By Glenn Crooks
» More Columns
It was a searing Sunday afternoon in July and I was absorbing a poignant moment in my brief history of broadcasting matches for the New York City FC.READ MORE: Retired FDNY Firefighter Suffering From 9/11-Related Illness In Need Of Lifesaving Bone Marrow Transplant
Standing next to the fourth official at Yankee Stadium was the maestro, Andrea Pirlo, about to make his City debut against Orlando City. It was the 57th minute and NYCFC held a 2-1 advantage. Pirlo was met with a thunderous ovation and expressed his appreciation with a cool wave of the right hand. Everything about the Italian is hip.
While the 32,000 roared with his every touch, Pirlo expressed himself with two deft passes to Kwadwo Poku that led to City goals. The former European and World Cup champion did not get credited with an assist in the match, but his impact was immense.
The final score was 5-3 in favor of the home side — a franchise record for goals in a single game. Meanwhile, a rookie name Cyle Larin commenced his assault on the NYCFC back line, scoring all three goals for the visitors.
On Friday night, Larin and Orlando City (0-0-2) return for the first time since that summer encounter for a meeting with NYCFC (1-0-1) at 7 p.m. The match broadcast can be heard on WFAN.com and NYCFC.com starting with the pre-game at 6:45 p.m.
Even if Kaka were available (he will miss his third straight match to open the season due to injury), Larin would be the featured performer for the Lions in this confrontation. Five of Orlando’s six goals against City last season were scored by the MLS Rookie of the Year and he was not with the squad for the historic expansion opener before more than 60,000 at the Citrus Bowl last March. Larin did not debut for Orlando City until the third match of the season and played in two matches against NYCFC.
Larin, who the top pick in the 2015 MLS Super Draft, set an MLS apprentice record with 17 goals — six more than holder Damani Ralph, a fellow UConn star and the Rookie of the Year with the Chicago Fire in 2003 whose promising career was terminated after three surgeries on the same knee.
Last week, in a 2-2 home draw with Toronto FC, NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira introduced a 3-2-2-3 shape in part to deal with MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco. While Gio was contained for a majority of the match, his goal in the 75th minute completed the reply from a two-goal deficit. He also provided a free-kick assist on the final play of the first half. Gio has now been involved in every goal that Toronto FC has scored in the four-match history with NYCFC (four goals, two assists).
Larin’s numbers versus City are more impressive. Since 2010, the Canadian National Team regular has scored more goals per 90 minutes against one team than any other player (2.63 versus NYCFC). For Larin, it’s the four Ps — power, pace, patience and precision — combined with a quick release that explodes off his foot.
Add two-time USL Player of the Year Kevin Molino, who has fully recovered from knee surgery, and Orlando City has an attack as dangerous as any in MLS.
While Pirlo’s MLS debut was electrifying, the remainder of the 2015 season was less consistent for the deep-lying midfielder who will turn 37 in May. However, following a restful offseason and a full preseason under Vieira, Pirlo has been arguably the top holding midfielder in the league through two matches.
Pirlo leads MLS with 195 total touches and last week topped all players with eight tackles, a category not normally reserved for the former Milan and Juventus playmaker. The altered shape gave Pirlo a partner in the middle in Frederic Bravo, and the Argentine’s cover provided comfort for Pirlo on both sides of the ball. Pirlo had more tackles against Toronto than he had in any league match over the last seven seasons.
Despite his satisfaction with the execution in the 3-2-2-3, Vieira has hinted that he will implement his third system in as many matches on Friday night — a shape that features two strikers, the 3-3-4.
With the narrow dimensions at Yankee Stadium, one could conclude that there is not enough freedom to showcase four up top. On the defensive side, the cover provided for Pirlo will be absent leaving the back three isolated to contend with a volatile Orlando City attack.READ MORE: Harlem Man Arrested After Allegedly Punching Woman, Striking 5-Year-Old Child
We have ascertained through two matches that Vieira is a gambler who does not fear the consequences of his certitudes. Toronto FC spent a bulk of the first half last week trying to sort out a system it had never witnessed.
What will the package be Friday night?
— Vieira, the former Arsenal midfielder, indicated that he began to develop the 3-2-2-3 while directing the Elite Development Squad in Manchester. Ironically, the history of the shape dates back to 1925 when it was introduced by Arsenal coach Herbert Chapman. Referred to as the W-M, the structure was adapted from a 2-3-5 following a change in the offside law from three defensive players to a pair needed to play a forward onside.
Consequently, Chapman’s new system led to a style that has forever since defined soccer in England — direct play. Previously, the game had been played on the deck with creative, clever soccer to solve what had always been the constant presence of a deep defender.
“The result in the end was the ruination of British football,” wrote journalist Jimmy Hogan. “It is far less arduous, after all, to lump long balls in the general direction of a forward than to endure the agonies of creation.”
Fortunately, Vieira’s vision of the system is to possess the ball and calculate the moments to go forward.
— Often you will hear English broadcasters refer to the center back as a “center half (back).” This derives from the altering of the 2-3-5. The center halfback dropped into the back line to form a three-back system — in 1925!
Nine decades later, it is well time to adjust the nomenclature for the defender that plays directly in front of the keeper — the center back.
— Poku, who had three assists against Orlando City during Pirlo’s inauguration, did not play in the opener at Chicago and was not on the squad of 18 for the Toronto match. A journalist asked Vieira if he was planning to trade Poku.
“My job is to pick the best team to try to win games,” Vieira explained. “I expect a lot from Poku and he still has a massive part to play in our football club. He is a really important player.”
SiriusXM FC, the 24-hour soccer radio channel, presented a Poku poll to its listeners in which 56 percent thought that it is in Poku’s best interest to leave the club.
— NYCFC had the highest Week 2 attendance in MLS with 30,115. At least a quarter of the patrons missed the kickoff due to abnormally long lines to enter Yankee Stadium. According to a NYCFC official, the extended queues to enter were caused by a breakdown of the scanner system — not the use of paper tickets, as was widely assumed. Printed tickets will be accepted for Friday night’s match.MORE NEWS: New York Judge Suspends Father's Visitation Rights With Daughter Unless He Gets COVID Vaccine Or Subjects To Weekly Testing
For all things NYCFC and futbol, please follow Glenn on Twitter at @GlennCrooks