By Glenn Crooks
» More Columns
New York City FC has been stationed in San Juan since Sunday for a Friday night friendly against the Puerto Rico National Team.
“I believe it is an important event for both Puerto Rican soccer and New York City FC,” opined NYC captain David Villa.
“We’re out here to put on a show, enjoy ourselves – have a good time,” was the honest response from Josh Saunders. “If you’re out here looking for answers out of this game, it’s going to be tough.”
At training on Thursday night, a thousand locals gathered inside the Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel to watch New York City go through a light workout. It featured a small-sided game that inspired vocal crescendos each time Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard were on the ball. That trio of international stars posed together for posters, which are scattered throughout the U.S. territory. Naturally, they were the targets of post-training selfies with the adoring spectators.
Puerto Rican soccer has barely made a dimple on the international landscape. They have never qualified for a World Cup and they have failed to enter or qualify for the Gold Cup. In 25 years, Puerto Rico advanced to the group stage of the Caribbean Cup only once, when Chris Armas — who grew up in New York City but is of Puerto Rican descent — helped establish a four-game win streak. Unfortunately, the competition was not recognized by FIFA, so the most impressive moments in PR history were in a string of friendlies. This also allowed Armas to switch allegiance and represent the U.S. men’s national team on 66 occasions.
Flying into San Juan, one can observe numerous baseball fields scattered across the island. The only soccer pitch evident is the national stadium, which serves as the home to Puerto Rico Bayoman — an NPSL squad — and formerly the USL’s Puerto Rico Islanders.
Saunders found himself in goal for the Islanders in the 2007 season.
After he was waived by the LA Galaxy after the ’06 season, Saunders was a preseason trialist with the Chicago Fire. Armas was in his final season playing for the Fire while C.J. Brown was entering his 10th season with the club. Current Galaxy assistant Dave Sacharan was the head coach. The threesome had connections and helped Saunders hook up with the Islanders, a favor to the 6-foot-4 keeper who did not figure in their plans.
“I played in this same stadium, so it really brings back memories,” said Saunders, who also has two caps with the Puerto Rican National Team. “I lived here for nine months, and getting to play consistently allowed me the chance to get back to MLS.”
Saunders re-signed with the Galaxy for the 2008 season and made 53 total appearances while winning the MLS Cup in 2011 and 2012.
As he observed the frenzy from field level after Thursday’s training, Saunders took a moment to reflect on the inaugural season for New York City, which included the release of numerous teammates and the dismissal of three coaches, including Brown.
“You make and lose friends quite quickly in this sport,” said Saunders, who earlier in the day watched a video of his five-year-old daughter, Tyler, perform in a school play. “It is an unfortunate side of the game but it is something you get used to, especially after 12 years in the league.
“We were putting a whole new group out there. It’s something you can’t get right away. Toronto made the playoffs for the first time in seven years!”
However, the City Football Group had a higher expectation, and Patrick Vieira has been summoned from the Manchester Elite Development Program to usher in a playoff appearance. Vieira is here with the team while Rob Vartughian is the guide for this exhibition. Vartughian, the lone field coach to survive the CFG axe, was officially renewed as goalkeeper coach on Friday.
Patrick Mullins, entering his second season with New York City and his third in MLS, has met individually with Vieira.
“You can clearly see that he’s a confident man and a confident coach,” said Mullins. “I’ve heard great things from his time with the Academy team at City, and just from my talks with him, he instills confidence in you as a player.”
Neither Vieira nor sporting director Claudio Reyna were made available to discuss team matters, including Thursday’s acquisition of defender Ethan White from the Philadelphia Union. NYCFC surrendered a fourth-round pick in the 2017 MLS Super Draft.
Earnie Stewart, the former USMNT stalwart, is now in command of all soccer related activities with the Union. He has spent considerable time in a similar position at Holland-based club AZ Alkmaar, and has emerged as a fan of the 4-3-3. That formation is predicated on a back four that is willing and able to build from the defensive third.
“What you can expect from Ethan is a guy who plays with a chip on his shoulder,” explained Mullins, who connected with White for one season at the University of Maryland. “He has a bite to his game which matches well with his athleticism. He can win balls in the air and track down forwards.”
Calculated ball circulation is probably White’s biggest weakness. He is average technically, and therefore does not fit the center-back profile in Stewart’s vision. Also, his price tag ($125,000 in 2015) is inflated for the budget-conscious Union.
Vartughian, the former Union assistant coach, was comfortable recommending White to an organization that is starved to expand the pool of its back line. White has been called a “true pro” and “someone you can count on every day.”
But if he cannot keep the ball effectively at the back, doesn’t that present a potential replay of the turnovers that swallowed points away from the expansion side in ’15?
White is athletic, competitive and a good defender. He may end up as a nominee to play in the home matches on the narrow dimensions at Yankee Stadium, where individual battles and direct play conquer the beautiful game.
White, a right center-back for the Union, joins Jason Hernandez, Jefferson Mena and trialist Kennedy Hurtado as candidates for those central defending positions.
White was unable to join the team in San Juan, as he is vacationing in Cancun.
The 31-year-old, Hurtado has played with Seattle and the defunct Chivas USA. He has sustained numerous injuries along the way but offers leadership and experience.
“He looks good,” said Saunders, who will appreciate the virtues of anyone who can sustain the group in front of him. “I played against him in the past. He’s a good player, but we need to see him a little bit more before we can figure it out.”
Part of that evaluation will take place Friday night in a converted baseball stadium which should provide comfortable surroundings for the team that occupies “The House That Ruth Built.”
“We are here to promote soccer and our brand,” concluded Villa. “We hope people like us and become New York City FC fans for the rest of their lives.”
-Vieira announced on Friday that Javier Perez and Christian Lattanzio have been named assistant coaches. Kristian Wilson has been appointed performance coach and Matthew Cook has been named physical performance coach. Lattanzio, Wilson and Cook all worked with Vieira for City’s Elite Development Squad, while Perez was most recently the head coach of the U.S. U-18 National Team.