By Jeff Capellini
They play to the final whistle. That’s really all you can ask.
New York City FC certainly has its flaws, but effort is really never an issue. The players, as a collective unit, rarely take a night off, even if sometimes they make the types of mistakes that make you want to pull your hair out.
Take Sunday night’s 2-1 win over New England, for example. It would have been easy for the boys in blue to get frustrated considering how well their opponents defended for the first 76 minutes. It would have been equally understandable had they suffered an emotional letdown in response to the usually flawless Sean Johnson butchering a ball sent toward his line in the 57th minute, a gaffe that led to the Revolution scoring the opening goal of the match.
But for all of NYCFC’s star power, skill and balance, it also has that intangible that doesn’t come easy to any team.
NYCFC (14-7-4) sits in second place in the Eastern Conference, now five points ahead of third-place Chicago and 10 clear of the final playoff spot. The fact that this group has somehow been able to stay in contention for the Supporters’ Shield is impressive when you consider that league leader Toronto FC has lost just three of 25 matches this season.
Head coach Patrick Vieira said Sunday he believes the race for the top seed in the East is over, despite his team only trailing Toronto by four points with nine games to go. Maybe he was just playing amateur psychologist, trying to beat back the pressure his players must be feeling, but the fact remains the deficit is still doable.
“It was important to win because I believe it’s always good to get close to Toronto, but I believe Toronto’s already the champions,” Vieira said. “I think all the other teams are going to fight for the second spot and Toronto will win the league. I think you see it last night. They are quite really strong, and I don’t think anybody will catch them.”
Since its horrible 4-0 defeat at Toronto on July 30, NYCFC has won three straight matches. And it has done it with a flair for the dramatic and that resilience I was referring to earlier.
David Villa has been right in the middle of all of it. First, the 35-year-old Spanish superstar registered his first MLS hat trick on Aug. 6 against the Red Bulls, scoring twice in the final 20 minutes of a 3-2 come-from-behind win.
Villa then scored the insurance goal in the second half of a 2-0 win at the L.A. Galaxy on Aug. 12, a match that could have ended with a decidedly different score had it not been for Johnson playing out of his mind in net.
That performance resonated with me, so it was tough to see Johnson make the kind of mistake he made Sunday against New England, when he failed to handle a relatively week shot from distance, allowing the Revolution’s Teal Bunbury to pounce inside the 6-yard box.
But then that guy Villa went to work as seemingly only he can. The reigning MLS MVP scored his league-leading 19th goal of the season, pounding home a 77th-minute cross that somehow avoided several pairs of legs before landing on his left foot.
That goal changed the match as the chances for the home side increased. While one point would have been acceptable given how the vast majority of the minutes played out, NYCFC found a way to take the other two. Like with the Villa goal earlier, the clincher was a case of someone being in the right place at the right time. In this instance, it was rookie Jonathan Lewis, who came on in the 85th minute.
With NYCFC pressing during stoppage time, a misfired shot by defender Ben Sweat somehow careened to Lewis, who was alone on the right side of the box. He left little doubt with his upper-corner finish and suddenly what could have been a demoralizing result turned into something else entirely.
Perhaps its most impressive stat this season is the following: NYCFC has managed to grab 19 points in the standings out of matches in which it has trailed.
“It shows we have charisma and we’re going to keep battling,” Lewis said after Sunday’s win. “If we’re not playing well, we’re going to work. We all know (how) we play, and once we start working hard, we can beat any team.”
Lewis has scored the winning goal in each of the last two matches. Villa said he can’t help but be impressed by the 20-year-old forward.
“He’s a guy who is not afraid, and that is important when you are 19 years old or 20 years old,” Villa said. “Sometimes I see guys with a lot of qualities, with a lot of power, but they go to the pitch and they are afraid. It’s normal. I was afraid when I was 18 years old and they put me in front of 20,000 people. It’s normal in this situation. But he isn’t afraid, and he plays like he trains.”
Though Villa and Jack Harrison are the clear go-to guys up front, Maxi Moralez is a playmaking force in the midfield and Johnson is the backbone of an improving group on defense, Vieira said depth is one of the biggest reasons why NYCFC currently has the second-most points in MLS.
“We are where we are because we are a team where the people that come from the bench always bring something to the team. That is a strength,” Vieira said.
Not only is NYCFC still in the conversation for the Supporters’ Shield, it has a chance to do something this week that was once thought unthinkable. Heading into the 2017 season, the Red Bulls pretty much owned the “Hudson River Derby,” winning five of the first six meetings.
It’s safe to say the situation has changed just a bit.
NYCFC will try for the three-game sweep this season in MLS play when the sides meet Friday at Red Bull Arena. The boys from Harrison lead the all-time series 6-3, including a 1-0 win at home in U.S. Open Cup play on June 14.
“We know every game is different,” Villa said. “Red Bulls, for sure, are a great team, a strong team, and it should be difficult. But we will train well for the week, focus on the game and will try Friday to take the three points and make a strong game.”
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN