Coach Had A Sound Plan For First Leg Of East Semifinals, But Toronto FC Was Simply The Better Side

By Glenn Crooks
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New York City FC has some work to do this Sunday if it wants to save its season.

Toronto FC captured the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals last Sunday at BMO Field in front of the hungriest supporters in Major League Soccer, winning 2-0 in a match that for a very long time looked headed for a draw.

But it didn’t, and NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira was later immolated in the media for his radical change in tactics. One publication suggested that Andrea Pirlo simulated a calf injury because he disagreed with Vieira’s set-up against the Reds. Pirlo must have been livid. He still was not training on Wednesday after a visit to the doctor and daily treatment by the athletic trainers.

On Oct. 1 in Houston, with three matches remaining in the regular season, Vieira had prepared his side with multiple game plans. After watching incessant film of his opponent, Vieira devised two systems that were dependent on the team shape presented by the Dynamo. NYCFC, the best road team in MLS, defeated Houston, 2-0, on a pair of second-half goals by captain David Villa.

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Vieira developed a plot that defended with a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, while attacking in a 3-5-2 or 3-3-4 contour. The unique element to the scheme was holding midfielder Andoni Iarola dropping to the back line when City was in clear possession to allow the fullbacks, RJ Allen and Ronald Matarrita, the prospect to move into more forward, attacking positions.

It is the system that Vieira used over the final three matches of the regular season, including the 4-1 triumph over Columbus at Yankee Stadium that secured a bye into the conference final four. Furthermore, it is the identical system that Vieira used against Toronto FC last Sunday.

The pundits have unanimously suggested that Vieira had organized his team for two-legged failure — that he had changed into a defense-minded 4-5-1 shape — and was “overthinking.” They claim Vieira set up his team for a malfunction by shifting from the principles that he had preached throughout the season — create more than we concede.

With respect, peace and love, I strongly disagree with those analysts as very little changed in the preparation and plan.

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In the first leg, massive credit must be steered toward the Reds and their playoff-starved supporters. Toronto FC pressed New York City into a shape that appeared more defensive in the absence of Pirlo and Frank Lampard, who participated in only 29 minutes off the bench in his second game back from a four-week sabbatical due to a calf issue. Toronto FC defended with energy and numbers around the ball like no other opponent this year — and that includes the Red Bulls. The Reds forced City into arrhythmic sequences and more direct service.

Was there a better way to prepare for the atmosphere and the energy at BMO? Maybe, but each player in the NYC starting XI was experiencing his first MLS playoff match.

In that starting unit, Mikey Lopez was selected to replace Pirlo ahead of Tommy McNamara, which stimulated this tweet to me from a supporter.

After our WFAN broadcast on Sunday, we were met by a pair of supporters at the hotel and their first utterance was, “what did you think of that lineup?”

There is a love affair between the supporters and Tommy Mac, who has also been a favorite of mine since I watched him train and compete in preseason ahead of the 2015 campaign. The statistics also encouraged inserting McNamara from the outset of the match. City is 14-6-8 when he starts and 1-4-1 when is absent.

However, Tommy Mac is not Pirlo. He is not a player that dictates tempo in a match. Vieira prepared his team to lock down Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore with a midfield block while providing the wide channels for his fleet, attack-minded fullbacks. Allen had two substantial openings in the Toronto area, one shot pulled wide and the other saved well by Clint Irwin.

The other curious personnel decision was the insertion of Khiry Shelton in the 78th minute in place of the league MVP candidate and 23-goal scorer Villa. Statistically, Villa had fewer touches than nearly all of his previous MLS starts and was continually irritated by his surroundings, in particular Armando Cooper, who often dropped down to form a Villa sandwich with Michael Bradley and his two center backs.

Shelton was at the core of City’s two best chances of the night when he played square to the on-rushing Allen for the shot that was saved by Irwin and served a bullet on the deck from a wide position that Jack Harrison nearly deflected in after an Irwin parry.

To suggest that Vieira was “overthinking” his arrangement for the match is an insult to Vieira and the coaching profession. Preparation is the quality that separates Vieira from many of his peers. When he experimented with a three-back system in the second match of the season, he admitted that it had been too early to introduce. He then waited until the latter stages of the regular year to formulate various adjustments to the original 4-3-3 that accompanied him from Manchester.

Match preparation is a facet of Viera’s coaching make-up that he absorbed from playing under Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan. It is the characteristic that propelled City to second place in the table. Soccer needs more coaches who think and prepare with the anticipation of the numerous scenarios faced on and off the field. Sometimes, the players simply fail to execute. If Allen or Harrison finish either of their second-half chances, the critics would have been muted.

New York City has a situation that few have recovered from in the MLS playoffs and I suspect that Vieira has been pondering the optimum method to make up the deficit, while there are those who wonder whether excessive thinking will hinder City’s performance.

Throw-Ins

— TFC’s holding midfielder, Bradley, was the Player of the Match. He anticipated every movement of the NYC attack. On the smaller pitch at Yankee Stadium, City’s preparation needs to include enhanced ball and player movement as even the ubiquitous Bradley cannot cover every portion of the field.

— Eirik Johansen made two crucial saves in the first half in his second straight start in front of Josh Saunders. The expectation is that Johansen, who was not deemed at fault for either of the Toronto goals, will get the nod on Sunday at Yankee Stadium for the crucial second leg.

— Villa and New York City can consider themselves fortunate that the second leading scorer in MLS was not retroactively suspended for the second leg. With intent, Villa kicked at and tripped Cooper during a first-half confrontation. There was no violation called by referee Silviu Petrescu and the five-member MLS Disciplinary Committee did not suspend Villa after a video review. Under league rules, the DC must unanimously agree on two factors: the player committed a clear red card violation (Villa did); the violation was egregious and put in peril the player’s safety and health (it did not).

Villa scored both goals in a 2-2 draw against Toronto FC earlier this season at Yankee Stadium.

For all thing futbol and NYCFC, please follow Glenn on Twitter at @GlennCrooks