NEW YORK – Virtually all of the 32,041 fans in Yankee Stadium contributed to stadium-wide "We want Pirlo!" chants several times before the team's newest Designated Player stepped onto the pitch in the second half of New York City FC's 5-3 victory over fellow expansion team Orlando City SC on Sunday.
In the 53rd minute of the match, Javier Calle had just given NYCFC a 2-1 lead minutes after Cyle Larin had equalized for Orlando City, the first goal of the rookie's eventual hat trick. But all eyes were on No. 21 as he stood on the sideline preparing to sub in for Mehdi Ballouchy. The stadium's collective voice chanted "We want Pirlo!" one last time, and, at last, there was Andrea Pirlo.
It was a limited dose, but the NYCFC faithful definitely got what they were looking for.
The 36-year-old Italian maestro made an immediate impact on the field in his first competitive club minutes since playing in Juventus's 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League final. He pinged the ball around the field with his trademark, seemingly effortless accuracy, making himself a key cog in NYCFC's attack from the start.
"I'm very happy about this debut, I'm very excited for this victory," Pirlo said through a translator after the match. "It was great because [the fans] wanted me to play. When I got on the pitch it was great to hear the great applause. It was every emotional and a really appreciated it"
Pirlo's debut represented the beginning of NYCFC’s second season, with 13 games remaining in the club's inaugural campaign and the team on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Pirlo, along with David Villa and eventually Frank Lampard, will be leaned of heavily as NYCFC takes aim at a run toward the postseason. It's no coincidence that the confidence and pace of NYCFC's attack sprung to life in his 33 minutes on the field, offsetting the club's defensive deficiencies.
Leading up to NYCFC'S third and fourth goals, Pirlo won physical battles near the center circle and executed passes to Kwadwo Poku, who assisted on both Villa's goal in the 67th minute and Tommy McNamara's in the 71st. He may not have been credited with any assists, but he was influential nonetheless.
"Special, special player. A guy that sees passes that most of us just don't," NYCFC head coach Jason Kreis said of his new star player. "He made a big difference for us, and that's his first game after four days of training with the team. We hope for ever better going forward."
Kreis and the fans weren’t the only ones excited to see Pirlo make his debut; from the pitch, as his teammates marveled the glimpses of greatness that he displayed.
"There's a calmness around him. You see that when he's on the ball as well," said Mix Diskerud, who returned to the team from U.S. Gold Cup duty early Sunday morning and scored the final goal of the match on a perfectly executed counterattack. "He doesn't lose the ball and he sees everything. It's like he has 360-degree eyesight."
Pirlo’s debut was not without its familiar faces. Orlando City midfielder Kaká played with Pirlo at AC Milan from 2003-2009. Pirlo's first action after coming on the field was greeting his old friend before play resumed. With Pirlo, Kaká and Villa all playing, it marked the first time three World Cup winners shared the same MLS field.
"We talked a little about the experience for him now. He told me he just arrived on Wednesday, he played today. It wasn't easy for him, but he's a great player," Kaká said. "I'm happy that he's here."
And it's safe to say that so, too, were the Yankee Stadium faithful, who were treated to what they hope is the first of many vintage showings from the Bronx's new beloved bearded fulcrum.