One away draw isn’t a crisis, but it might be a sign of identity crisis.
I know what you’re thinking: after a Saturday marred by NYCFC’s second-half capitulation at Orlando, dissecting the failures of Domènec Torrent’s painstaking tactical masterplan is the last way you want to kick off the week. But while the coach and players talk about incremental progress, this game—one of those proverbial draws that felt like a loss—looks like one more nail in the coffin for those hoping Dome can sprinkle some magic Guardiola dust on a fragmented and uncertain NYCFC side.
Let’s get the noise out of the way. Yes, if Maxi Morález had squared the ball for Alexandru Mitriţă on that 70th-minute breakaway, we might be celebrating a winning start to the season. That sounds reassuring until you realize that Orlando spurned similarly golden opportunities—more, in fact, given that they managed 1.90 expected goals to NYCFC’s 1.17. The worrying thing is that after nine months with Torrent in charge, an offseason to reshape the roster, and a preseason for the coach to impress his ideas on the squad, most observers would be hard-pressed to describe this team’s style. And it’s starting to feel like the same might go for his players.
What is Dome ball? Is it the fast-and-loose 4-2-4 the coach employed on his arrival in New York, a system that won five out of his first six games? Or the ponderous, creepingly horizontal 4-4-2 diamond that we saw when Villa returned to the lineup? Or maybe it’s the more conventional, Vieira-like 4-3-3 that the team returned to in the playoffs. Better yet, perhaps it’s the aggressive 4-1-4-1 NYCFC morphed into when chasing goals in the second half of the Conference semifinal exit at Atlanta.
But no, this weekend Dome had yet another look up his sleeve.
Though a defensive-minded midfield trio of James Sands, Ebenezer Ofori, and Alexander Ring occasionally got forward in something like a 4-2-4, NYCFC spent most of the game defending in a low-block 5-2-3. Ofori’s left-footed howitzer from the top of the area and Ring’s neat finish off Mitriță’s incisive outside-of-the-foot throughball were happy anomalies in a first half that saw Orlando camped in NYCFC’s half. To deal with Orlando’s striker pair, Dome dropped Sands between Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot, leaving Ofori and Ring isolated as Orlando’s Sacha Kljestan and Chris Mueller, a rookie of the year runner-up in 2018, drifted between the lines to create overload after overload at the top of the box.
The 2-0 halftime lead could scarcely be called deserved. Although it appeared to be part of Dome’s gameplan to invite Orlando’s wingbacks across the halfway line and attempt to exploit the space behind them, the Lions succeeded in pinning Tinnerholm and Sweat back, disconnecting Ofori and Ring from passing options, and leaving NYCFC to punt the ball into the channels for Maxi and Jonathan Lewis with only modest reward.
In the second half the pressure began to tell. While the easy blame for Orlando’s first goal will go to Sean Johnson, he’d had very little relief for long stretches. Around the 70th minute Orlando manager James O’Connor brought on attacking firepower in Dom Dwyer and big-money signing Nani, and his team rode the emotional boost. The irony of Orlando’s equalizer is that it was scored in exactly the same way that NYCFC hoped to exploit Orlando’s three-man backline. Dwyer darted into the space between Tinnerholm and Chanot to lay on the assist for Akindele, who galloped ahead of a weary and quite literally broken NYCFC defense as Ben Sweat pulled up with a lame hamstring.
What should we make of a game where the blown 2-0 lead hardly felt warranted in the first place? Though Torrent has long professed a desire to play with more control, this passive, defensive display was a far cry from the “certain style” he’s been teasing since he got here. And sure, it’s great that he’s playing the kids, but tossing Sands into a new and tactically demanding role—one for which Ring seems better suited—will raise questions about managerial judgment. The unexpected shape drove home another concern: though Maxi and Mitri’s connection will almost certainly improve over time, it’s still not clear how they’ll both fit into Dome’s preferred 4-3-3 with wide wingers.
While the optimists and aficionados of juego de posición hope next week’s home opener will bring the assertive, fluid football we’ve seen in glimpses, D.C. United’s opening win against Atlanta suggests a torrid test ahead for a side still trying to find its feet. The club may call this draw “something to build on,” but nine months after Torrent’s appointment, we’re still waiting to find out exactly what we’re supposed to be building toward. ❧
Image: James Gillray, The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver