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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.