Montreal Preview: Adapt or Die

NYCFC has lost the plot. Time to get back to basics.

Back in the early aughts, when this sort of thing still felt clever instead of just annoying, a writer named Charlie Kaufman wrote a screenplay called Adaptation. about a writer named Charlie Kaufman struggling to write an adapted screenplay. The plot—or one of the plots, anyway, because this is the kind of movie obsessed with finding complex new ways to tell stories—turns on Kaufman’s deadline-induced surrender to a screenwriting seminar by Robert McKee, the high priest of Hollywood’s standard three-act structure.

  Twenty three hundred years ago, Aristotle
  said, when storytelling goes bad in a
  society, the result is decadence.
  Well, just look around you.
Everyone, except Kaufman, laughs giddily at McKee's joke.
       MCKEE (cont'd)
  Aristotle also said: A story must have a
  beginning, a middle, and an end.
The students nod in appreciation at this profundity.

I thought of Adaptation. last weekend while watching NYCFC get expertly, mercilessly deconstructed at Toronto. Dome Torrent’s team had lost the plot. Alexander Callens would swing the ball out to Ben Sweat, who would inevitably dump it right back, at which point James Sands might scuttle possession crabwise to Ebenezer Ofori or Alexander Ring, the center midfield pair in the first-half 4-3-3. And that’s where the play died. As soon as NYCFC reached the second phase of the buildup, forward momentum stopped. Simple passes failed. Every attempt to enter the attacking third was sloppily improvised. The team was, as color commentators like to say, without ideas.

It’s a problem not unique to soccer. “If you look closely at the soft bellies that hang out over the belt of so many films,” McKee proclaims in his screenwriting manual Story, “you’ll discover that this is where the writer’s insight and imagination went limp. He couldn’t build progressions, so in effect he put the story in retrograde. In the middle of Act Two he’s given his characters lesser actions of the kind they’ve already done in Act One—not identical actions but actions of a similar size or kind: minimal, conservative, and by now trivial.”

Conservative. Trivial. These are good words for the triple-defensive-mid setup Dome’s now started in three out of four games. Sands and Ofori are cautious passers, more intent on circulating the ball safely than getting it forward. That used to be Ring’s job back when he lined up behind Maxi Moralez and Yangel Herrera. Now he’s the only midfielder trying shit, and the problem is he’s not very good at it. At this point last season, Ring’s passing stats in the middle third looked like Sands’ now: 92.2% success rate, 3.4 more completions than expected per hundred attempts. In his new box-to-box role, that’s plummeted to 76.9% and 6.3 fewer completions than expected even as he’s become the team’s leading midfield passer. If you want to point to the problem in NYCFC’s buildup, Alex Ring is it.

Ring’s passing in his new role is more aggressive and erratic. Bar length is normalized pass count, angle is direction (up is toward the opposing goal), and yellow indicates longer average distances. Credit: @etmckinley, @analysisevolved

But this sport’s never that simple. The reason Ring suddenly can’t complete a pass to save his life has less to do with him than with the passes themselves, which look like they were picked by a random number generator that’s been bashed in with a baseball bat. There’s no pattern to the attack, no sign of scripted moves. Ring and his teammates are working off different plans—or worse, none at all.

If Aristotle gave us any useful notes on plot, it wasn’t the painfully Aristotelian observation that a “middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.” (Before you throw your copy of the Poetics across the room, remember that the stuff we’ve got is probably his students’ lecture notes—even Aristotle survives only in adaptation.) Rather it was the suggestion that the way an end follows on a middle matters. Plays should avoid “episodic” plots, he says, “in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets compose such pieces by their own fault, good poets, to please the players; for, as they write show pieces for competition, they stretch the plot beyond its capacity, and are often forced to break the natural continuity.”

That’s NYCFC’s tactics so far this season: a carefully plotted buildup sags in the middle into a ramshackle picaresque where the next scene feels neither necessary nor rehearsed. Continuity is broken. Is Dome a bad poet who just doesn’t know any better, or is he writing show pieces when his players need a by-the-numbers potboiler? And does it really matter which one it is if the result’s the same either way?

The best hope to save this bomb is a reshuffled cast, and that starts this Saturday. Maxi’s probably out again with a bum leg, but Dome is thinking about trying Jesús Medina or Keaton Parks—anybody but Ring, thanks—as an attacking midfielder. More importantly, we’ll get our first glimpse of Héber, the long-awaited striker who’ll eventually allow Moralez to return to the midfield, which will drop Ring into something closer to his preferred defensive mid role, and maybe, just maybe, this team will start making sense again.

It helps that this game comes at home against a Montreal team in similar straits. Last weekend, missing their own star Argentinean attacker, Ignacio Piatti, the Impact tried an awkward defensive lineup and got taken to the woodshed by Sporting Kansas City, 7-1. With Piatti still hurt, Rémi Garde will be feeling the same heat as Torrent to come up with a gameplan that won’t fall apart in the second act.

Is it okay if I spoil the end of Adaptation.? I mean, the predictability is the point. Kaufman the character gives up trying to be brilliant, gets a big-money screenplay job from Sony, and starts lugging his dogeared McKee to the coffee shop. There’s a love interest, there’s an epiphany—it’s a Hollywood ending for a movie that doesn’t consider that a compliment. Of course, Kaufman the real life writer gets there in the most convoluted way possible, via artificially layered narratives, metatextual commentary, a movie within a movie, all that whizbang pomo shit. And it works because a simple three-act structure holds it together. Kaufman the impotent genius and McKee the successful hack call it a draw.

If Dome’s going to adapt to his circumstances, is what I’m trying to suggest here, his next pages should probably start embracing the obvious. ❧

Image: Adaptation.