Squabble: Should NYCFC Play Different Formations Home and Away?

On the virtues of versatility, Yankee Stadium’s tiny pitch, and why the Red Bulls choked in the playoffs.

In week one, Dome Torrent trotted out a counterattacking 5-2-3 for an away game at Orlando, surprising pretty much everyone. With a tough home opener coming up against D.C. United, The Outfield has a burning tactical debate on its hands: Should NYCFC play different formations home and away?

The Arguments

NYCFC Tactics: Yankee Stadium is hysterically small. It is so small, it’s the opposite of a yo mama joke. The press isn’t allowed to go on the field to measure it, but that hasn’t stopped some opposing coaches. Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes is convinced it’s 106 yards long by 68 yards wide, making it the smallest field in MLS by 550 square yards. Talk about a bandbox of a stadium.

Playing on such a small field is something a team needs to adapt to. Atlanta United, in their preparation for last year’s playoff game, realized that their wingbacks couldn’t drive offensive pressure as effectively on such a field. And NYCFC has seen how effective the red team from across the Hudson is at bringing their tenacious high press to Yankee Stadium.

It’d be foolish to not adapt to your surroundings, especially when those surroundings are your own field. For NYCFC, adapting could mean playing a 3-2-3-2 at home, where width is less important. That formation is very close to Dome’s desired offense. Putting the five best attackers higher up the field, with less ground to cover, seems like a good way to take advantage of the, uh, blessing of calling Yankee Stadium home.

Dummy Run: Oh no you’re one of those. Look, Vermes is a great coach but he sounds like he stayed up till three in the morning watching YouTube videos called “The TRUTH about Yankee Stadium (the DEEP STATE doesn’t want yOU To know!!)” The actual attempts to measure the field I’ve seen confirm it’s within regulations—same as Portland’s Jeld Wen pre-remodeling and Atlanta’s Bobby Dodd.

But let’s say there is a vast conspiracy to cover up our tiny pitch: there’d still be no reason to believe Yankee Stadium fundamentally changes the game. You mentioned wing play and pressure? By PPDA, NYCFC had the toughest press in the league at home last year, yeah, but they also had the second-best press away. They allowed the fourth-fewest passes to the wings at home but third-fewest on the road. Successful 40-yard balls against? Middle of the pack home and away. There’s little sign a trip to Yankee Stadium is anything special except for the fact that a good team plays there.

Nobody is sure why home advantage is so strong across MLS, but one thing we know affects play is prophylactically altering your tactics. Dome Torrent, who complains that his team doesn’t defend high on the road, switched his formation and played bunker ball last weekend at Orlando. Guess what? We sucked.

Players need consistency. They need to understand their role down to the little things. Let’s get good at one formation before we start changing it up every week.

NYCFC Tactics: Ah, so you’re a Vieira stan. Holding tight to a formula no matter what you’re up against. Chasing some platonic ideal set by European teams with endless buckets of cash, but doing it in a league where heavy roster restrictions mean edges need to be found elsewhere.

Having a consistent formation from game to game produces a team that does well in the regular season. Like you said, the math works out. But when a club’s goal is to win the playoffs, they have to get pragmatic. In a knockout tournament you need the option to not only flex your strengths but nullify your opponents’ as well.

Case in point: would you rather be this year’s Los Angeles Rams or New England Patriots? The Rams consistently ran the same offensive formation, but the wheels fell off when they faced a team that gameplanned specifically for those tendencies. In the quest for the MLS Cup, NYCFC should get practice in pragmatism.

Dummy Run: You might be onto something about the regular season versus the playoffs. American Soccer Analysis data confirms that better teams had a more consistent shape last season, but Portland and Atlanta bucked the trend with eight formations each.

You know who else used eight formations, though? The Red Bulls, who choked away the playoffs (again) when Chris Armas decided a team that had won games by pressing like furious Ski Free yetis all season should do the exact opposite in their away leg at Atlanta. Oops.

The question we started with wasn’t whether it’s okay to vary our tactics sometimes—of course it is! everyone except Vermes does it!—but when and why. I’m saying gameplan all you want, but be consistent. Don’t get spooked by road trips or Yankee Stadium’s supposed voodoo powers. And for the love of god, don’t make me watch that Orlando game again.

The Judges

Justin Egan: You can’t teach multiplication and division before teaching addition and subtraction. Forget multiple formations, I don’t know if the players know what Dome wants in one formation. Vote: Dummy Run

Christopher Jee: I agree that NYCFC needs to learn to walk in one system before it can run free in a panoply of them. But if “Etihad Pitch” really is smaller than others by roughly ten times the size of my apartment then there has to be a way to make that even more of an advantage. Vote: NYCFC Tactics

Chris Campbell: Whatever you think about Dome Torrent’s tactical acumen, the team struggled to grasp it last year, and captain Alex Ring has hinted that sometimes the players can’t keep up. NYCFC needs to move forward with one formation for both home and away. Vote: Dummy Run

Image: Sol LeWitt, Distorted Cubes Bozuk Küpler