Why janky MLS scheduling means NYCFC needs a hot start.

With a fan base on pins and needles and a congested second-half schedule that could mean another bumpy fall, there may be no team in MLS that needs a strong start to the season more than NYCFC. March is a chance for a smooth ramp-up, with four single-game weeks and two home games before the Yankees start crowding us out. Win now and the team will have a gentle April to gel. But drop too many points early on and things could get ugly.

The Story Behind the Weird Schedule

At the end of last year, to much fanfare, MLS announced some big changes for 2019 schedule. The entire playoffs will be squeezed between the fall international breaks, starting on October 19 and ending with the MLS Cup on November 10. That means Decision Day, the last day of the regular season, falls on October 6, 22 days earlier than in 2018.

The ultimate plan is to start next season in mid-February (not ideal for the Bronx, but made more practical as the league expands to warmer climates in Nashville, Miami, and Austin). But since the CBA doesn’t allow a shortened offseason, 2019 has a compressed schedule. That means an increase in mid-week games, and no team was affected more than NYCFC. Constrained by the Yankees’ schedule and this year’s Gold Cup, NYCFC will play more than 40% of their home games on weeknights. No other team in the league is over 25%.

The upshot is that NYCFC will have to suffer through at least six double-game weeks this year, maybe more if the team actually wins a U.S. Open Cup game for once. And all but one of them are backloaded in July, August, and September. Like we saw last season, that means it’s important to have a good spring.

Orlando City (Away)

Saturday, March 2, 2:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 42% – D 25% – L 25%

To say that Orlando City was a dumpster fire last year is probably a little too polite. They fired coach Jason Kreis less than halfway through the season; Young DP Josué Colmán was anonymous; their best player, Yoshi Yotún, escaped across the border to Mexico as soon as the offseason hit; and to cap it all off, an incompetent sporting staff accidentally triggered the team option on Will effing Johnson.

The Lions are looking to rebuild behind coach James O’Connor, who they called up midseason from Louisville City. They jettisoned 15 players, including the versatile Tony Rocha (now at NYCFC) and—no, seriously—their entire backline. They also got a lot more Portuguese, trading for last year’s number one SuperDraft pick Joao Moutinho and luring big-bucks DP Nani from one catastrophe of a club to another.

The first game of a new season is always a crapshoot, but if NYCFC’s going to be a contender they’d better pick up valuable road points here.

D.C. United (Home)

Sunday, March 10, 2019, 3:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 59% – D 22% – L 19%

The Trash Pandas landed Wayne Rooney last summer around the same time they opened Audi Field, claiming the spotlight for a late run into the playoffs. Attacking mid Luciano Acosta raised his game to near-MVP levels as he and Rooney became one of the best duos in the league, and, even more remarkably, to near-PSG levels. The French giants’ surprise offer for Acosta fell apart at the eleventh hour of the European transfer window, leaving Lucho stuck in MLS against his will.

D.C. is looking like a playoff team again, but one with limitations. The club isn’t known for big spending apart from Rooney: third DP Paul Arriola could easily be a TAM player, and the only big offseason move was signing 21-year-old Argentine Lucas Rodríguez to replace Yamil Asad on the wing. Ben Olsen, a walking mediocrity who presumably has some kind of blackmail on team ownership that allows him to keep coaching this team forever, signed a new extension until 2021.

It’s the home opener. Three points are mandatory. Keeping Acosta from dribbling through six defenders like the last time these teams met is priority number one, but NYCFC will also have to watch out for Rooney dropping into midfield from the striker hole.

LAFC (Home)

Sunday, March 17, 3:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 55% – D 23% – L 23%

This is the tough one. LAFC’s 57-point debut broke the MLS record for an expansion club, as coach Bob Bradley shed his “Bunker Bob” reputation to craft a beautiful attack second only to Atlanta in goals scored. Year two should see LAFC cement its place as a contender in the Western Conference.

Like Acosta, golazo machine Carlos Vela (14 goals, 11 assists) drew headline-grabbing offseason interest from a Champions League power before Barcelona signed Kevin-Prince Boateng instead. He returns to lead a dangerous front three that includes Young DP Diego Rossi and one of two pretty good strikers, Adama Diomande or Christian Ramirez, at the tip of the 4-2-3-1.

One of the club’s big questions is who will take the reins at central attacking midfielder. Young DP Andre Horta had trouble adjusting after a summer arrival from Portugal, but LAFC rescued veteran Lee Nguyen from New England Revolution purgatory in case Horta falters. With Benny Feilhaber gone to Colorado, the team will hope Mark-Anthony Kaye can regain the sensational form he showed before his season-ending knee injury. Joining him at the base of the midfield is Eduard Atuesta, whose loan from Independiente Medellín was made permanent this offseason.

NYCFC will need their big-boy pants for this one, but it’s a chance to win a high-profile game against an opponent flying 2,500 miles to play an afternoon game three time zones from home (or does that really matter?).

Toronto FC (Away)

Friday, March 29, 8:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 28% – D 24% – L 48%

Ever since Michael Bradley’s moonshot penalty kick cost his team the CONCACAF Champions League Final, things have been going straight downhill in Toronto. While some (ahem) continued to insist they would turn it around, the 2017 champs nosedived from one of the best seasons in MLS history into one long, hellish montage of losses set to—who else from Canada is terrible?—let’s say Nickelback. (They missed the playoffs.)

So far 2019 isn’t looking any kinder to Toronto FC. Sebastian Giovinco split for Saudi Arabia after the club asked its greatest-ever player to take a paycut, and underrated playmaker Victor Vázquez was sold to a Qatari club. You will probably not be shocked to hear that Jozy Altidore is already injured.

Jonathan Osorio can handle one of those empty midfield spots, but the team is severely lacking elsewhere. Officially there’s no DP yet to replace Giovinco, although TFC may be on the verge of overpaying for Spanish midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo. They signed the oft-injured Terrence Boyd to back up oft-injured Jozy, which probably makes sense to somebody. Creaky center back Laurent Ciman is back in the league but looks like he’s lost a step defensively, troubling news for a club that traded up in the allocation order to land him.

Like Orlando City, this is the kind of road game where a good team needs to come away with a result. Finishing March with 8 points would be a terrific start to a season, putting NYCFC on pace to chase the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Anything less than 6 points could mean a long season ahead. ❧

Image: Maria Lassnig, At Night When Mice Scream