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August 2, 2019

2019-20 Premier League Preview: Welcome Back, Aston Villa, Norwich City, and Sheffield United

Chops August 2, 2019

We’re one week away from the first game on the 2019-20 Premier League schedule: Liverpool vs Norwich City.

For the next week, High Press Soccer will preview all of the teams in Europe’s most competitive domestic league. We’ll split the previews into the following:

  • Welcome Back! – this year’s promoted teams.
  • See You Later! – teams most likely to be relegated.
  • Flotsam and Jetsam – the middle class, mid-table teams whose sole purpose to exist is to simply exist.
  • Big 6 Challengers – the handful of teams who may break the Big 6’s stranglehold on European soccer.
  • The Post Where We Discuss Manchester United and Chelsea – have they done enough to stay in the top 6?
  • The Post Where We Discuss Arsenal & Tottenham Hotspur: are they the clear third and fourth place teams?
  • Manchester City: Will they threepeat?
  • Liverpool: Will they finally win the Premier League?

Still with us? Good!

This first edition is our Welcome Back! Let’s take a look at Aston Villa, Norwich City, and Sheffield United.

Aston Villa 2019-20 Premier League Preview

Last Season: 5th in Championship, won EPL playoff
Last time in Premier League: 2015-16
Stadium: Villa Park
Nickname: Villains
Manager: Dean Smith
Key Additions: Wesley, Tyrone Mings, Douglas Luiz, Matt Targett, Ezri Konsa, Marvelous Nakamba, Trezeguet, Anwar El Ghazi, Tom Heaton, Bjorn Engels, Jota, Kortney Hause
Best Player: Jack Grealish (though watch out for Wesley)

Marvelous Nakamba
Marvelous Nakamba is one reason to lean into Aston Villa

Aston Villa has a more storied history than, say, FFP violating Manchester City. Unfortunately for Aston Villa, an oil rich nation that is renown for their human rights suppression didn’t buy them and pump billions into the club.

Having said that–Aston Villa has spent a lot of money this summer. They saw what Fulham did last year and said, “hold my beer.” Do you know what English club has the total highest spend on players this summer? Aston Villa!

For their sake, let’s hope their summer spending has more of a 2018 Wolverhampton impact than a Fulham one.

A bit of Aston Villa history:

  • The club was founded in November 1874. That’s ONE HUNDRED FORTY-FOUR YEARS AGO.
  • They have 7 English first division titles, the last being in 1980-81.
  • The Villains have 7 FA Cup titles, the last being 1956-57.
  • They have 5 league cups, the last being 1995-96.
  • They have 1 European / Champions League title in 1981-82.

Why you should like Aston Villa:

  • Hands down, they have the best nickname in the Premier League (“The Villains”)
  • They actually are a historic club with a real history, unlike some clubs we know.
  • They clearly went all-in this season in an attempt not just to stay promoted, but to thrive.
  • They have a player named Marvelous Nakamba.

Aston Villa betting odds: (odds via DraftKings Sportsbook NJ)

  • To win Premier League: +100000
  • To finish top 4: +15000
  • To finish top 6: +4000
  • Relegation: +200

Aston Villa Outlook:

It’s easy to appreciate Aston Villa’s ambition. They have spent $169.4M USD (£139m) this summer! That’s more than any other Premier League club to date.

As noted earlier in this section, will they be this year’s Fulham or Wolverhampton?

Split the difference. Expect a respectable 11-14th place finish for the Villains.

Norwich City 2019-20 Premier League Preview

Last Season: 1st in Championship
Last time in Premier League: 2015-16
Stadium: Carrow Road
Nickname: The Canaries
Manager: Daniel Farke
Key Additions: Erm, Ralf Fährmann?
Best Player: Emiliano Buendía (though Teemu Pukki would beg to differ)

Teemu Pukki will get goals for Norwich City

Aston Villa spent the most money this summer, Norwich City spent the least.

That’s ok, as they may not need to spend that much to compete. They were the best team in the Championship last year. They have some dynamic players. However, they could use some more, especially if they want to avoid relegation.

A bit of Norwich City history:

  • They formed in 1902.
  • While they’ve never won the top division, they’ve won the League Cup 2 times (1962, 1985).
  • They’ve won the Championship 4 times🤷‍♂️

Why you should like Norwich City:

Norwich City betting odds: (odds via DraftKings Sportsbook NJ)

  • To win Premier League: +200000
  • To finish top 4: +40000
  • To finish top 6: +10000
  • Relegation: -107

Norwich City Outlook:

If you’re one of Norwich City’s 27,244 fans, are you just excited to be promoted? Or are you frustrated as hell that a talented, exciting team did literally nothing to get better after getting promoted into the best domestic league in the world?

Norwich starts the season against Liverpool at Anfield. Welcome back! It could be a long year. They’ll be around the relegation zone all season and may find themselves quickly back down in the Championship.

Sheffield United 2019-20 Premier League Preview

Last Season: 2nd in Championship
Last time in Premier League: 2006-07
Stadium: Brammal Lane
Nickname: The Blades
Manager: Chris Wilder
Key Additions: Oliver McBurnie, Lys Mousset, Callum Robinson, Luke Freeman
Best Player: Oliver Norwood (though new addition Oliver McBurnie could be)

Don’t get too attached to Sheffield United

Don’t get too familar or attached to The Blades. Unlike House Bolton, their knives may not be that sharp. This could be a short stay in the top flight. 

A bit of Sheffield United history:

  • They were founded in 1889.
  • They won the first ever First Division title in 1898.
  • Not sure if this is a good thing, but they’re the only club to have won all 4 divisions of English football.
  • In 2013, they were bought by wealthy Saudis (the House of Saud).

Why you should like Sheffield United:

  • The Blades is a badass nickname. As alluded to above, it sounds like House Bolton’s club.
  • On the GoT tip, actor Sean Bean (Ned Stark!) is a fan.
  • Their two best players are named Oliver. That’s British af.

Sheffield United betting odds: (odds via DraftKings Sportsbook NJ)

  • To win Premier League: +200000
  • To finish top 4: +50000
  • To finish top 6: +15000
  • Relegation: -150

Sheffield United Outlook:

No reason to sugarcoat this: it’s not good.

Oddsmakers peg them as the worst team in the Premier League. They’re the least likely to win the EPL, finish in the top 4 or top 6. Their squad is the least valuable in the Premier League. There’s a strong correlation between overall team value and eventual finish. Norwich City, who bought one player this summer, is valued more.

This is going to be a brief stay in the Premier League unless their Saudi owners invest some money quickly.

Liverpool vs Norwich City Odds and Betting Preview

High Press 10 August 2, 2019

What: The first game of the 2019-20 Premier League Season
Who: Liverpool vs Norwich City
When: Friday, August 9th @ 3:00pm ET on NBC Sports
LineLiverpool -625 | Draw +700 | Norwich +1800

The 2019-20 Premier League schedule kicks off a week from today!

The first game on the docket is Champions League winners Liverpool against recently promoted Norwich City.

Liverpool vs Norwich City betting preview

No besmerchmant on Norwich, but this game doesn’t lend itself to much analysis.

Interestingly, it pits the two teams who spent the least in transfers this summer the Premier League. Liverpool was 19th. Norwich was 20th.

Regardless, with the game at Anfield, Liverpool find themselves as the week’s heaviest favorite. Most weeks, that honor goes to FFP violating Manchester City. However, the Fourmidables (-385) start on the road against what could be a surprising West Ham (+950).

Regardless if all of Jurgen Klopp’s attacking front trio (Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah) are fit to play a full 90, Liverpool will win this game.

Even at -625, it’s easy money. If you’re looking for a potential upset with long odds and value on Premier League Matchday 1, the aforementioned West Ham at +950 is worth consideration.

Betting the Premier League in the US

If you’re interesting in betting the Premier League in the US, 1) you need to be a resident of NJ, PA, or NV, and 2) you need to sign up for an account at DraftKings Sportsbook NJ or FanDuel Sportbook.

Check out their offers in the banners here.

Colorado Rapids to Play Despite Threat of the Plague in the Areawhatthef*ck the Plague???

High Press 10 August 2, 2019

Sooo…the plague is still a thing, huh?

Apparently it’s alive (?) and well in Colorado!

The Colorado Rapids host the Montreal Impact on Saturday…this despite concerns about plague carrying fleas.

About the plague

The Plague, or the Black Death, devastated Europe and Asia in the middle ages. An estimated 200 million people died from it. The bubonic plague is the most common variation of the affliction.

It was caused by a bacteria — Yersinia pestis — carried in rats though the Silk Road trade route. It’s believed to have killed up to 60% of Europe’s population.

While first tearing through Europe in the 1340’s-50’s, outbreaks sporadically occurred throughout the globe until the 19th century.

The plague in America

Minor outbreaks of the plague have occurred in northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Colorado, California, southern Oregon and western Nevada.

The plague in MLS

So, yeah, this is the only noted time the plague has been an issue around a MLS game.

High Press Pod Episode 17: Harry Maguire to Manchester United, Kean to Everton, and Jill Ellis Leaves the USWNT

High Press 10 August 2, 2019

Lots going on this week, which means it’s time for another High Press Pod.

Joining Chops is contributing writer Tyler Everett. Topics discussed include:

Listen to “High Press Pod Episode 17: Harry Maguire to Man U, Kean to Everton, and Jill Ellis Leaving USWNT” on Spreaker.

Transfer Grade: Harry Maguire to Mancester United for Record £80 Million ($100M USD) – UPDATED GRADES

Chops August 2, 2019

UPDATE: It’s finally officially official. Harry Maguire sets the transfer record for a defender at £80 million.

The Deal

Who: Harry Maguire
From Where: Leicester City
To Where: Manchester United
For How Much: £80 million
Grade for Leicester City: B+
Grade for Manchester United: C+

Harry Maguire to Manchester United Overview

Is Harry Maguire the best center-back in the world?

Manchester United think so.

The Red Devils continue their off-season rebuild today by finally nabbing Leicester City center-back Maguire.

This is a tough one to grade for many reasons–and now having two weeks to digest the potential deal since it was first reported, we have new thoughts. Let’s just dive into it.

Who is he?

Maguire, 26, is a highly-regarded English national player and anchor in the back for Leicester City.

After coming up through Sheffield United as a youth, Maguire went to Hull City in 2014. Hull did something right in identifying defensive talent that year, as Maguire was signed with the world’s best left-back Andy Robertson (seriously, who was Hull’s lead scout there? 👏👏👏).

Seriously wtf

Maguire came to Leicester in 2017. He was a standout for England in the 2018 World Cup. He’s now the most expensive center-back in the world.

Is the price fair?

Frankly, no.

United (reportedly) paid almost double his transfermarkt value (listed at £45m last month). While it seems like *everyone’s* value is inflated this transfer period, of the notable transactions, Maguire has the biggest disparity.

Who was the highest paid defender before Maguire? That would be PFA Player of the Year, FIFA 20 cover boy, and Ballon D’or likely finalist Virgil van Dijk. VVD is the best center-back in the Premier League at worst, and the top #4 in the world at best. Just 18 months ago, Liverpool paid a then record fee of £75m for him.

He was worth every penny.

But to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, “Harry, you’re no Virgil van Dijk.”

WhoScored is not the end-all-be-all but here’s a look at how Maguire compares to VVD:

  • VVD has a significantly higher ’18-19 overall rating than Maguire in the Premier League (7.44 to 7.01).
  • VVD is more durable (38 domestic games to 31).
  • VVD is more prolific using his massive noggin for goals (4 to 3). He also chipped in two assists to Maguire’s 0.
  • VVD is a more accurate passer.

Sure, nobody is actually debating if Maguire is better than VVD. He’s not. But at that price–he should be in the same relative universe. He’s not.

Having said all of that…VVD has shown how transformative a world-class center-back can be. Maguire will not make Manchester United worse. He’ll improve their backline. More on that in the next section.

But back to that price.

The only other club with reported interest in Maguire was Manchester City. And that was awhile ago. If that’s the case, who was United bidding against? The just bent over and took it from Leicester.

In one summer, United made world record transfers for right-back in Aaron Wan-Bissaka and center-back in Harry Maguire. Neither are the best in the Premier League at their respective positions.

And they paid around £130 million for them.

This has to work. If United make the top 4 and qualify for the Champions League, fans of the Red Devils (and United’s board) won’t care. If they miss out…there will be blood.

What impact should we expect?

Manchester United finished sixth last campaign. They gave up 54 goals (and that’s with David de Gea between the sticks!).

Those 54 goals are 10 more than City and Liverpool combined. It’s also more than any of the other Big 6 last year. It’s more than the 7th-9th placed teams: Wolves (46), Everton (46) and Leicester (48).

So yes, along with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, United’s defense will improve. It can’t get much worse.

Maguire will help both defending and attacking set pieces as well.

However, United were already the best at winning aerial duels in the Premier League last season. So that wasn’t necessarily an area of needed improvement.

2018-19 Aerial Duels Won

United also had a reported £100m summer transfer budget. They will likely have to jettison Romelu Lukaku now. The Belgium is much-maligned at Old Trafford, but he’s a better goal scorer than he’s given credit. United will lose some offensive fire-power as a trade off.

The Grades

With two weeks of hindsight, this is less tricky now to grade.

Manchester United (C+): Did United get a proven player in his prime? Yes. Will Maguire help stabilize United’s leaky defense? Yes. Was United bidding against anyone else? No. Did they pay too much? Yes. Will it matter if they sneak into the top 4? No.

It’s really about the price and the quality. Zero’ing in on Maguire when there are other center-backs in the Premier League of similar age and quality at half the price (Fabian Schär comes to mind) would’ve been a better use of funds.

Leicester City (B+): For Leicester, this is complicated. But I’ve ticked up their grade from a C+ to a B+. They stuck to their guns and took advantage of a desperate United.

There was noise about Maguire wanting out of Leicester. Ok, that’s a fair reason to move him if true. Here’s the thing though: are we so sure that Leicester wouldn’t have been better than United this year if Maguire stayed?

Leicester ended 2019 strong, closing the year right behind Liverpool and Manchester City in form. As we’ll write in our Premier League previews, this is the year someone will displace a Big 6 club for European qualification. Leicester was our most likely candidate to do so. There’s still a week to re-invest that money (and to be fair, they have been spending already). For fans of the Foxes, I hope they do.

If they don’t, they just handed their likely biggest obstacle to a top 6 finish an asset that might keep them out of European football.

Still, £80 is more than they’d receive in any scenario save making a finals run in the Champions League. They did well to extract maximum value with only one team making a serious bid.

Preview: New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC

Peter Nolan August 2, 2019

Who: New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC
When: Saturday, August 3rd @ 6:00pm ET on ESPN+
Where: Red Bull Arena
LineNew York Red Bulls -114 | Draw +285 | Toronto FC +270

Welcome back from the break, now, where were we?

Oh, yeah, on July 27, um last Saturday, the New York Red Bulls dropped a painful 3-2 decision at home to the hugely disappointing Columbus Crew – wasn’t Caleb Porter supposed to be better than this? – that left them sitting in 5th place with 34 points. Not terrible, but not great after 23 games from the defending Supporters Shield winners.

Now the Red Bulls hope to kick off a stretch run with a win against a side in worse shape than themselves, the struggling Toronto Football Club. Despite a 2-1 home win over FC Cincy last Saturday, TFC spent the break below the playoff line. However, a win on Saturday could push them as far up the table as 5th place, ahead of the Red Bulls and level on points with 4th place NYCFC.

New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC match preview

With the taste of that loss to Columbus and the lingering feeling that they should have done better than a 3-1 loss in Toronto back on July 17, the Red Bulls figure to be a somewhat angry side on Saturday night.

The Red Bulls have done well over the years against Toronto, especially at home, where the Bulls have are an impressive 11-2-2 versus the Reds over the years.

To keep that record climbing, New York will need to contend with Jozy Altidore, who has scored a goal in four consecutive games, some of them quite spectacular, and MLS All-Star Alejandro Puzuelo, who has been a smash hit since coming to the league. Puzuelo has nine goals and nine assists in 19 games. Giovinco-esque, no?

As for Altidore, the man a sizable portion of USMNT supporters love to hate, he has been flashing the combination of power and skill that first excited the American soccer community when he first appeared on the scene way back in 2006.

Altidore has nine goals in 13 games this season, just nine starts. Simply put, when Altidore is healthy, he is still far and away the best American striker and a top MLS star.

TFC has not been sharp defensively and is looking to another controversial USMNT man, Omar Gonzalez, to right that ship. Gonzalez has played three games for Toronto since returning to the league for the first time since 2015, when Gonzalez left the L.A. Galaxy for Mexico.

New York coach Chris Armas has yet to rely on Bradley Wright-Phillips for a full match since the veteran striker’s return. Instead, he is choosing to bring BWP off of the bench to replace or play alongside Reb Bulls joint-leading goal scorer Brian White.

Armas may be inclined to continue that strategy, although a surprise pairing from the start could upset TFC coach Greg Vanney’s plans. In our mid-season Report Card, we pointed out that it may be time for Derrick Etienne to make a jump from bit player to a more prominent role in the Red Bulls attack.

His confidence is on the up after playing an important part in Haiti’s Gold Cup campaign. The Haitian-American is quick, skillful and can be audacious, qualities the Red Bulls offense could surely use.

The Red Bulls finally have their health as they head into the final portion of the 2019 season. If the team is to make a run to the playoffs and perhaps do some damage once they get there, last season’s league leading defense simply must cut down on the mistakes and tighten up in front of Luis Robles.

The Tyler Adams effect has been real but with four international quality defenders in Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo, Aaron Long, and Tim Parker, the Red Bulls defense can and should be among the league’s best.

Who Will Replace Jill Ellis as USWNT Coach? Handicapping the Field

Chops August 2, 2019

Jill Ellis announced she was stepped away from the USWNT team this week.

Ellis leaves the program as inarguably its most successful coach. She steered the team to consecutive Women’s World Cup victories. She’s coached the most games (127) and won the second most (102) in USWNT history. Ellis will continue coaching the nationals for their five friendlies on their victory tour, after which she’ll end up as the winningest coach too.

Naturally, speculation has begun on “who will be next?” However, before a coach is hired, a GM for the women’s program must be named. The most obvious candidate would be Ellis herself. She’s certainly earned it. As of today, that doesn’t appear to be a consideration. On her exit conference call Tuesday, Ellis gave no indication she was giving the GM role any thought.

Regardless of who the GM is, most of the coaching candidates will remain the same. It’s difficult to handicap the race without a GM but we’ll give our thoughts as to who should be considered and why.

Remodeling the US program first…

But first!

A major storyline from this year’s World Cup was how 7 of the 8 quarterfinalists were European teams.

European clubs have started investing in the women’s game. Traditional powerhouse clubs from England to Spain and France are fostering programs down to the academy level.

The results have been immediate and profound.

This is a problem for the US.

Europe is home to the best domestic leagues in the world by a large margin. Their academy system, from Ajax to Southhampton, Liverpool to Barcelona, are second to none. This is in part why you see European nations dominate at the World Cup. From a young age, players are receiving the best training possible.

Despite our deep talent pool, the US has failed to catch up with Europe. The pay-to-play club model is a major reason why.

Whoever steps in as the next GM and coach should take a serious look at the game down to the youth level. How can US soccer learn from Europe and adapt / adopt their best practices? Is there a happy medium?

If changes aren’t made, the US women’s program will take a step back and look more like the men’s side. This will be a major storyline for the sport in the next 4-to-8 years if the US slip. In the US, it will be the story.

Initial reports of possible replacements all list some variation of the same names. The general consensus is the most likely candidate will come from the NWSL. There are a few female candidates, but the majority of the names are male.

The US needs to nail this hire. Someone with familiarity of the European academy model — and ideas on how to reshape our youth program — should be a line-in-the-sand requirement. The easiest — and laziest — thing to do would be changing nothing.

With that exposition out of the way, on to who should be the next USWNT coach.

The leading contenders 

Laura Harvey – Utah Royals

I like Harvey, 39, for two reasons: 1) she’s English and has coached at Arsenal (great women’s program) and Birmingham City, and 2) she’s coached the USWNT U-23 squad and reportedly gave Ellis the heebie-jeebies (she viewed her as a threat) a few years ago.

Harvey now coaches the Utah Royals in the NWSL. She’s straddled both the English Academy model and US youth system. Is she too young? Or is she the right age to lead the program into a new era?

Regardless, in a field without any obvious leading candidate, she’s the best option we see.

HPS Handicapping: +250

Paul Riley – North Carolina Courage

Riley, 55, is probably the most bandied about name for the position. He’s been in the USWNT cue before, most recently in 2014.

Riley, a Liverpool native (#ynwa), would have some familiarity with the European academy model. However, he’s far removed, having been in the US since 1982 (first as a collegiate player at Adelphi University, then in various US pro leagues).

It’s really his coaching bonafides in the US that earn him consideration. He’s won back-to-back NWSL Coach of the Year honors.

This seems like the easiest / laziest choice (not that he’d be a bad coach), but he wouldn’t be our pick. Still, where there’s smoke…

HPS Handicapping: +300

Mark Krikorian – FSU

Krikorian, 59, has turned FSU into a power program on par with UNC. He’s been with the Seminoles since 2005. Before that, he coached the U19 USWNT in the Thailand World Cup. 

With two NCAA titles (2014 & 2018), he knows how to win. But is his age, gender, and lack of recent international experience going to be an issue?

HPS Handicapping: +650

Vlatko Andonovski – Seattle Reign FC

Another male! Andonovski, 42, is the right age profile. He’s had success in the NWSL, winning the 2014-15 titles with FC Kansans City. He went to Seattle after KC folded.

While noted for developing young talent, Andonovski has no — as in literally none — international experience. Major demerit.

HPS Handicapping: +900

The longshot candidates

Emma Hayes – Chelsea

Hayes, 42, currently manages the Chelsea women’s team. While not at the US national level, she has coached in the states at the collegiate (Iona) and professional (Chicago Red Stars, ’08-10 version) levels.

She’s helped develop some of the top talents at this year’s World Cup (Hedvig Lindhal, Millie Bright, and Fran Kirby). Interesting choice who the US probably won’t give much consideration to this cycle. 

HPS Handicapping: +1600

Mark Parsons – Portland Thorns

Parsons, 32, has been coaching in the NWSL since 2013. He won a title with the Thorns in 2017.

But…while very respected, he’s too young. Check back in on the next cycle.

HPS Handicapping: +1700

Sarina Wiegman – Netherlands

The current coach of the Netherlands has been getting some ink, but we don’t see it happening. While she has spent time in the US (she played at UNC), she’s got a good gig with the Dutch side. Why pull a Kevin Durant and leave to the slightly better squad? She’s close enough already. She’ll try to see it through with the Dutch.

HPS Handicapping: +2500

Jitka Klimková – USWNT

Jitka, 45, is the USWNT U20 manager. She played for the Czech first division and national team. Lacks the pedigree for the top job though.

HPS Handicapping: +4500

Tony Gustavsson – USWNT

He’s the ponytailed blond man on the sidelines with Jill Ellis. The 45 year-old won’t be the permanent coach, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he served on an interim basis until a successor is named.

If (huge if) he impressed enough and had buy-in from the players, maybe (huge maybe) he’d get the full-time job.

HPS Handicapping: +5000

NYCFC Mid-Season (!) Grades

Peter Nolan August 2, 2019

Only Major League Soccer could have an All-Star break where no one actually gets any time off.

For example, NYCFC is back in action this Saturday in Salt Lake, eight days after defeating Sporting KC 3-1 in the Bronx.

That victory sent New York City Football Club into the “Break” in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. However, a slightly closer look at the standings paints a rosier picture for Dome Torrent’s men.

By some quirk in the schedule, likely to do with the team’s status as the New York Yankees tenants in the Bronx, NYCFC has played just 20 games, three less than any other Eastern Conference team.

NYCFC is just four points behind Philadelphia Union with four games in hand. They are second in MLS with 1.75 points per game behind the LAFC juggernaut, averaging 2.23 ppg, and well positioned to make a late charge up the table.

So, how did NYCFC get here? Let’s take a look. Here are their “mid-season” grades.

Goalkeepers: B+

Since coming to the Big Apple for the 2017 season, Sean Johnson has revived his career in the Bronx.

Under Patrick Vieira and now Torrent, Johnson has improved his ball-playing skills and has earned his way back into the USMNT picture under Gregg Berhalter. Johnson was selected to the Gold Cup squad, where he played one match while serving as Zack Steffen’s backup.

With one notable exception versus Minnesota in April, Johnson has largely eliminated his propensity for the big error, or howler, and provides leadership and stability as well as superior shot-blocking for NYCFC.

Despite a shaky moment or two, NYC won three of the four matches career backup Brad Stuver played while Johnson was on international duty, losing once and earning Stuver his first MLS shutout.

Defense: A-

Torrent has built an effective and versatile defense in front of Johnson, a unit that the Spaniard can send out in a three back set or a four back with equal confidence. Surprisingly, the key to the NYC defense has turned out to be 19 year-old James Sands, the first Homegrown Player in club history. Sands entered the 2019 season as a midfielder with just four first-team appearances over two years.

Something seemed to click for the team and the player when Sands was dropped in between veterans Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot in a three back-formation.

With Anton Tinnerholm ever-present at right fullback/right wingback and Ronald Matarrita emerging over Ben Sweat as the first choice on the opposite flank, the three back set looks look NYC’s best bet going forward.

Sweat has as many appearances this season as Matarrita and Torrent can use the two at once with “Mata” playing further up the pitch. Eric Miller was recently acquired to provide cover for Tinnerholm, who has played every minute for NYCFC this season and has been outstanding.

Midfield: B+

On Friday night at Yankee Stadium, Torrent sent out what looks to be his team’s best starting 11. Johnson, Chanot, Sands, and Callens at the back, with Tinnerholm and Matarrita flanking captain Alex Ring and Keaton Parks. Finally, he opted for a front three of Maxi Moralez, Heber, and Alexandru Mitrita.

As Friday’s match unfolded, Parks dropped deeper defensively while Ring pushed into the attack, scoring one goal and assisting on two more.

So, are Tinnerholm and Matarrita midfielders? If not, is NYC plying with just two midfielders? It all just points out that systems are flexible.

MLS assist leader Moralez, was listed as a wide forward but spent much of his time floating around the center of the pitch and Tinnerholm and Mata still could not neglect their defensive duties.

However you slice it, NYC has a talented midfield group led by Ring and his newish midfield partner Keaton Parks. Ring has been a do-everything stalwart for the Pigeons since his arrival from FC Kaiserslautern for the 2017 season.

Parks is a 21-year-old Texan arrived on a season-long loan from Portuguese giants Benfica but had had to bide his time before earning a spot in the starting 11. When I asked Ring after that win on Friday what Parks brings to the side the captain put it this way, “he was always neat on the ball and ran his ass off and he’s earned his chance.”

Torrent has plenty of depth in the midfield with Ebenezer Ofori, Jesus Medina his first options off of the bench and Matarrita always happy to be pushed forward.

Forwards: B+

As we’ve seen Moralez, though really a midfielder, can be deadly wherever he initially lines out. However, it is his play in combination with a pair of recent arrivals that makes this NYC team a threat to go deep in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Alexandru Mitrita arrived from Universitatea Craiova in his native Romania just prior to the season but despite his quality, NYC was still lacking a true number nine. On March 21, Tab Ramos and the NYCFC front office finally delivered, signing Héber Araújo dos Santos, or Heber, to fill that role.

Heber debuted in a goalless draw versus Montreal in the Bronx but it soon became apparent in Moralez, Mitrita, and Heber that NYCFC had a Big 3 that had a chance to be special. Heber has been an instant hit, scoring nine goals in 13 games, 11 of them starts. Playing the number nine role for NYC, Heber provides a focal point for the teams’ deep attack.

When healthy, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi can return Moralez to the midfield, but injuries have slowed last year’s 11 goal scorer to just four in 12 games (8 starts). If Isi is healthy down the stretch NYC will be very dangerous.

20-year-old Argentine Vincent Castellanos failed to fire last season, his first in New York, but since the arrival of Heber, the young striker has become a dangerous weapon off of the bench and as an occasional starter.

One failure this season at NYCFC, aside from all the draws, was the inability of Torrent to find a way to get the best out of promising American winger Jonathan Lewis. Patrick Vieira also failed in that task before Lewis was shipped off to Colorado. Lewis has scored three goals for the Rapids in six games, so he clearly has something to offer.

For whatever reason, it didn’t happen in New York for Lewis, so Reyna turned to the transfer market to acquire Scottish winger Gary Mackay-Steven from SPL side Aberdeen to provide depth on the wing.

With 14 games remaining New York has a lot going for it – if they make good use of those games in hand. This is a well-balanced team, versatile and deep, a side that looks good enough to battle for the top playoff position in the East.

How oddsmakers view NYCFC

Very favorable.

NYCFC is a clear second favorite to win the MLS Cup. Priced at +600, only LAFC (+200) has better odds. The gap between NYCFC and third favorite Atlanta United (+1100) is considerable.

Look for NYCFC to not just challenge for the Eastern Conference honors, but for the MLS Cup as well.

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