Unheralded NYCFC players Tommy McNamara and R.J. Allen spearheaded an impressive showing at reigning champion Portland.
On April 27, NYCFC players walked off the field at Yankee Stadium with heads in hands, disappointed after a 1-1 draw vs. Montreal that felt an awful lot like a loss. Patrick Vieira’s side had gone seven games without a win at that point, had yet to taste victory at home, and suspicions were beginning to mount that 2016 would proceed just like the disappointing 2015 before it.
“I’m feeling sorry for the players, because they work so hard, they work so well, and they deserve more than what they’re getting at the moment,” Vieira said after that game. “We’re in a period where everything is going against us, but we will stick together, we will fight together, and we’re going to improve.”
Then Vieira said something that sounded peculiar after a heartbreaking result, but makes more sense now, two weeks later, as NYCFC is riding a three-game winning streak that has it tied at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“The only way to turn our season around is to keep doing what we are doing,” he said. “I think the game tonight gave us hope.”
Looking back, those words look oddly prescient, especially coming from a coach that had experimented with multiple wildly different tactical formations and lineups since arriving in New York. But in fact, there were three big changes to NYCFC in that Montreal game that have gone on to create positive things over the course of wins vs. Vancouver, at D.C. United, and at Portland Timbers.
One is a switch to a 4-3-3 formation, and more importantly, a demonstrated ability to stick with it. Vieira experimented with a multitude of formations, some of them wildly different, over the course of NYCFC’s opening games, but seems to finally have settled on a system that allows players to grow comfortable with their roles on the field. For a team with as much upheaval as NYCFC has had in its short history, the importance of this can’t be overstated.
The next big change was redefining what how the midfield operated within that 4-3-3. In NYCFC’s version of that formation, the midfielders’ duties are split evenly: one plays more defensively, shielding the back four. One plays in a more advanced position, providing support to the front three. And one is a box-to-box workhorse.
Vieira’s most intriguing move against Montreal was to install Andrea Pirlo, who made a name for himself as a deep-lying midfielder and who often played that way in NYC, as the most advanced player in that midfield trio. Combined with the on-loan Boca Juniors player Federico Bravo shielding the defense and the emergence of Mikey Lopez as a box-to-box force, the move has freed Pirlo to use his clean touch, vision, and smart passing to impact games in the final third, where things can so often get bogged down in MLS.
If that move sounds familiar, it’s because Pablo Mastroeni made a similar positional decision with the clean-on-the-ball, but usually-defensive-minded Jermaine Jones in Colorado. Since then, the Rapids have been flying, and since Pirlo has moved to his current home on the field, he’s registered his first two assists of the season.
The final and perhaps most important reasons for NYCFC’s recent success are the contributions of previously unheralded role players, particularly right back R.J. Allen (who has made all of this first three starts of the season in the team’s last four games) and Tommy McNamara (who has picked up at least a goal or an assist in every game over that same span). Both grew up in the area. Both had struggled to jumpstart their respective careers before joining NYCFC. And in Saturday’s win at Portland, both provided moments of pure magic worthy of their more well-marketed co-stars on the field.
First, Allen hit this ridiculous pass to David Villa for NYCFC’s opener (albeit after an uncalled handball):
Then McNamara scored a goal of the season contender to win the game:
What is notable about both plays isn’t just the considerable amount of skill involved—it’s the confidence to even think about making them in the first place. Allen felt empowered enough from his right back spot to look for David Villa on his long-range pass. McNamara straight-up demanded the ball from Pirlo ahead of his goal. Both are telltale indicators of confidence, and perhaps no single factor can be more contagious or more conducive to sending a team like NYCFC on to continued success.
Vieira’s moves can be credited for fostering that.
Offensive player of the week: Kekuta Manneh, Vancouver Whitecaps
It was going to take something special to earn recognition on a week when two players (the Earthquakes’ Alberto Quintero and Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco) each had two-goal, one-assist games. Manneh had that something special against Giovinco’s TFO on Saturday. The speedy forward was involved in all four of Vancouver’s goals, scoring two, assisting on one, and doing just about all the leg work for the fourth.
Defensive player of the week: Ryan Hollingshead, FC Dallas
Dallas’ defense has been its downfall so often this season, but Hollingshead put forth two noteworthy performances as Dallas enjoyed a six-point week. The right back scored the equalizer in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Portland, then was active and forward thinking even while helping to shut out Seattle in a 2-0 win on Saturday. All this a week after an injury emergency thrust him into goal late on against Toronto FC.