The vision of Patrick Vieira hunched over in a locker stall after the first leg of the Eastern Conference semfinals at Toronto FC provided a stark contrast to the elevated accomplishments in his debut season as a first team manager. New York City FC, finishing second in the Conference and fourth overall in MLS, had lost 2-0 enroute to a 7-0 aggregate drubbing to the eventual MLS Cup finalists.
Vieira enjoyed the luxury of coaching two premier goal scorers in world soccer which led to an MLS leading 62 goals. Reigning MLS MVP David Villa had over a third of those tallies while the departed Frank Lampard contributed 12 attempts that cleared the goal line. This season, NYCFC may be more lethal in the attack while constructing a roster which is also persuaded to limit the leaky nature on the defending side of the ball.
“We lost a lot of guys last year,” said sophomore winger, Jack Harrison. “Seeing all the new guys come in and how they’ve managed to settle down within the team in a short amount of time – it’s very exciting.”
The roster exhibits little resemblance to opening day a season ago. Villa, with 41 goals in 63 career matches at NYCFC, returns to lead a forward group that includes newcomers Jonathan Lewis, Rodney Wallace and Miguel Camargo. Replacing the Designated Player slot held by Lampard is Maxi Moralez who is allied in the midfield by recruits Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera. Alexander Callens features at the back and the fresh starting goalkeeper is Sean Johnson.
“We wanted to make sure that we brought in the right players who can help the team and help the club go to a different level,” said Vieira.
And erase the after-taste of a playoff disaster.
Here’s a closer look at the 2017 NYCFC team:
NYCFC SEASON PREVIEW
2016 Finish: 15-9-10 (2nd in Eastern Conference)
Key Acquisitions: Sean Johnson, Maxi Moralez, Alexander Ring, Alexander Callens, Jonathan Lewis, Miguel Camargo, Yangel Herrera, Rodney Wallace, John Stertzer, Kwame Awuah
Key Losses: Frank Lampard, Andoni Iraola, Josh Saunders, Jason Hernandez, Federico Bravo, Steven Mendoza, Jefferson Mena, Mehdi Ballouchy
Newcomer to Watch: Maxi Moralez
Vieira has been staring at the NYCFC player puzzle since he was hired in December of 2016. He recently experienced that feeling of exhilaration, finding the piece that snaps in snuggly between the other colorful wedges to furnish his first team. Argentinian Maxi Moralez provides a unique quality for the third-year franchise: the ability to unlock a defense. Best known for maneuvering in the midfield for five seasons at Atalanta of Serie A, Moralez can turn and rampage into the attacking third while providing clever, accurate deliveries. He has already taken pressure off a NYCFC back line that is required to build the attack with well-timed checks to support the “possession with a purpose” mantra. While he is unlikely to score goals with the frequency of Sebastian Giovinco, the comparisons are inevitable. Like the “Atomic Ant,” Moralez is short, compact and can escape pressure with individual flare. Moralez, nicknamed “Frasquito” (little flask), finished 18 opportunities in 142 appearances for Atalanta. Prior to his arrival at Toronto FC, Giovinco tallied 14 times in 93 Serie A matches with Juventus. They are both 30-years-old.
Pressure is On: Sean Johnson
Johnson will remember December 11, 2016 – he was a member of three MLS teams that day. He was traded by the Chicago Fire to expansion Atlanta United. Later in the day, Atlanta dealt the goalkeeper to NYCFC for GAM and TAM. Johnson’s athletic gifts may have no peer in MLS, but his distribution skills are equally vital to the principles of Vieira’s system – an area where Johnson can be vulnerable. On the surface, Johnson is an upgrade at the position. Incumbent, Josh Saunders, was jettisoned due to his lack of comfort with the ball at his feet. Johnson’s feet are adequate but the acumen to keep the ball and ignite the attack without crucial turnovers under the stress of Vieira’s concepts at the back will be scrutinized.
Heading into the off-season, NYCFC had a pair of crucial issues to solve – the porous disposition of the back line and the discovery of a playmaker. Both matters were addressed with the acquisitions of Moralez in the midfield and Callens in central defense. Callens, with 10 caps for the Peruvian National Team, has the requisite tools to compliment either Maxime Chanot or Frederic Brillant in the middle of a back four or wide left in a three-back system. He is strong in the air with a dominant left peg. He provides much-needed pace to off-set counter-attacking opponents – a bane that led to the concession of myriad goals in the first two seasons of the franchise.
Vieira views the previous inadequacies without possession through another lens after NYCFC finished 17th out of 20 MLS teams in goals surrendered (57).
“I know people think that we need to spend more time on the back four,” said the former Arsenal captain. “We 100 percent believe that we are going to be a better defensive unit this year. And that starts with my focus on how we can defend better up front.”
Enter Rodney Wallace, who joined NYCFC just two weeks ago after a one-year hiatus from MLS in Portugal and Brazil.
“Defending from the front is one of my strongest qualities,” said the Costa Rican winger. “My organization is good. I know when it’s time to press to make the opposition feel uncomfortable.”
Compatriots Wallace and returning left back, Ronald Matarrita, are both secure in a defending or forward posture. Their ability to exchange and unbalance a defense could provide the most lethal left sided tandem in the league.
Former first round MLS Super Draft selection, Khiry Shelton, is also competing for a spot up front where he has performed on both the left and right wings. Local product, Tommy McNamara, comes off a season where he excelled more as an inverted left wing than in the midfield.
At the age of 37, Andrea Pirlo returns for his second full season to direct the midfield triangle.
“Age is just a number,” said the 40-year old Vieira. “I have an honest relationship with him and I’m not worried at all. When you ask about his age I will tell you about his passion and desire. He loves to play football.”
Providing cover for the Italian maestro will be the Finnish international, Ring (25) along with the 19-year old Venezuelan, Herrera, who caught the eye of Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola. Herrera was signed by City and loaned to NYCFC.
The back presents familiar faces like Chanot, Brillant, Matarrita, RJ Allen, Ethan White, and Shannon Gomez. Whether this group can provide the depth and class necessary to compete for MLS Cup remains ambiguous.
Nonetheless, the team pedigree has received an upgrade. Wallace won MLS Cup with Portland in 2015 and offered sage advice for his new group.
“Winning a championship is never easy,” said the 28-year old. “It’s a long season. Stay together and believe in each other.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP