NYCFC 0-0 D.C. United: James Sands is a Revelation—Now Play Keaton Parks

The answer to NYCFC’s problems lies in the midfield. But where does that leave Alex Ring?

It’s been a few days since NYCFC failed to put a ball in the net in its home opener for the first time in club history, and you’re thinking the same thing that’s on everybody’s mind: NYCFC needs a shakeup in the midfield.

Oh, did you think this was going to be about a striker?

On Sunday afternoon, grizzled England veteran Wayne Rooney led his D.C. United troops north to New York like the British General John Burgoyne looking for a decisive victory in 1777. And just as young, inexperienced American troops held the British to a momentum-changing draw, 18-year-old James Sands led a defensive unit that limited D.C.’s high-octane offense to just 0.70 expected goals.

Sands and Alexander Ring played as a double pivot in Dome Torrent’s 4-2-3-1, taking turns getting forward to support the attack without losing track of Rooney and Luciano Acosta behind. Though the pair occupied similar space, their approaches were quite different. Ring was his typical destroyer self, flying into challenges and committing a game-high four fouls, but he also got forward to uncork long shots at Bill Hamid. Sands sat slightly further back, picking his moments to venture forward less to finish moves than to provide an outlet or to challenge D.C. in transition.

Sands (left) and Ring (right) took turns getting forward against D.C.

Dome’s decision to field two true defensive mids was a little surprising, coming nearly two months after Keaton Parks arrived on loan. In the preseason, Parks, who played the six for Benfica’s reserves but likes to get forward, seemed like a shoo-in to replace Yangel Herrera. It was easy to imagine Ring in his usual defensive mid hole with Parks and Maxi Moralez ranging upfield in a forward-leaning 4-3-3 triangle.

Two games into the season, that attacking midfield is still a dream: Sands has logged 178 minutes to Parks’ 2. Even more unexpectedly, it’s been Sands—more than the new team captain Ring—who’s shown calm on the ball to maintain possession, pick out smart passes, and allow others to initiate the attack.

NYCFC’s pass network shows a balanced shape, but the team struggled to create chances with two defensive midfielders.

Sure, part of the difference is that Ring and Sands have slightly different assignments. Ring has been asked to provide much more offense so far this season. He’s already got 8 shots through two matches, which might be a little ambitious considering how much trouble he had last year keeping his chances on frame. Sands, for his part, has shown the ability to calmly diffuse attacks without accumulating yellow cards, something Ring has never quite figured out.

But while the defensive midfielders sort out their roles, upfield the question still remains: where will the goals come from?

The answer may very well have started Sunday’s match sitting on the bench: not double-digit goal scorer Ismael Tajouri-Shradi or recent USMNT standout Jonathan Lewis, but Keaton Parks. It’s hard not to ask whether Parks would be better suited than Ring for bringing the ball up the pitch to feed Moralez and Alexandru Mitriţă. He’s shown strong ball skills and, more importantly, a knack for the probing pass, something the team has been short on so far this season. Throw in the added advantage of a 6’4″ body on set pieces and the offensive benefits start to stack up.

Bringing Parks into the midfield could help kickstart NYCFC’s attack, whose home/away-adjusted expected goal output through two games is a middling 13th in the league. But if Dome cuts back to one defensive midfielder, who gets the job? Alex Ring, the man he just appointed captain? Or the talented teenager who just might be the next face of the franchise? ❧

Image: Sir Joshua Reynolds, General John Burgoyne