It was the best of times—until Dome moved Matarrita into midfield.
About ten minutes into LAFC’s visit to Yankee Stadium on Sunday, Rónald Matarrita stepped out of his early-season injury problems, toward the center of midfield, and promptly made Carlos Vela disappear.
While Mata surged up the channels, the wings, and basically any part of the pitch as long as it was more or less in front of him, Ebenezer Ofori sat contentedly in the passing lanes alongside him, doing occasional regista tricks with growing assuredness. Caught between the pair, Vela, LAFC’s star right winger, couldn’t find room to maneuver. For most of the first half, NYCFC kept numerical superiority in the center, disrupting the short passing and throughballs at the heart of LAFC’s attack.
It looked like a triumph of gameplanning for Dome Torrent, who’d spent the week enumerating the virtues of Bob Bradley’s team with the studiousness of a man aware he still has much to prove. (Or had it been the purring confidence of a veteran coach, fresh off another Sade-infused tactics session and eager to unleash his latest creation on his young, unsteady charges? It’s not always easy to figure out what Dome’s trying to say.) Whatever the cause, this was his team’s most affirmative display of style yet. Even after Vela reappeared just before the half to level the score, you could almost make out the early signs of a turnaround—signs that NYCFC still belongs among the fresh, forward-thinking franchises in MLS.
Or maybe it was just the Vitamin D. A few minutes into the second half, Dome replaced Ofori with Ben Sweat for no apparent reason, or at least none that anyone seems to be talking about. And though Sweat put in good work to set up Alex Ring’s go-ahead goal shortly after coming on, NYCFC slowly but surely lost its grip on the game. Why Sweat and not Tony Rocha or Juan Pablo Torres? Where in the world is Keaton Parks? Perhaps only Dome knows.
Not that it was all Sweat’s fault. Matarrita’s exuberance worked when he was pushing into the midfield as an inside fullback, but the inverse arrangement in the second half—Mata playing in the midfield but constantly vacating it—was less successful. In the end, LAFC’s equalizer was less a result of Sweat doing Sweat things than of Sweat and Mata not doing Mata and Ofori things.
As Matarrita skipped out of the midfield like the pickup soccer king he remains deep in his heart, Ring dropped deeper to cover, like the six-disguised-as-a-ten that he remains in his heart of hearts. LAFC was able to shift its possession farther into the attacking half, leading to the fatal passage of play that ended with Sweat trying his best to launch Latif Blessing into the bleachers.
Although the tactical narrative in this one was a tale of two Matas, the headline story was a promising performance derailed by defensive blunders. It was the best of Chanot, it was the worst of Chanot: while NYCFC’s defensive talisman showed up once again with keen interceptions and last-gasp clearances, he loaned Tyler Miller his forehead as a backboard for a long throw to Latif Blessing and immediately played Vela onside for LAFC’s first. And, alas, it was the best and worst of Sweat—in other words, pretty much the Ben Sweat we’ve become accustomed to.
Dome in? Dome out? Who knows. Individual errors do tend to crop up in a side that’s being tinkered with too often to get tight, but long periods of dominance against a highly rated LAFC team may be a sign that the coach’s methods are starting to stick. Fortunately—though somewhat frustratingly, timing-wise—NYCFC’s striker vacancy looks like it’s finally been filled, which means we’ll have to wait out a little more tactical reshuffling to find out which City we’ve got. ❧
Image: Evgenija Demnievska, Janus