By Glenn Crooks
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Patrick Vieira never promised a playoff berth. He never suggested that a last-minute draw or loss was detrimental to the development of his New York City Football Club.
“As long as we create more than we concede,” has been the season-long credo for the former World Cup champion in his initial season as a first-team manager.
With rare exception, City has created more opportunities on goal than its opponents. The reward came last week in a 4-1 triumph over the Chicago Fire at Yankees Stadium. The home victory, along with the New York Red Bulls’ 1-0 win over Montreal, propelled NYCFC its first Major League Soccer playoff appearance.
Next up is a road endeavor against the Houston Dynamo, on Friday at 8 p.m.
As recently as Tuesday, Vieira stated another familiar phrase that may seem stale to the listener but resonates within the training and preparation for his side.
“What is important for us is to be clear and stick to our principals,” said Vieira, a viable candidate for the league’s Coach of the Year award. “We have to concentrate on the way we want to play. To be positive and not to change what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the season.”
Vieira has insisted that City build from the back through its goalkeeper, Josh Saunders (who has played every minute of every match), with a priority on controlling the match through possession rather than hopeful, direct play. Even though Saunders has enthusiastically bought in (“I’ve never been asked to play this way” he once said), he remains less than comfortable with the ball at his feet, situations that have provided unwarranted adventures and an occasional disaster. Vancouver’s goal 34 seconds into the match earlier this season resulted in Saunders’ inability to secure possession and distribute affectively. Vieira has remained unfazed, undaunted and nonplussed.
“We are not changing the way we play,” Vieira has said.
Each week in training, a large portion of the mid-week sessions are dedicated to the technique, awareness, spacing and coordination of the players responsible for fostering the ideals of the man-mountain, Vieira.
For instance, holding midfielder Andoni Iraola dropped into a deeper lying position at the top of the box in training this week to help create the shape that Vieira desires to more successfully develop the attack from the keeper. Watching the session, it reminded me of the Italian method of build-up. On a goal kick, the Italian National Team will leave just five players on the defensive side of the field (four backs and the holding midfielder), while the remaining players take higher positions to create space that they may eventually find off the ball.
Vieira was coached by Fabio Capello at Juventus and has considered the Italian an influential mentor. Ironically, Capello was one of the names that surfaced initially along with Vieira to replace Jason Kreis on the sidelines in New York City.
Upon the origin of Vieira’s methods in preseason, there are questions that remain despite the success of attaining a playoff position, like does Vieira have the proper personnel to execute his system?
New York City is first in MLS with 55 goals. However, it is second to last in goals allowed with 53. Many of those goals have come as the result of horrific mistakes at the back in an attempt to build in the desired format. Vieira’s stubborn insistence on building the attack, which has created the proper spacing to energize the attack, may be the item that prevents a deep run in the playoffs. NYCFC plays through a keeper who is uncertain with the ball at his feet and several backs who are prone to turn the ball over under pressure (Jefferson Mena, Jason Hernandez, Frederic Brillant).
Vieira may have managed his best game since joining the Boys from the Bronx in the win over Chicago. Although there were plenty of options, he remained faithful to Mena at left center back despite back-to-back abysmal performances. Mena responded with his first career goal in the 8th minute and a more confident outlook in his position along the back line.
Khiry Shelton had inspired in the last two matches as a reserve and was rewarded with a start against the Fire. The clean-cut Shelton assisted on three of the four tallies and is now considered a vital cog to the attack. Steven Mendoza lessened the blow of Frank Lampard’s absence due to a calf injury when he started and scored a golazo from distance, a curling, looping left-footer that sent Fire keeper Sean Johnson soaring to no avail.
While the back line remains the Achilles’ heel, creating more than conceding can be fruitful as long as the more numerous opportunities are converted — like they were last Friday when City had eight shots on target and four goals.
— Toronto FC holds a one-point advantage in the Eastern Conference over the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC with three matches remaining for each team. Teams that finish first or second receive a bye into the conference semifinals. City’s issue, should it be level on points with either Toronto or the Red Bulls, is the second tiebreaker — goal differential. Heading into the weekend, the Red Bulls are at plus-13, TFC is plus-12 while NYCFC is only plus-2.
— David Villa, off his two-goal performance against Chicago, has 37 goals since joining MLS. He is now one behind Sebastian Giovinco and level with Bradley Wright-Phillips for the most goals in the league in that span.
— Houston, in the basement of the Western Conference, has lost just once in seven matches and has won consecutive matches for the first time since September of last season. The Dynamo shocked the visiting Portland Timbers last week, 3-1, behind a 21-year-old Colombian named Mauro Manotas. The Dynamo are 3-1-2 in recent matches that he has started. Manotas, who lives with a foster family in Houston, has four goals and one assist in that stretch, including a hat trick in the win against the playoff-desperate Timbers.
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