, lots of long throws, lots of crosses.
Significant Absences: Oh, so many. Striker Tony Taylor had started out promisingly, before tearing up his knee against Portland. Defenders Jason Hernandez and Josh Williams are all questionable with muscle strains; neither played against Chicago, and I don't expect we'll see any of them available for Sunday. Forward Adam Nemec and midfielder Javier Calle — as well as Villa — all have injured hamstrings.
That said, Villa trained some with the team this week, so maybe we'll see him on Sunday. New York City need him, but I'd rather have him sit out more games and come back fully healthy. The alternative is him playing a half, then re-injuring himself, and that then becoming yet another storyline for this team.
We'll see Villa — for a half, before he probably re-injures himself. Jacobson is suspended for Sunday's game, so there's a chance that Poku receives his first start of the season, but who knows. Mullins starts if Nemec can't play. Brovsky comes in if Calle can't play, Shay Facey comes in on the right back. Saunders returns.
* * *
HRB: What's your evaluation of Brad Evans's noteworthy switch from midfield to center back?
SaH: B-Rad is still learning, but it sounds like he and Sigi are happy with how things are going. Just check out this table regarding our community player ratings (each match gets rated by more than 300 readers where a six is MLS average player.)
Evans had a single horrific game. But the rest of the season he's showing what you expect from an intelligent and skillful CB. He's great at winning the ball in the air, solid with the ball at his feet and is learning how to distribute effectively from the back. The whole gamble about him moving to the backline was to get an AJ DeLaGarza type of defender who is also good in the air. That looks to be happening.
When combined with the best defender that's made his career in MLS that means that the Sounders have a great defense, and it is getting better. It lacks a bit of depth in that Zach Scott is soccer-player old, but last year's run-and-gun is replaced by something more akin to shock-and-awe.
HRB: What would Sounders supporters have done if Stefan Frei was insta-loaned to Montreal in mid-week for the CONCACAF final? What was it like to hear his name bandied about?
SaH: It would have been a significant issue among the hardcore. Seattle's soccer leadership (Hanauer, Lagerwey, Schmid) talk about wanting to make history and be the first MLS team to win the CCL. Helping another team do that would be a mistake. It's not surprising that the Sounders didn't do it. Now, word was that if Troy Perkins wanted to go and Montreal was going to give something up that Seattle would have made that deal. Getting something for a loan of a backup keeper is smart roster management.
HRB: What can the Seattle do to take advantage of the infamously narrow field at Yankee Stadium?
SaH: Seattle's best long throw guys are Zach Scott (except he needs to be a target and he's a CB that doesn't start), Brad Evans (another target and CB) and Dylan Remick (a left back who recently won the starting job, but could lose it tomorrow). So, on long throws it will probably be Remick targeting players like Evans, Marshall, Rose and Dempsey. That worked well at home last week.
During run-of-play Seattle shouldn't be changed much. They already don't count on wide play and like to stuff Dempsey, Martins and one of Pappa/Neagle inside a tiny space at the top of the area. Those four players are used to be jammed and still busting through to get on goal in space. Saunders is going to be tested by Oba and Clint. I would put my money on Clinfemi.
Significant Absences: None
Projected Lineup: Frei; Remick, Marshall, Evans, Mears; Neagle, Pineda, Alonso, Pappa; Dempsey, Martins