Match previews

Preview: Union at NYCFC

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at NYCFC
What: Regular season game
Where: Yankee Stadium
When: Saturday, June 18 at 1 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Silviu Petrescu; Linesmen: Gianni Facchini, Andrew Bigelow; Fourth Official: Jose Carlos Rivero

In the month since New York City FC lost by a football score in a baseball stadium, they have yet to win a MLS match. Despite playing only at home.

But even though the score lines look largely as they did before a team from New Jersey waltzed into the Big Apple and dropped seven on Patrick Viera’s side, the style of play is finally starting to look different. That is, it’s finally starting to look like an actual style of play.

Set that positive aside for a moment because the team’s major flaw still remains: The defense is terrible. The strategy, the decision-making, the personnel: All terrible. Philadelphia Union, with a space-destroying midfield press, should thrive in the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium. The only thing that could stop them is actually two things, and one is at the end of each of Andrea Pirlo’s legs.

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Power of Pirlo

After going ahead against Real Salt Lake, New York City lost focus and gave up three goals in fifteen minutes. During that time, RSL successfully overran the center of the pitch, forcing Pirlo into the left channel where he could be pressed effectively. Once they were up 3-1, RSL dropped back and Pirlo immediately went to work picking apart the defense with a seemingly endless array of line-splitting passes and balls over the top.

This is the instantaneous injection of danger that was missing from the Sky Blues’ April loss to Philly. The ability to attack spaces behind the opposition back line from their own half can pin fullbacks deep.

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More than David Villa’s staggering skill at manufacturing chances from nothing, it is this ability to stretch a narrow field vertically that allows NYC to survive despite their defensive frailty. Pirlo puts the ball behind a defense but in front of a goalie like no other player on Earth, and that means that New York City can bypass a midfield when a team like the Union sucks all the space out of the middle.

Another arrow in Pirlo’s sheath that has been fired more often recently is the pass played into pressure. For obvious reasons, few players attempt to play passes into the space behind a pressing defender. The notion of an effective on-ball press is that the outfield players close space like a team of goalies coming out to close an angle on a breakaway: Make the ball carrier hit a perfect shot. In the open field, players won’t try to hit the perfect pass behind an onrushing defender because they can (and should) choose a higher percentage option like a square pass.

But Pirlo doesn’t play by those rules. Faced with pressure, he will simply wrap his foot around the ball and play into the open space left behind by the pressing player. Recently, NYC’s attacking line has started to figure this out. The first time the Union faced the Sky Blues, wingers Steven Mendoza and Khiry Shelton had a lot of fun running sprints up and down the lines while a soccer match went on between them. More recently, Mendoza (and Shelton to a lesser extent) has begun checking into the space left when David Villa makes a vertical run. Pirlo finds Mendoza and NYC can quickly build attacks through the advancing Mix Diskerud (no longer a pure liability!) and the other winger.

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Mendoza’s increased involvement in the passing game speaks to a broader philosophical adjustment Patrick Viera has made over recent matches (or perhaps the philosophy has been there all along but is only now being implemented effectively).

After Mendoza checks inside for Pirlo’s pass (which is played into the oncoming pressure), he lays the ball off to rookie Jack Harrison. The first overall pick does incredibly well to retain the ball under pressure and pick out Ethan White’s (very) delayed run forward. In short, both wing players were involved in a build-up play that allowed NYC to push numbers up and actually build a sustained possession. This is a new wrinkle in the NYC tactical plan that is made possible by Diskerud’s improved understanding of his positioning (i.e., hey Mix, play in the right channel so the middle is open), Mendoza’s improving movement, and Harrison’s unique and exceptional skillset.

The hope of Harrison

Jack Harrison’s story is not unlike that of Keegan Rosenberry. NYC made a homegrown claim on the 19-year-old Englishman and MLS denied it. So the big spenders from the Big Apple traded up in the draft and nabbed the guy they wanted, even if it meant passing up highly rated (and much needed) defenders in the process.

Injuries delayed Harrison’s debut until late May, but in his first start against Real Salt Lake, the No. 1 overall pick was extremely impressive. A calmness on the ball and astute defending were overshadowed by exceptional positioning. Whereas Shelton and Mendoza are always looking to get behind the defense, Harrison provides width when needed and can attack the center of the pitch instead of only looking to get to the endline. This is, in fact, exactly what Harrison did to notch his first professional goal.

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Notice that after RSL’s turnover in the middle, Pirlo immediately plays the ball back into the attacking third. New York City has been much more proactive about turning midfield turnovers into counterattacks since NJRB showed them how to do it.

Mendoza makes a run in behind (as he does) and, more importantly, when Diskerud makes a run to occupy a defender, Harrison reads the situation and stops drifting wide in order to check in to the space Diskerud left behind. Villa continues his run after playing a pass, and Harrison — despite having two defenders nearby — recognizes that he has a gap to attack in front of the defense, which is pinned back by three NYC attackers. He takes the space quickly and aggressively and is rewarded for his efforts.

It’s a far more cerebral play than it appears on the surface, and Harrison showed a far greater ability to read play and respond quickly than either winger that faced the Union in April. Plus, he had touches like the one below, which is just indisputably sweet control.

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That type of skill coupled with his willingness to track back suggests a player who might end up being more effective as part of a midfield trio than pushed up wide. But for now, NYC will continue to deploy Harrison in the front line because they desperately want Diskerud to work out and another big money mid is working his way back to fitness.

Criticizing Frank Lampard is easy. He seems to be loafing through his brief MLS career with one eye constantly on his past. This makes it easy to ignore how good Lampard can be, and how much of a difference he can make with extended minutes. Late in the RSL match, Lampard, Iraola, and Pirlo (who, again, passed into Luke Mulholland’s pressure) made mincemeat out of their opponents and worked a great chance without ever leaving the right-central sixth of the pitch. That’s particularly important for a team that needs to be able to move vertically in the claustrophobic confines of Yankee Stadium’s pitch.

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Depressing Defense

All of these positives need to be weighed against the continued incompetence of the New York City back line. Patrick Viera continues to argue that if the team simply finished the great chances they create, they will be fine. But the struggles in back are bad enough that it’s difficult to tell whether they are systemic or personnel-driven.

The personnel-based argument is an easy one to make, and it’s likely the one that Viera makes to his bosses. He said recently that if NYC goes transfer shopping, they will only target players that can immediately step into the first eleven. Given how much money is already wrapped up in the midfield and attack, it’s likely that any spending will be aimed at injecting life into the defense.

The systemic argument is that Viera wants his fullbacks to pressure the ball high up the pitch, but he’s also worried about long balls over the top. As a result, NYC consistently gets caught with fullbacks in no man’s land as teams isolate Jason Hernandez and Frederic Brillant, two guys who just should not be left in 1v1s. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter who NYC puts back there because the tactics will make it difficult for them to succeed.

Against Orlando City, you can see RJ Allen back off of Kevin Alston (Kevin flippin’ Alston!), which allows Alston to pick out Adrian Winter, who drags a central defender out of position and nearly sets up a goal. Allen needs to either get tight to Alston (yes) or have a good sense of how to direct Alston once he has the ball.

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A very similar issue crops up on RSL’s first goal. The visitors work the ball wide to a fullback, who has time to pick his head up. Ethan White, playing at right back, makes a very non-committal approach to the ball, which both grants time to the ball carrier and signals that a lot of space is open down the RSL left. Joao Plata smartly takes that space, dragging Frederic Brillant with him and leaving Yura Movsysian to take apart Jason Hernandez and score.

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Union planning

Jim Curtin’s team will succeed against NYCFC if they can accomplish two tactical goals. First, close Pirlo down aggressively. And as that happens, the rest of the midfield must rotate to cover the space left by the presser. This means that if Tranquillo Barnetta is stepping up, Brian Carroll and Vincent Nogueira cannot be drawn wide to cover Mix Diskerud or Iraola (or Bravo, if healthy again). Second, the Union fullbacks must get high up the pitch quickly when building out of the back so the center backs and spread wide and Carroll or Nogueira can drop into the middle.

A consistent NYC defensive issue has been Diskerud’s haphazard high press. The midfielder likes to close down the ball high up the pitch to try and create turnovers in midfield, but he will do this without good awareness of his surroundings, often leaving space that is easy to move through once a pass or two leaves Diskerud behind the play. The NYC wingers will tuck in to cover, leaving space out wide for the fullbacks. Philly has good attacking fullbacks who can exploit this if they are high up the pitch and willing to advance the ball with their feet, drawing the opposing fullbacks in and creating space in behind for Le Toux (Ilsinho?) and Pontius.


Lineup graphic courtesy of notable badass Seth Fincke. Creavalle will likely start in Nogueira’s place.

Lineup questions (updated)

Not many, luckily. Ken Tribbett will likely retain his place over the recovering Joshua Yaro, and the rest of the squad is healthy.

With Vincent Nogueira returning to France, the Union will very likely use Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll at the base of midfield. This provides excellent cover for the defense but tends to make Philly far less effective building out of the back.

But the Union still have an elite passer in the back half in Keegan Rosenberry (Tribbett’s not half bad either). It will be very interesting to see whether Philly can build through Rosenberry without Nogueira’s ever-present support and with the narrow NYC field making it easier to close the right back down.

Speaking of lineup, though: Check out the epic improvements Seth Fincke made to the PSP lineup graphic. What was formerly the source of much personal embarrassment has been vastly improved because Seth #PutASnakeOnIt and so much more. I’m extremely, blissfully happy to have this lineup graphic at my disposal, and incredibly thankful to Seth for creating it. It’s what the kids call “Super Badass.”

Prediction: Union 2-1 NYCFC

In April, NYC didn’t have Pirlo. Now they do, and also seem to have at least a passing recognition of what defense is. That’s more than could be said earlier this season, as was definitely shown by NJRB. Still, Philly has been very good at getting behind midfields with Tranquillo Barnetta in the center, and the hosts struggle with midfield shape off turnovers. The Union should win this match.

But it’s important to remember that New York City splashed all that money on Pirlo, Villa, and Lampard because they can change a game in an instant. The beauty of the big money players is that they punish mistakes, so the Union need to be turned on for the full ninety. Hopefully the US Open Cup match shook off any lingering laziness or complacency gained during the Copa break, because one short nap, and this will happen:

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  1. You don’t think we’ll see Ilsinho on the right wing? He didn’t go the full 90 on Wednesday. I would imagine his driving and dribbling on the wing would be exactly what we need to wreak havoc on a team that has hesitant fullbacks who push high.

  2. Gotta admit… I am so tuned into Copa and Euros the domestic league is an after thought. Guess I need to dial it back in. This helps.
    This is the kind of game – Le Toux should give way to Ilsinho. From my POV a no brainer on that small field. Alas, I imagine I am in the minority on this one.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I was thinking the same thing this morning. Then plan to bring in the Energizer Bunny for the last 20-30 minutes.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Not at all. I think Ilshinho should be able to go longer given the small field. I’m with you on that.
      So if we hadn’t just had a 2 week break, I would say we were a lock to win. With the break, to me, this game is 50 / 50. That said, I think the Union are the better team, and should, at the very least, get a draw.

  3. Well, that whole delayed announcement/no announcement press conference thing was weird…

  4. …..ah check twitter feed.
    Nogs and Union just parted ways.
    Does that mean someone else is coming?
    Hope he is ok. Said personal health issues.

  5. We need a DCM to pair with Carroll till Edu is ready. Nogs wasn’t
    a deal or an attempt to improve; the man is ill.

  6. Alicat215 says:

    Give Alberg a crack at the job……..

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