By Glenn Crooks
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It was 5:45 a.m. and typically I had risen without the benefit of an alarm and before the doors of the Starbucks in downtown Sarasota were unlocked. It was Tuesday morning and I was in Florida to spend time with New York City FC during their final phase of preseason.

While exiting the elevator to walk into the lobby, I observed members of the team’s staff, including head coach Patrick Vieira, departing through the front door of the Ritz-Carlton. They were motoring to a training pitch at IMG Academy in Bradenton, nearly a half an hour away, even though practice would not commence until 10 a.m.

Vieira wanted to be assured that the field was set up with the various performance equipment, cones and mannequins to give the staff enough time to return for the team repast. Vieira demands that everyone in the travel party — from players to coaching staff and support staff — sit together three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I got feedback from last year and some things were not a problem to keep doing,” said Vieira whose playing experience includes numerous top-tier league championships and a World Cup title with France in 1998. “But some things I wanted to change. In my experience it is easy and normal to have everyone start the meal together and finish the meal together.”

Each colleague must wait to begin their meal until everyone is seated — and no one can be excused until one and all has finished their refreshment.

“For me, it is quite important for everyone to spend time together, to know each other,” Vieira said during a 30-minute conversation between meetings. “In football, we are going to go through a difficult period and one of the things that can help us is our togetherness — how can we be really open to each other to say the truth to each other. This is the way I want the players to act.”

During a January interview for this column, Vieira specified the influences of Fabio Capello, his manager at Juventus, which are apparent in his first preseason with NYCFC.

“Capello is about team spirit and togetherness. That collective is more important than the individual,” Vieira said.

It is evident that Vieira, who won the scudetto with Capello in 2005-06, is applying those principles in training, No one is placed on a pedestal.

“We needed to have that one, David!” Vieira shouted to Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer, David Villa, after he missed a simple opportunity.

Moments later, when the New York City captain and Designated Player finished with a full volley strike, Vieira hollered, “Well done, David!”

Vieira has emerged comfortable in his new role as first team coach. In training, he is motivating, teaching and correcting. During one exercise he had frequent discussions with another DP, Andrea Pirlo, pointing in different directions to emphasize a detail to his fellow midfielder whose Italy side defeated Vieira and France in the 2006 World Cup Final.

“I talked to several of the Italy players after that match,” Vieira said. “They were a together team. They were very close, on and off the field, more so than we were. That was the difference.”

Pirlo, who was named the Man of the Match in the ’06 final, will play the lone 6 or the defensive midfield role in Vieira’s favored 4-3-3 shape. Few would question Pirlo’s attacking prowess and his ability to play the pivot, steering the ball right and left with precise deliveries. However, he is a liability on the defensive side. Vieira understands the concern and has a plan to counteract Pirlo’s deficiencies.

“There could be a big space between the lines in a counter attack and for Pirlo, it will be difficult for him,” Vieira told me. “We want the distances between the lines, especially from our back four to the No. 9 (striker) to be compact. We will have players around Andrea that can help him when we do not have the ball.”

Vieira accentuated that he does not have apprehension with the defensive frailties of a player who will turn 37 on May 19.

“My worry is not about that,” Vieira explained. “The way I want to play the game and in my mind, we have to control the game. We will have the ball and when Andrea has the ball at his feet, we will create more than we will concede.”

Vieira is preparing his team in two systems. He prefers the 4-3-3 but introduced a 3-2-2-3 shape during the Wednesday scrimmage against USL expansion side, FC Cincinnati. The altered shape essentially moves one central defender into the midfield to form a dual 6. Theoretically, it is an effective possession system and will provide more defensive protection for Pirlo. However, the 4-3-3 will likely be utilized from the outset — the regular season opener is in Chicago on March 6.

“In the 4-3-3, you can commit five players around the box and this will give us more opportunities,” said Vieira, who guided a session specific to those tactics during Thursday’s practice. “This is a system that I like because it gives you different options and flexibility — a back can move into the midfield or a midfielder up front without changing anything else.”

On a scale of 1-10, Vieira says his squad is at a 6 in their comprehension of his vision of the 4-3-3, which begins with high intensity on the defensive side. The rapid close-downs and higher line have been evident in the preseason scrimmages.

“My staff and I want to give the team a clear identity of how we want to play,” Vieira said. “Of course, this is a change, but the players love to play that way as well. It is important for me that they are enjoying training and create a lot of chances.”

“The best complement I could make is that I would have loved to have him as a coach,” said NYC director of football operations Claudio Reyna, who experienced numerous coaching methods during his decorated career. “When you hear and see our players — especially the top players on our team that have been to some of the big clubs and get their feedback — it’s clear to see that we are working in the right way.”

Throw-Ins

— During the 2006 World Cup, Pirlo completed 475 of 580 passes, tied three others in total assists and was named to the FIFA Top XI for the tournament.

— FC Cincinnati, under former USMNT player John Harkes, recorded a 2-1 upset of NYCFC. Only one regular started for City, but FC Cincy defended well and squeezed out the win. All three goals were scored in the final three minutes of the match, which was played in front of a large number of Academy boys and girls. Harkes and Reyna were former national team partners in the midfield for the U.S.

— NYCFC will close its exhibition schedule on Saturday against Reykjavic FC. The probable lineup for the scrimmage and the opener in Chicago features Tony Taylor, Villa and Khiry Shelton up front with Tommy McNamara, Mix Diskerud and Pirlo in the midfield. At the back, Ronald Matarrita, Ethan White, Frederic Brilliant and Andoni Iraola. Josh Saunders will be in goal.

— On the injured list for City, Frank Lampard is out but is probable for training next week. First round draft choice Jack Harrison has been sidelined the entire preseason and will not train until after the opener at the earliest. Jefferson Mena suffered a leg injury on the first day of preseason and has yet to resume training. RJ Allen injured his back in training and hopes to resume next week.

— Vieira, at 6-foot-4 and in great shape, claims that the physical makeup of a player is not essential on his teams. He hungers for players who make calculations about the game and can solve problems with proper awareness and preparation. After training, he looked down on my 5-4 frame with a wide smile and chuckled.

“Even you could be a great player!”

For all things NYCFC and futbol in general, please follow Glenn on Twitter at @GlennCrooks

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