Player ratings

Analysis and player ratings: Union 2-0 NYCFC

Photo: Paul Rudderow

After Saturday’s match, New York City FC head coach Patrick Viera and a reporter discussed their differing views on how the visitors played. Viera thought his team deserved something from a match in which they dominated possession and held the Union to a low number of chances at home. The reporter thought Viera’s admission that his team made simple mistakes to give up the goals and NYC’s indisputably muted attack meant it was off-base at best (and disingenuous at worst) to argue that the visitors deserved a share of the outcome.

At one point, Viera says,“I respectfully understand your view, but like you said, we have a different view of the game.”

Can both sides be correct?

Viera’s point of view is more defensible every time you watch the match. His team did dominate the ball. They did penetrate the Union defense multiple times. And the defense did turn off twice and get punished for it both times.

However, the reporter has plenty of support on his side as well. NYC did need to take the game to Philly in the second half, and instead they meandered about with hardly a clue how to penetrate the Union’s young, rusty, and inexperienced back four. They didn’t support the ageless bundle of body feints that is David Villa with runs out of midfield or off the wings. They did whatever it is they do with the fullbacks, tucking them inside and forcing the wingers to come deep to receive the ball.

In the end, Viera is simply saying that if his team plays the way it did on Saturday, he expects them to be able to acquire points on the road. The reporter is saying… yeah, but I just watched your squad posture like a male peacock for at least 45 minutes without producing any real attacking threat.

At this point, it’s worth remembering a few things:

  1. NYCFC has not been good this season, but their underlying stats are not so bad. The American Soccer Analysis Expected Goals model gave them over a half-goal edge in their loss against Columbus last week (which is interesting because the eye-test says Columbus was dominant) and more than a goal advantage over Chicago before that (a match they drew).
  2. The Sky Blues are trotting out a defense made up of scraps and players who would really prefer not to play much defense, thank-you-very-much.
  3. Viera’s tactics are still difficult to comprehend, but the team executed them far more effectively on Saturday than they did against Columbus.

That third point is an important one, because on first viewing NYC did not appear to be organized in any recognizable manner. However, their defense actually did quite a solid job against the Union. It was the attack — and possibly Viera’s tactical designs going forward — that let them down.

Viera switches up the midfield

At halftime, Jim Curtin mentioned that the Union prepared to play against Andrea Pirlo. This is quite a different proposition than playing against Federico Bravo, Mikey Lopez, and Kwadwo Poku. Additionally, it is quite different than facing Mix Diskerud and Tommy McNamara, two players who tend to be ballhawks.

The all-new midfield is likely borne from both a busy schedule and an undisciplined performance against Columbus that saw Diskerud pressing the wrong players and McNamara struggle to act as a link between Pirlo and Villa. Without their shaggy duo, however, NYC had an incredibly difficult time penetrating the Union box.

Poku and Lopez are not box-averse, per se, but they approach it in a different manner than McNamara and Diskerud. Poku makes intelligent runs, but tends to be conservative in selecting time and place. Lopez, on the other hand, loves a late run, capitalizing on the messes a player like Villa can create in the final third. But neither player is a great complement to the Spanish international leading the NYC line. They don’t overlap and drag defenders away from him, and they tend to space out off the ball, starving Villa’s clinical, left channel give-and-goes of a recipient for the ‘give.’

But the new midfield, with Bravo impressively disciplined as the holder, was far more organized defensively. Lopez and Poku targeted Nogueira and effectively prevented him from picking his head up or setting up the Union’s final third offense. Bravo struggled to find his positioning in the first half, often chasing out to the wings when he needed to sit in the middle to cut out passes to Sapong. In the second frame, Bravo’s passing became overly ambitious (those giveaways in the middle third are a no-no), but his positioning was phenomenal, and the home side barely threatened as a result.

Defensive solidity, offensive… something

There is a strong argument that NYC’s defensive performance against Columbus was actually an interpretive dance version of the song “Breakaway.” So regardless of what Viera says publically, there was a clear impetus to change up the first 11 to improve its defensive structure. Given that the NYC roster was assembled by the most out of touch guy in your Fantasy Soccer league, there was little choice but to modify the midfield instead of the defense.

Largely, it worked. The Union’s best chances outside of the two goals were a tame Pontius strike into Josh Saunders’ chest, Keegan Rosenberry’s header off a corner, and Pontius’ own headed effort around the post off Tranquillo Barnetta’s free kick.

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NYC was effective because they played an extremely high line to collapse the midfield and aggressively closed down Vincent Nogueira and Tranquillo Barnetta. The latter was able to get into good positions only about four times in the first half, with three of the resulting passes connecting into good areas. (Dude can ball.)

Overall, it was textbook modern pressing from NYC: Forcing Joshua Yaro and Richie Marquez to look long, closing down the midfield so the high line wouldn’t get exposed, and, importantly, targeting Rosenberry as a potential threat (although Khiry Shelton’s direct running may have been more ideal on the left, where he could run directly at Rosenberry and Yaro). But Steven Mendoza was preferred for large portions of the match because his pressure on the rookie right back was more disciplined.

Leaving Mendoza on the left was one of many choices NYC made to bolster its defense at the expense of its attack. Switching out the entire midfield was another. Throwing on McNamara before Diskerud: Same thing. The big reason Philly was able to appear the better side despite New York City’s surprisingly strong organization was that C.J. Sapong used the powers Lovetronians derive from Earth’s yellow sun to physically (and likely emotionally) dominate Jason Hernandez in their one-on-one battle, and NYC’s Achilles’ heel turned out to be tracking runners out of midfield.

The catch in all of this is that Viera’s defensive adjustments were not matched by similarly astute offensive changes. I struggle to envison what Viera’s ideal attack would have looked like on Saturday. The fullbacks often tucked in centrally, providing extra bodies in midfield. Meanwhile, the wingers vacillated between dropping deep to provide an outlet and hanging near the touchlines trying to stretch out the Union back four. The midfield trio looked to possess the ball, but only advanced it effectively by dribbling through Philly’s press. David Villa only left the center when he accidentally wandered into a wide area while daydreaming about the day Frank Lampard is making bullish runs off of him.

There is no subtle way of saying it: The NYC offense was and is a mess. David Villa can — as Donald “Duck” Dunn would say — turn goat piss into gasoline, but that can only do so much. Going forward, NYC is disjointed, uncoordinated, and generally difficult to watch. 

The fullbacks tucking inside means there is so much space in wide areas that, if Patrick Viera was feeling Napoleonic, he could slap the name “Louisiana” on it and sell it to finance a war, or a new back four. Leaving so much wide space is just… such an odd tactical choice. NYC uses two wingers who are lightning fast and excellent when isolated. But they consistently leave those wide players alone on the wings, meaning the opposition can double down or at least provide adequate support to keep Shelton and Mendoza from running rampant.

The NYC wingers had 11 successful take-ons, which is more than the entire Union squad combined. Yet, that dribbling was mostly used to get away from tight pressure, not to attack the goal. Without another player to use as a partner or a decoy, the wide players were just foxes against a pack of hounds. Shelton ran away from Fabinho on multiple occasions, but he was escaping traps more than he was creating final third havoc. City’s setup was simply not conducive to isolating these terribly dangerous players.

Additionally, neither player spent time in the channels between fullback and central defender. Mendoza was at his most dangerous pulling wide and sneaking behind Rosenberry when Villa curled out into a hole between the lines. Essentially, these players were isolated. And as a result they produced a single blocked shot and one good chance (for Villa) between them. Yuck.

In the video below, the fullback, Matarrita is so central, that the centerback, Brillant, has to step wide to fill the gap. This also forces Mendoza to come so far back to receive the ball that he never has a chance to run at Rosenberry.

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Philly’s problems

It should be hard to criticize a team that went from the Rais M’bacle of 2015 to first place in one season. But Jim Curtin was right when he said that Saturday’s performance was far off the Union’s best.

The biggest issue Curtin will want to deal with this week is how to balance Tranquillo Barnetta’s desire to turn and run with the need to possess the ball and give Nogueira time to pick out passes. A week ago, the Union were far too impatient when they dominated possession. This week, they eschewed build-up play in favor of driving at the NYC defense. Partially, this was because the visitors executed an incredibly high line quite effectively, which compressed space in midfield and gave Nogueira little to work with.

As teams increasingly recognize that Sapong has become an excellent hold-up player, they will continue to try and compact the zone behind midfield so Philly is forced to go over the top more often. It is worth noting that aside from Sebastien Le Toux, the Union are not blessed with incredible speed on the outside. Ilsinho, Pontius, and Leo Fernandes are all fast enough, but Curtin would likely have the same message for them that he had for Fabinho at halftime: “[Khiry] Shelton is faster than you. That’s not changing.”

To combat what could be an increasingly tight midfield zone, Philly will need to move the ball faster and continue to improve the use of fullbacks as outlets and creators.

Barnetta notes

Tranquillo Barnetta is a converted winger. When he sees space in front of him, he takes that space. In the video below, check out how Barnetta keeps rolling while the NYC midfield falls static. Barnetta’s take on the position is a welcome change from Cristian Maidana’s habit of going off on vision quests in search of space near the flanks, but it also means Barnetta can run himself into trouble.

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Furthermore, it means the Union offense will look quite different depending on who plays in that attacking midfield role. Barnetta likes to take space and then look to play in behind a defense. Ilsinho goes off the dribble but prefers shorter passes that free him up to continue a run. Roland Alberg tends to occupy spots higher up the pitch and try to distribute or turn to shoot from those areas, though he has also proven to be a good distributor from deep on the counter.

There is no best way to interpret this role, but teams often prefer to keep that attacking nerve center somewhat constant. Around MLS, the creator is rarely rested because he is often the engine of an offense that grinds to a halt without his ingenuity. Philly is building a different way. Whoever takes the creative role on a given day will run a different version of the Union attack, and it will be interesting to see if Curtin is willing to rotate that position if no one player truly stands out.

Barnetta’s biggest contribution was his defensive work, which stymied NYC attacks throughout the first half. Though the Swiss international faded considerably in the second frame, he was such a nuisance in the first that NYC was unable to target Villa even when the Union back line was too deep (which it often was).

Yaro gettin’ comfy

Last week, there was a bit of the old adage “when in doubt, kick it out” in Joshua Yaro’s play. He was slightly jumpy, a bit untrusting of his touch, and very aware of the trouble he could get into if he dawdled on the ball or tried to get too cute in the passing game.

Check out the confident touch Yaro makes to move the ball with speed in the video below. It seems minor, but the angle and the pressure makes it tough. So smooth from the kid.

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Saturday was a fine step forward, with the young centerback putting his full range of physical skills on display and notching a series of calm passes out of tight areas. In no particular order, Yaro matched wheels with the frighteningly fast Mendoza, bodied up the Spongebob Squarebody of Tommy McNamara, and challenged Khiry Shelton’s considerable leaping ability in the box. In every instance, Yaro came out on top because he was starting from good positions and reading the play before it happened (see both videos below).

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Additionally, he was quick to get tight to Villa around the box, forcing the Spaniard to resort to the spectacular just to put balls near frame (which Villa did, because he can).

The knock on Yaro’s game is that he still tends to dwell on the ball when given time. This is not always a bad thing, but in MLS it is important to keep the rock moving so a team has to continually adjust their defense. Yaro would often look for a narrow window to open in front of him instead of playing the ball across to Marquez and drifting over to support. That first ball to Marquez shifts the entire defense, and can act as a trigger for pressure.

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Ideally, Yaro will learn to use that pass to read a defense and see how they react to it. If it is the trigger to pressure, Yaro can get a return ball and quickly find those lanes that were covered moments ago. If Marquez has time on the ball, he can advance it and let Yaro move forward as well before receiving a return pass and pushing into opposing territory. In college, Yaro could likely pick apart a defense without much help (though his partner at Georgetown, Cole Siler, could hit one heckuva crossfield ball). Now Yaro will need to learn to use those around him to create his own space so he can truly maximize his unique set of skills.

Go ahead and do a search on "Andrew Blake." Much different results from "Andre."

Go ahead and do a search on “Andrew Blake.” Much different results from “Andre.”

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 7

No complaints when Blake doesn’t have to be spectacular to get a win.

Keegan Rosenberry – 5

Again, Rosenberry struggled to exert an attacking influence, but the confidence is still there. Partly, this was due to the Union’s inability to retain the ball and move it about. Additionally, the rookie was caught in no-man’s land multiple times trying to decide whether to step to a winger or remain central.

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Joshua Yaro – 7

Largely contained David Villa, and made clear progress with his defensive reads. Now it’s about playing a bit quicker and waiting for that first bit of adversity to smack you down so you can bounce back.

Richie Marquez – 7

Not his best day against Seattle, so Marquez went out and collected two blocks, three clearances, and a pair of final third tackles against NYC. Not too shabby.

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Fabinho – 5

I mean, you have to laugh. Fabi knew he would get suspended if he picked up a caution, yet he went into Khiry Shelton like a giant kid into a ball pit.

Brian Carroll – 8

I didn’t mention Carroll at all in the analysis. Because he was that good. A block and four interceptions, no incomplete passes inside his own half. Carroll will get dribbled by at least once or twice a game (this time it was Poku), but he will continue to provide a reliable shield in front of the back four. In celebration of BC’s Ironman status, here’s a video of him bodying one of his generation’s best strikers off the ball. Cheers, homey.

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Vincent Nogueira – 5

Plenty of defensive effort, but some of it could have been scaled back into positional discipline. Nogueira was the subject of much NYC attention and it showed in his inability to influence the match.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 8

About 45 minutes of good soccer in here, with another 15 or so of heavy legs thrown in at the end. Barnetta’s late run to set up the first goal was fantastic, and his set piece delivery was something James Milner can aspire to emulate.

Sebastien Le Toux – 7

The occasional wild running was paired with great work trying to stretch the field going forward. Le Toux tends to drift central when he doesn’t have much of the ball, and that was the case again on Saturday. Yet, the Frenchman was on alert for second balls and it resulted in a (possibly unintentional) assist.

Chris Pontius – 9

8 for the goal and the overall performance. Plus an extra point for general badassery.

CJ Sapong – 8

Sapong was a monster up top. One of my biggest reservations about calling him into the USMNT fold was that he struggles to create his own shot or beat defenders on the dribble. So far, Sapong’s touch seems even more confident than it did during his streak of goals last season, and his awareness and defensive workrate are approaching elite status in MLS. Below, check out Sapong’s movement after winning the initial header. 

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Ray Gaddis – 6

In his first minutes of the season, Gaddis flashed the speed and athleticism that makes him so hard to beat. He also fell asleep a few times returning to position, allowing players to get between him and Marquez (see below).

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Ilsinho – 5

A bit of an anonymous return to the field for the Brazilian.

Warren Creavalle – 6

Not much to do, but held the defensive shape very well.

Geiger counter – 6

In a feisty match with a crowded middle third, Jose Carlos Rivero put in a strong showing without becoming the center of attention. Good work on a weekend when refereeing around the league had some true lowlights (SJvSKC; NYRBvOCSC).


  1. first post, again, to say wow! Lovetron, it makes so much sense to me now, but I did not realize it before
    I mean to say dear people dear people, if I cannot trust Wikipedia, in whom can I place my trust?
    so, if Lovetron is in alignment with Earth, as it often is, and Mercury is rising, we get goals, good goals, good God
    are y’all pickin up what I’m puttin down? say yes

  2. Pretty sure not one player, at any point in time for this club has made or has been capable of making the play Barnetta conjures for the Pontius goal. Maybe Marfan.
    Excited to have him. his IQ. his technical skills. his creativity.

  3. Seeing that Fabi yellow in a loop a few times really is comical. I don’t think I really picked up how ridiculous is was watching the game (eyes were on Shelton’s avoidance of Marquez, not Fabi’s starting position when he decided to go for broke)

    • pragmatist says:

      We had people around us complaining me about it. We thought it was funny, because it looked like he was a cornerback trying to take down a running back in the open field.
      The ref whipped out the yellow and I said, “thank god that’s all.”

  4. I could only watch the game until about the 54th minute, but from the piece I watched, Barnetta was Man Of The Match. Dude was EVERYWHERE in the first half, playing with gusto. In fact, on a whole bunch of occasions I thought, “Damn, look at Nogueira mix it up in the midfield and take off running!”, only to then realize, “Wait… that’s Barnetta…” We truly looked like a different squad with Barnetta in the center. (Also, this was one of the weaker matches I’ve seen Nogueira play in a Union kit. Hopefully he’ll shake it off.)

    • Nogs was marked like the danger player he is.

      • pragmatist says:

        He was marked well, but he was loose with his passes and never really got into the game.
        It was just not a commanding performance, but not a sign of the player. Dudes got game, it just wasn’t this one.

  5. One othe point: after Fabi picked up that silly yellow card, I thought to myself, “Y’know, if I were the coach, I might really consider bringing Gaddis in to play the second half. Of course, Curtin would never do that in a hundred years.” And then he did! I think he’s showing some maturity and growth as a coach. That’s a move he would not have made even a few weeks ago.

    • agreed. he learned from last week’s mistake. it was the right move. each correction in his decision-making is a positive for me. people were saying Jim only had the job because Ernie didn’t have time to replace him. his days would be numbered and we needed to prepare ourselves for the inevitable recast. but i hope many agree these improvements to his game are contributing to this team’s success.

      • Absolutely. Now that he has an actual bench to draw from (and a bit of confidence in his own decisions doesnt hurt), we’re seeing him grow as a coach every week. In game he does the right things, with the media he’s saying all the right things, and most importantly noting when players do the right things off the field. (Loved hearing him call out BC as a person he’d want his son to grow up to be)

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    One thing that seems to be missing from the list of Union opportunities was when NYCFC handed Seba the ball with a clear run on goal but curled the shot wide. Just another case against NYCFC “deserving” something from the match.
    As I posted Saturday night, I was not a big fan of the ref. My biggest beef was the second time Pontius went off to get bandaged, he deliberately wouldn’t let Chris back on for 20-30 seconds by holding his hand up, even though the Union had control of the ball in a non threatening position during part of this time. I didn’t watch any other action this weekend so I don’t know what the other refs did wrong, but not letting a player back on in a situation where that player had not delayed the game at all when he first went off is just poor officiating. (When a player is writhing on the ground for 5 minutes and then is ready to come back 2 seconds after going off then it makes sense for the ref to ask him to wait, but Pontius had already been off for several minutes).

  7. Amazing, refreshing, awesome… etc, that when we have a player marked out of a game (Nogs), we can still win. Yeah, not our best game, but night and day compared to last year.
    Yaro is coming along. Looked pretty good Saturday. Another big test coming this weekend too. Starting to understand why he was supposed to go #1 overall.
    Nice to be able to have a guy like Gaddis come when Fabinho goes gonzo and gets a heck of a yellow. Haha

  8. A thought: Gaddis isn’t good enough to be anointed a starting fullback in MLS…but as a sub who can play both sides and keep up with anyone, he is a great asset.

    • +1. Didn’t like leaning on him last year, but in the right situation he still has plenty of value. Situations include: seeing out a close game, covering a speedy winger, replacing Fabinho whenever he decides to get the old sun rocket out, replacing Fabinho whenever he takes ridiculous yellow cards, and of course replacing Fabinho before he can put his hand in a totally inexplicable position in the box so it can be struck for a PK.
      But in all seriousness, Gaddis is a much more conservative option. When we need goals, Fabi and Keegan are our guys. But if its time to bunker in or try to mark Fabian Castillo, gimme Ray all day.

      • Hmmm….Interesting on the Castillo point I agree (I mentioned this before the first game against Dallas and was met with much disagreement). Now people see Gaddis’s value. Gaddis always was and likely will be one of the best defenders this team has.

      • I think a lot of us early in the season were quick to cast aside the old guard and get this new Union chapter started totally fresh. Lots of talk about a new Left back, the DP striker that NEEDED to come over during the summer, a new CDM etc. Now that we’ve shown growth and had some level of success, we as fans are more ready to reassess other options based on 7 games of substance rather than the need to cleanse ourselves of the filth of years past.

  9. After that ridiculous Vieira press conference, I can safely say this might be the analysis I anticipated the most in quite a while. My first thought was “Is Vieira just trolling everyone?” followed by “Maybe his English is rusty?” which led to “No, he genuinely believes they deserved it” and finally “Wait, Patrick freaking Vieira thinks that, what the heck did I miss?”
    I can see where he’s coming from now, but this kind of result happens all too frequently in soccer, something he should be aware of (and if not, welcome to MLS. get used to it). We probably should have gone down 1 after Villa hits that crossbar, but after the luck fails to go his way in the 1st half, he made no attempt to change what he was doing in the 2nd once NYCFC were chasing the game.
    As always, great work Adam, and I appreciate the bonus point for Pontius. Dude is a boss.

  10. Agree with everything except Yaro’s analysis. He isn’t confident enough on the ball and he backs off to much when defending. He gets turned easily and crosses over Marquez to much. Also with Rosenberry getting beat to the inside all the time he is just a person that worries me on the pitch. He is just lucky that Villa missed as this game was easily 3 to 2 NYC if Villa could hit the frame. Yaro worries me and I say leave him at Steel for the rest of the year let him grow like Marquez and Tribbet did in the USL. Is Yaro athletic yes could he be a good CB someday sure, but not ready yet still lacks the confidence and swagger to take on top players.

  11. NYCFC was a little dangerous when they pressured our young centerbacks and forced Blake to distribute the ball. A good team is going to do that to us at some point and we may be in trouble.

  12. This game is the one that most signifies thus current season. Didn’t play our best, but got a 2-0 win. That would have never happened before. It will be interesting to see what Curtin does with the full roster. I admit he has impressed me far more than I would have guessed. I don’t totally love our style of play. But it’s hard to argue that he’s done too much wrong so far.

  13. Adam,

    Bravo! I live in Manhattan and have had season tickets to NYCFC since day 1. I try to read as much as possible about the team in the news, but rarely have I read such insightful, unbiased, knowledgeable content about my team as I did in this article.

    Keep up the good work and good luck to the Union this year!


    • @Travis – Thanks so much! I have to say, I’m intensely curious to see what Viera is going to try to do with that team and that roster. Good luck to you guys as well!

  14. Outstanding blog write-up with current authentic news… thanks for sharing!!! #goldengoals

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