Match previews

Preview: Philadelphia Union vs New York City FC

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. New York City FC
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, April 23 at 4 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Jose Carlos Rivero; Brian Dunn and Jose Da Silva; Mathieu Bourdeau

Note: New league-wide security procedures for entrance into Talen Energy Stadium — including the use of search wands and and new bag restrictions — go into effect for Saturday’s game so arrive earlier than usual to enter the stadium to make sure you don’t miss the kickoff.

Let’s get this out of the way: I cannot tell you what New York City FC’s tactics will look like this weekend. I can barely even guess.

With a midfield assembled based on hair length, a defense put together based on vowel count, and an attacking line featuring two sprinters and maybe the most complete striker in MLS, NYCFC is a strange team doing some strange things on the field. Watching Patrick Viera’s team play is like going to a wildlife preserve or a national park: You will probably see something you’ve never seen before, like a grizzly bear, a breathtaking longball, or a Spaniard wriggling through four defenders with relative ease. However, you are more likely to see bear poop, or Mix Diskerud actively forgetting how to play soccer, or whatever it was the fullbacks were doing against Columbus last weekend.

I wish there was just one play for the NYC/Crew match that summed up everything about how crazy Viera’s tactics were, but that would be asking too much… right?


The two sequences below are actually part of one continuous run of play. And they are, let’s say, revealing.

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First, Ronald Matarrita, a talented young left back, collects the ball from Diskerud in the center. Let’s just pause and stew on that: NYC is playing a 4-3-3 with a compact three-man midfield featuring Andrea Pirlo supporting Diskerud and Tommy McNamara. Yet, somehow, Matarrita, like William Shatner zapping onto some unknown planet, has found himself between the latter two in the center of the pitch. Does he receive a pass and think: “What am I doing here? I should give the ball square to McNamara and overlap wide”? No way. He takes off on a Rambo-like mission toward the opposition goal, firing a fine strike that Steve Clark smothers.

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It’s a bit strange to see fullbacks exploding through holes in the middle of the field like NFL running backs, but what is even stranger is that nobody even pretends to cover for Matarrita. McNamara and Diskerud go about their normal business of applying passive pressure in the center, leaving Kei flippin’ Kamara with an entire half of the field to himself.

And this was not a bug in the system: This was the system. Throughout the first half and well into the second, Viera was applying a fascinating, if warped, take on the tactics Juventus and Italy have used to build around The Most Interesting Soccer Man In The World, aka Pirlo.

Is there a method to the madbadness?

The Italian twist was to play with three central defenders and release wingbacks to zip up and down the flanks, providing both width and depth for Pirlo’s near-limitless passing range. Since Pirlo is a subpar defender, the center backs would play a fairly high line but stretch a bit to cover the wings when a fullback was caught too high. If you have three world class defenders, this works pretty well.

NYC does not have world class defenders, nor is Viera willing to sacrifice an attacker to play with three deep. Instead, the fullbacks push extremely high with almost no cover, leaving Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, and Kei Kamara switching off in the Simba role, with all the space that the light touches belonging to them.

In the video below, Columbus easily passes the first line of defense and finds that the right side of NYC’s defense is torn between stepping up to Higuain or holding the line. This allows a single, long, straight pass to unlock the entire defense. Seriously.

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In the next video, NYC pushes both fullbacks high and then leaves them upfield when Brillant dribbles to the edge of the opposition box. This means there is zero help for Jason Hernandez on the counter, and he only has one of the best strikers in MLS to defend. Good times, good times.

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It is brutal to watch, and the fact that Columbus didn’t score nine is down to poor finishing. Just look at that shot chart!

NYC man-marks too high, meaning that Kamara has a huge hole to check into to bypass the midfield.

NYC man-marks too high, meaning that Kamara has a huge hole to check into to bypass the midfield.

The man who knew too much

One of Viera’s biggest issues this season has been that he tries to do too much at once, and ends up with a muddled set of tactics that devolve into uncoordinated chasing. On Saturday, for example, he wanted the fullbacks to run the entire flank, with all three central midfielders tightly bound in the center going forward. However, he also thought it would be pretty groovy to knock Columbus out of their patient build-up game, so Tony Taylor, Steven Mendoza, and Mix Diskerud stretched the defensive shape to press Tyson Wahl and the Crew fullbacks.

Without any support, the NYC press was easily bypassed with short balls to Wil Trapp, who found Federico Higuain or just floated crossfield passes into the massive holes NYC left on the wings (see video below). One is left imagining that Viera was like a kid at a soda fountain who thinks he can get all the flavors he wants by combining every soda in one cup (don’t believe the nostalgia, it’s gross).

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Now, there is an important caveat here: At home, these wildly odd tactics don’t leave the light blues very exposed because there just isn’t that much space to exploit on the tiny rec league pitch at Yankee Stadium. However, it all falls apart when NYC travels, and they have six goals conceded in two road matches to prove it (against two teams who have not exactly been offensive powerhouses this season, though Columbus will inevitably come around).

How can they hurt you?

There is also this: If New York City can get the ball to David Villa early on the counterattack, as in the video below, they can be dangerous every time. Villa is a samurai of space, and when he finds it between the lines — be it 20 yards from goal or 40 — he can cause immediate havoc. In the few instances NYC got the ball on his feet in front of the Crew defense, they were able to release their wide attackers (who are essentially sprinters in shinguards) to make Columbus retreat. If either Diskerud or McNamara joins that attack, things start to get interesting. Additionally, the NYC fullbacks, for all their positional wanderings, are excellent crossers. Iraola and Matarrita are dynamic attackers, which is why pushing them forward aggressively is not an inherently bad idea.

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This speaks once more to how it is not the shape of the team that has been problematic for NYC so much as how that shape changes and moves in response to developments in the match. The back line wants to stay high and close to the midfield because there is nothing close to a defensive mid to protect them. Yet the fullbacks push forward without considering numbers or controlling the ball or… well, or anything else.

Diskerud's ill-advised pressure with no support means Higuain can turn and run at the defense.

Diskerud’s ill-advised pressure with no support means Higuain can turn and run at the defense.

What does this mean for the Union?

To boil it down: Right now, Viera is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to play a distinctive attacking style while also taking the opposing team out of their preferred method of play. This rarely works because it means offense and defense are not built off each other; each is borne from a different philosophy, so transitioning from attack to defense is problematic and vice versa.

If Viera sticks with his mad scientist methods this weekend, he will likely look to man mark Vincent Nogueira when the Union are in possession and press the fullbacks early and often. In response, Philly has to quickly figure out where NYC’s pressure is coming from and play the ball behind it. In other words, if New York City presses with the wingers, Philly has to provide easy options in midfield for their fullbacks so quick one-twos can develop. Rosenberry and Fabinho can push into space and start attacks if they have someone to play off of when pressured, because NYC does not support their high press well.

NYC tries to press high, but can't support it, so they are unable to pressure the ball in the middle and end up vulnerable to longer balls over the top of their high line.

NYC tries to press high, but can’t support it, so they are unable to pressure the ball in the middle and end up vulnerable to longer balls over the top of their high line.

If, instead, NYC persists in pushing Diskerud into the high press, Philly needs to position a winger and midfielder in the channels to either side of Pirlo. The Italian rarely strays from between his central defenders, meaning Hernandez and Brillant need to either step high or drop deep when the ball is played behind McNamara and Diskerud. Getting the ball into those areas puts a ton of pressure on a defense that, frankly, is terrible when it turns and runs.

A desire to stick the ball behind the NYC midfield is the type of thing that can make Jim Curtin think hard about leaving Joshua Yaro in the lineup this weekend. The rookie shows little fear playing the ball into tight areas, and he would make a unique tool for unlocking the fragile visiting defense. 

Below, you can see that once the ball is between the lines, Philly can play it wide and flood the box because the NYC midfield can’t be bothered to track runners in there.

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In the center, Curtin will have to decide whether to continue with Warren Creavalle over the rested Brian Carroll. The vice captain may be preferred this weekend since cutting off service to David Villa should take priority over pushing another midfielder into attack. Creavalle’s passing radar was running into some intermittent interference on Saturday, and Curtin may look to save his energy to protect a late lead.

In place of the suspended Roland Alberg, Curtin will be deciding between the mostly-recovered Tranquillo Barnetta and the recovering Ilsinho. Ideally, the Union would be able to give Sebastien Le Toux a well-earned break against a weaker opponent and work Ilsinho back with a 55-60 minute shift on Barnetta’s wing. This would give two of Philly’s more technical players a chance to get in rhythm against a defense likely to give them space to operate.

UnionNYCBut a best guess sees Le Toux remain on the wing with Ilsinho grabbing some late minutes. Barnetta should start in the center and look to play balls behind the opposing fullbacks in a way that Alberg has struggled to do this season (though, to be fair, he’s flashed the ability at times). Philly should be all about drawing NYC in then playing behind their high line. This suggests an extended run for Fabian Herbers, who loves to curl through the middle of a defense and look for balls through the channels.

Rooks on the right

As noted above, there is a reasonable chance Joshua Yaro will remain in the first eleven this weekend. Starting Ken Tribbett on a tender ankle against one of the slipperiest strikers in the league seems risky, and — though far from perfect — Yaro showed that he can keep the game simple under the big lights last weekend.

Using Yaro against NYC leads to to big questions. First, can Yaro defend crosses against a very intelligent opponent? For all their defensive shenanigans, the NYC fullbacks are both excellent crossers. And David Villa doesn’t score with his head because of his size or athleticism, but because he has an elven cloak and can disappear, sneaking off into space in the box like a fancy, Spanish hobbit.

Second, can Yaro get his spacing right with Villa? One of the rookie’s bigger issues against Seattle was getting too close to strikers and engaging physically when he didn’t need to. If a defender is too close, Villa has an uncanny ability to put the ball around them into space for a teammate. If the defender stays back to defend against this, the striker simply whips off a curling shot toward the corners.

Yaro was tested by Seattle’s attempts to stretch the field last Saturday, but this weekend his awareness in tight spaces will be front and center. NYC’s offense runs through Villa’s ability to collect the ball in the left half-space. Yaro’s decision making in those moments will be hugely tested if he plays.

Prediction: Union 3-1 NYCFC

New York City has given up three goals in both road matches this season, so I’m going to stick with that trend. I’m also going to bet that David Villa, operating like a gravitational force out of that left channel, will be able to score or create at least one goal against the Union’s young back line.

Philly is looking to get back on track after struggling to impose their game on Seattle. And they could not have asked for a better opponent at home.


  1. pragmatist says:

    The only lineup change for me would be to start Ilsinho over LeToux, for exactly the reason you mentioned: Give him time to build up that chemistry with Barnetta against a weaker opponent. When it’s time for subs, we can move Leo to the 10 and LeToux for Ilsinho. And then likely Herbers for Pontius.
    Against a team that is as fragile as NYC, you can take advantage with speed or with skill. Ilsinho gives you the skill, and I think that would be a bigger benefit in this game.

    • Agreed, but only if he is fit enough after his injury. No sense in sending him out to possibly get hurt again against a weaker opponent either.

      • pragmatist says:

        Absolutely. I’m working on the assumption that he’s at or near 100%.

      • Yeah, and Le Toux will definitely get in behind those pushed up fullbacks. Probably will be ok either way in this case, although a fresh Le Toux around 65 running past them would be great to see.

  2. Adam, you make a very good case for each of Yaro and Carroll. But the case is even stronger together: if you’re going to start a pair of rookies on the right side of the defense against the Stately Spanish Villa, you can most definitely use the canny, veteran, stay-at-home D-mid to watch over them.

  3. Also, Adam, I wish there were some way you could make a living doing this. Not only is your analysis consistently insightful, but you are an excellent writer. (And I have very high standards in the writing department.)

    • pragmatist says:


    • JediLos117 says:

      My fav readings.

    • @Scottso – Thanks so much. I’m not sure there is a huge market for overly long and snarky analysis, but it’s been a lot of fun to do these past few years.

      Also, the commenting community has really developed into one that starts their own discussions and gives great feedback. This has been a huge, huge boost the past few seasons when some of the on-field performances have been, let’s say, tough to watch multiple times. Knowing that you all were out there going through it with me was sustaining.

  4. Definitely a Brian Carroll kind of game this weekend. Help shield Yaro/Rosenberry, there’s plenty of offense in the lineup to score against what appears to be a very disorganized NYCFC defense, and BC’s soccer IQ would seem to be an asset against a team that will largely be pinning its hopes on Pirlo/Villa to create a few moments of brilliance to have a chance at getting 3 points.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    This should be 3 points. Looking at some of the excellent breakdown in this post, NYCFC appears to struggle in all defensive aspects of the game. The Union are now good enough to take advantage of a team that is clearly inferior to them… especially at home.

    • I would say they “should” be good enough, but lets remember we should’ve taken care of chicago too and that didn’t happen. This game is going to be more difficult then I feel people are thinking it will be.

      • @DrUnion – You make a good point. I focused on the weird and wild defending, but this is still a team that only needs one free kick or one yard of space for David Villa to turn a match on its head.

      • We, as fans of a Philadelphia sports team, should be all too aware of this fact. One of the big keys is not taking this game lightly, approaching it with discipline, and from a management standpoint, getting players who are throwing themselves into reckless challenges off early before they can earn their red card.
        I think this game will very much test Curtin’s and the team’s ability to adjust on the fly. NYCFC have shown no tactical consistency yet, and we really could be facing anything. Look at BC early to keep the defense organized and Nogs to unlock the opponent and start the break. Those guys should be the key.

  6. Can’t believe I’m writing this, but Carroll must start.
    Who’s the first sub? Pontius didn’t have long legs last game, can Barnetta go the full 90? and do you give LeToux a break as its a long season?

    • pragmatist says:

      Leo for Barnetta, LeToux for Ilsinho (or vice-versa), and Herbers for Pontius.
      Outside chance that Creavalle comes in for Barnetta or Noeguiera, but Jim’s likely to stick with the same 14 guys.

      • old soccer coach says:

        with Herbers going up top and Sapong out wide into Pontius’s spot?

      • pragmatist says:

        Most likely. It’s not a full-time solution, but with the current personnel, and the injuries/suspensions, it’s the best allotment.
        I would like to see a late game switch to a 4-4-2, but it’s unlikely to happen, I think.
        I know people will ask why Leo in the middle with Barnetta wide, but it’s a matter of playing to strengths.
        Just one man’s opinion…

  7. Just a thought. There is less here to analyze than meets the eye. Pirlo supports nobody, so the midfielders must work twice as hard, which they dont. You can see from the clips that NYCFC is always in a jogging mode. The NY team is so badly coached that it is staggeringly disfunctional.I think Viera comes from the JK school of coaching. Just tell them what you want and let them go do it. Dont tell me Villa cant be defended when he is alone like that . The Union should win this one easily. If they dont, It will be a long season.

    • pragmatist says:

      Your points are mostly valid, except that you are overlooking NYC’s firepower. They play zero defense, and when they try, it’s not good.
      But when they are in the final third, they have a lot of weapons that know how to finish. There are 3.2 GPG scored by both teams when they play, and that number is skewed by the anomaly of last week’s 0-0 draw to Chicago (who is shutting down everyone, but is incapable of scoring, themselves).
      So, yeah, we should be able to ring up 2, 3, or 4 goals. But the fear is that we will let up 3, 4, or 5.
      That is why we need Brian Carroll in there, and at his best. And we need all the young defenders to play solid, disciplined games. Otherwise, it could be an exciting, but nerve-wracking game.

      • I think you are right. I am assuming the Union will be organized enough to be compact defensively, hoping to force NYC into the crossing mode. A wild card for NY is Perez. If he plays on the right wing, watch out. If he plays on the left (were he hates to play) things should be easier for the defense. I also feel that Kreis was a much better coach at dealing with what he had, not some fantasy of attacking football. If Viera were an american, he would be gone by now.

  8. Here’s my take … we are rebuilding. Anything that *should* happen can’t be counted on. This season is going to one full of two steps forward, one step back. The comfort that we can find in that is so far Mr. Stewart is proving to be the absolute right person for his job.
    Everything else is under evaluation.
    Also, I’ll add my appreciation to Adam. My Soccer IQ has increased tenfold reading these pre- and post game articles.

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