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.
1. LA Galaxy
Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy and central defender Leonardo both returned from injury to start and play the full 90 minutes. That’s normally a positive, but both made mistakes that led to Philadelphia’s goals in a 2-2 midweek draw. Luckily, LA’s attack was clicking, with Robbie Rogers and Mike Magee each finishing well-worked team goals.
2. Colorado Rapids
That the Rapids extended their unbeaten run to seven games is impressive enough. That they did so while playing three games in eight days is a remarkable achievement. Colorado didn’t play particularly “sexy” soccer in its midweek 1-0 home win over Kansas City or it’s 1-1 draw at Columbus, but the results are attractive enough on their own.
3. San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes got help from each of its two Panamanian midfielders, as Anibal Godoy scored and Alberto Quintero bagged a brace and chipped in an assist in a 3-1 win over Houston Dynamo. Quintero continues to impress for the Quakes, who will like that they didn’t need Chris Wondolowski to score to look dominant.
4. Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake found itself on the bad end of the most surprising result of the weekend, falling 1-0 to the Houston Dynamo on Sunday. RSL was held without a shot on goal, a surprising and disappointing stat for a team with as much attacking talent as RSL. More worrying will be the nature of the shots off target–both Yura Movsisyan and Olmes Garcia missed sitters.
5. Toronto FC
Toronto must still be wondering how it managed to lose a game that, in many respects, it dominated on Saturday. Playing at home vs. Vancouver, Toronto had over 60% of possession, forced the Whitecaps into 32 clearances, and out-shot them 21-8. They lost 4-3. Soccer is weird sometimes. The club must brace for 6-8 weeks without Jozy Altidore, who is on the shelf again with another hamstring injury.
6. Philadelphia Union
The Union earned two draws, but they’re two mighty impressive ones. On Wednesday, Jim Curtin’s team went toe-to-toe with the Galaxy in a 2-2 result, then followed that up on Saturday by traveling to Montreal and earning a 1-1 draw. This team has a clear identity now, a refreshing sight after years of underachievement.
7. Vancouver Whitecaps
All of a sudden the Whitecaps are one of MLS’ most in-form teams, with two wins this week making it three victories in a row for Carl Robinson’s side. Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Chicago was capped by Blas Perez’s last-gasp bicycle kick winner, while Saturday’s thrilling 4-3 win at Toronto FC was all about Kekuta Manneh.
8. FC Dallas
Dallas’ Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde act continues, as it relates to form at home and form on the road. After three consecutive defeats that all took place away from home, FC Dallas returned to the cozy confines of Toyota Stadium and delivered two solid wins over Portland and Seattle this week.
9. Seattle Sounders
After looking so fresh and full of ideas a week ago, the Sounders travelled to Dallas and looked fairly flat in a 2-0 loss. The team dominated possession but struggled to create clean looks, and even when those chances came the Sounders didn’t take them.
10. Portland Timbers
Timbers head coach Caleb Porter put it best after his team’s 2-1 home loss to NYCFC, calling it “as cruel of a game as I’ve ever been a part of.” The Timbers generated a ton of scoring chances but always seemed to be just an inch or two off target. The loss capped a tough week for the defending champs, who also lost 2-1 at Dallas on Wednesday.
11. New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls came crashing back down to earth after a three-match unbeaten run, putting forth a supbar effort in a 2-0 loss to rival D.C. United. Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said his team’s effort was “sad,” calling it “one of the most embarrassing performances I’ve been a part of since I’ve been at this club.”
12. New York City FC
Who needs Frank Lampard on the field when you have Tommy McNamara? Seriously! McNamara has been a revelation this season, and he added another chapter to his legend with audacious long-distance winner for NYCFC at Portland. To get a win away from home in that fashion will do great things for NYCFC’s confidence going forward.
13. Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City aimed to shoot its way out of its seven-match winless run, and that’s exactly what they did on Sunday with a come-from behind 2-1 win over Orlando. Kansas City generated an astounding 34 shots in the game, the most in an MLS match since 1998.
14. Montreal Impact
Didier Drogba continues to contribute with his lethal striking of the ball, but that hasn’t been enough for the Impact to start winning games. Saturday’s 1-1 result vs. Philadelphia is the team’s fourth consecutive draw. After starting off the season hot, Montreal hasn’t won in a month.
15. D.C. United
Patrick Nyarko continues to be a revelation for D.C. United. The former Fire midfielder scored the second goal and had a lot to do with the first in United’s 2-0 win over its rival New York Red Bulls in Friday night action.
16. Houston Dynamo
It was an uneven week for the Dynamo, which started off by getting outclassed by San Jose on Wednesday before a Giles Barnes goal led the team to a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake. The team has generally looked pacier and more dynamic with Erick “Cubo” Torres starting up top, but he doesn’t seem to be Owen Coyle’s first choice yet.
17. New England Revolution
New addition Kei Kamara looked lively in his new environment and could have even added a goal or two on his debut as the Revolution dominated the Fire in a 2-0 win on Saturday. More important for the Revs, though, is that they finally kept a shutout, their first since March 12, a span of 10 games.
18. Orlando City SC
Orlando City’s run of disappointing results went on thanks to a 2-1 loss at Kansas City in which the Lions were dominated in all aspects of the game, with their only tally coming via an own goal. Orlando hasn’t tasted victory in six games; one more without three points and it’ll be the longest such streak in the team’s (very short) history.
19. Columbus Crew SC
If you tuned in to the Crew’s 1-1 draw with Colorado to scope out how they would be playing after jettisoning leading scorer Kei Kamara, the answer appeared to be: More or less the same, including the name. Norwegian Ola Kamara plays where Kei once did, and the Crew were let down in defense despite promising spurts in the attacking third.
20. Chicago Fire
The Fire had perhaps the league’s worst schedule this week, playing at Vancouver on Wednesday before flying across the continent for a game at New England. However, no schedule can explain the Fire’s woeful attacking output. Chicago didn’t manage a single shot on target in Saturday’s loss at New England, and had just three in another loss at Vancouver. DP striker David Accam is back from injury, but wasn’t effective vs. the Revs. The Fire haven’t won on the road in 28 consecutive games, a new MLS record.