By Jeff Capellini
You want to talk about a character win? Look no further than what New York City FC pulled off Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium.
Heading into the match against stingy Sporting Kansas City, a side that may very well find its way to the MLS Cup title game out of the Western Conference, the situation was dire for the boys in blue from a personnel standpoint. NYC was down a bunch of starters, including reigning league MVP David Villa, due to injuries and international duty — and, in some cases, both.
Yet, the players head coach Patrick Vieira used on what was a dreary night on a water-logged pitch not only responded, they produced the type of effort that could springboard this team to a very strong finish.
As I’ll get into later, NYCFC ends the regular season with a rocky stretch of mostly road games. So for the club to pull out a 1-0 win over a Sporting squad that entered the match with just five losses and having allowed just 19 goals in 25 games, speaks to the attractiveness of what Vieira is selling.
Simply put, this team is all-in.
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“I want to give credit to the whole team tonight,” Vieira would later say. “Because the players didn’t give up. They always tried to play forward and tried to score the goals, and they managed to do it at the end.”
NYCFC was down superstar striker Villa due to international duty (though he’s also nursing an abductor muscle strain), top midfielder Yangel Herrera (international duty with Venezuela) and forward Rodney Wallace (card suspension), plus injured Maxime Chanot, Alex Ring, Ethan White, Mikey Lopez, Miguel Camargo and Ronald Matarrita, and still somehow won.
Using a next-man-up philosophy he’s preached for quite a while, Vieira put together a starting 11 that even without the aforementioned key members was still quite capable of producing a positive result.
The players in question just needed to all get on the same page quickly.
Somewhat surprisingly, they did just that, as NYCFC amassed significantly more shots (16-10), shots on goal (6-1), corner kicks (8-2) and slightly more possession (51-49 percent). City clearly had the better scoring opportunities throughout the 90-plus minutes as well. And if not for a post here and a sprawling save by impressive Sporting KC goaltender Tim Melia there, the hosts would likely have won by a more considerable margin.
Vieira started Sean Okoli and Jonathan Lewis up front with Jack Harrison, inserted Andrea Pirlo and Tommy McNamara into the midfield with Maxi Moralez and put RJ Allen alongside Ben Sweat, Alexander Callens and Frederic Brillant on the backline.
Those 10, plus reliable Sean Johnson in net, set the tempo all night. While it wasn’t the prettiest match in the world due in large part to the monsoon-like conditions, the chances were consistently manufactured. Pirlo and McNamara pushed the play both on the dribble and by switching fields, and Moralez was an absolute menace not only on the creative end but also by applying pressure defensively.
“Both Andrea and Tommy were fantastic,” Vieira said. “They worked really hard and were really smart. I want to give them both a lot of credit.”
NYCFC’s defense, which has struggled from time to time this season, won the vast majority of the battles, especially in the air, as Sporting KC was frustrated repeatedly at the top of the box and forced to settle on attacking from the wings. That led to several odd-man situations heading the other way.
Harrison eventually was rewarded for all of the makeshift lineup’s effort, as he corralled a brilliant cross by Allen with his chest and beat Melia on the half volley from just inside the box in the 84th minute.
You could immediately hear a collective sigh of relief from the 19,000-plus in attendance that braved the elements.
“This says a lot about the club,” Harrison said. “It shows that everyone understands the way we wan’t to play and the philosophy. It shows that we have a good strong side and that we have an understanding of how we want to play as well.”
NYCFC (15-7-5) is now undefeated in its last 10 matches at Yankee Stadium (8-0-2) and remains in contention for the Supporters’ Shield, sitting six points back of Toronto FC with seven games to play.
Finishing first overall in the league is still doable, but it seems more and more likely that NYCFC will at worst secure a bye into the two-legged conference semifinals. Vieira was glowing following Wednesday’s win, beaming with the satisfaction of knowing his team overcame considerable circumstances to get three points.
“In the end, I’m not surprised because you have to see how those players work during the week, and they just play the way they’ve been working this week,” Vieira said. “That’s something that makes me really proud as a coach.”
The continuity that Vieira was referring to will be put to the test the rest of the way. After Saturday’s home match against Portland, NYCFC won’t see Yankee Stadium again until the regular season finale against Columbus on Oct. 22. Remember, City was supposed to play Houston on Sept. 23 in the Bronx, but that match was relocated to East Hartford, Connecticut, due to a rescheduled Yankees game.
It is expected that NYCFC will get some of its missing players back for Saturday’s match, but in the event that Villa, Ring or others can’t go, Vieira should have peace of mind knowing that whoever he trots out there will be completely focused on the task at hand.
McNamara, for one, said he can’t help but be impressed by NYCFC’s depth and the players’ willingness to go above and beyond regardless of the situation.
“I thought collectively we stuck together,” McNamara said of Wednesday’s win. “It’s a very positive, strong message within our team that whoever is called upon will be ready to perform.”
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN