By Jeff Capellini
New York City FC hasn’t been the same side offensively for a while now.
Perhaps the club’s problems of late have had more to do with injuries and annoying breaks in the schedule due to World Cup qualifying than anything else. City fans better hope that’s the case.
Regardless, something isn’t right, and Patrick Vieira’s team really only has a week of practice and one match left to correct the issues before the playoffs begin.
The search continues for consistent secondary scoring.
NYCFC’s issues putting the ball in the net have resulted in it winning just two of its last eight matches (2-2-4), a slide that has allowed a few teams to get serious about taking the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference away from the Boys in Blue. Remember, the top two on each side of the postseason draw are awarded a bye into the conference semifinals.
Heading into Sunday’s regular season finale against visiting Columbus, a match that will be played at Citi Field due to a conflict with the Yankees’ playoff schedule in the Bronx, only three points separate second-place NYCFC (16-9-8, 56 points) and the fifth-place Crew (16-12-5, 53). Third-place Chicago is a point back, and expansion Atlanta is two off the pace.
Which means, for all intents and purposes, NYCFC really needs to beat Columbus, or it could find itself playing in the knockout round, which is a bit like the MLB postseason’s wild-card game. All you need is one thing to go wrong and the season could quickly go off the rails.
“We’re still in a good position, because when you have destiny in your hands. It’s a good position,” Vieira said following Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at New England. “I’m sure the other teams behind us would want to be in our position.
“We know what we have to do, so we’ll have to work really hard this week and try to work around what we can improve during the week and try to get ready,” he added.
For those keeping score at home, Chicago travels to Houston on Decision Day, while Atlanta takes on visiting Toronto, which earlier locked up the Supporters’ Shield. All matches league-wide begin at 4 p.m.
NYCFC has scored just seven goals over its last eight games, as opposed to the 17 it netted in its previous eight, a run that featured five wins and a draw, dating back to a 3-1 victory over expansion Minnesota on June 29.
David Villa remains among the premier scorers in Major League Soccer, but as this season has dragged on, it has become apparent that if he’s not doing the seemingly impossible out there, his team almost always finds itself in a defensive stalemate.
While its true Jack Harrison has 10 goals and has often looked brilliant when teamed with Villa up front, the drop-off after those two has been profound. Villa and Harrison have scored 56 percent of NYCFC’s goals (30 of 54) this season, but when one or both has either been missing or not on his game, the team has mostly struggled to generate chances.
Maxi Moralez has five goals, but he’s more about creating in the midfield. Rodney Wallace has four, but hasn’t scored in months. Tommy McNamara contributes a thunder strike every now and then, but still only has three goals total.
This is a very top-heavy offense, and it stands to reason that every potential opponent NYCFC could face in the playoffs knows it, meaning schemes to contain Villa are already being formulated.
On the other hand, NYCFC has been a far better defensive side than it was last season. The Boys in Blue have allowed just seven goals in their last eight games, a vast improvement over the 13 they gave up over their previous eight. A lot of that has had to do with Sean Johnson’s often spectacular play in goal, though it would be wrong to not at least acknowledge the strides made by Alexander Callens, Ben Sweat, Frederic Brillant, Ronald Matarrita and newcomer Andraz Struna.
But in a postseason setup where goal differential can potentially be everything, NYCFC cannot afford to rely on Johnson and the improved play of the guys directly in front of him to be the determining factor in just how far this side goes. In 2016, just one year removed from its expansion season, NYCFC surprised many by securing the No. 2 seed in the East, thanks to a 54-point regular season. The defense wasn’t as good as it is currently, but the offense generated 62 goals. A big reason for that was the play of Frank Lampard, who scored 12.
And even with Lampard complementing Villa and Harrison beginning to find himself, NYCFC got demolished in the two-legged Eastern Conference semifinals, failing to score once against eventual MLS Cup finalist Toronto.
It’s clear at this point that though NYCFC has gotten much better in net and on its back line, it hasn’t really replaced the offense Lampard provided. The club expected Harrison to take that next step and the 21-year-old has, but few have lined up behind him to provide additional secondary scoring.
As a result, it looks like it will continue to be on Villa and Harrison to provide Johnson and the defense at least some margin for error.
But let’s not forget, Harrison won’t be available against Columbus due to the red card he received in the first half of Sunday night’s loss at New England. (Update: MLS rescinded the red later in the week, meaning Harrison will be available.)
Is NYCFC good enough to win a championship this season? Some days, I think the answer has been yes. But the club hasn’t experienced many of those days over the last six weeks. International duty and other distractions have played roles in City’s recent lackluster results.
But then again, every team has issues to deal with at this time of the season.
How the Boys in Blue handle their business from this point forward will tell their fans everything they need to know.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN