Minnesota 3-3 NYCFC: Style Though Your Heart is Aching

It wasn’t pretty, but—well actually yeah sometimes it was.

It had been, in many ways, one of the lowest weeks in NYCFC’s short history. Instead of a bounceback game after Toronto, we got a goalless draw to a severely depleted Montreal. Instead of a new manager, we got a new coach of culinary affairs. And while the entire American soccer media was heaping derision on the sorry state of the “Etihad Pitch,” we got to go help Minnesota open their handsome new stadium.

Now, to cap it all off, utility midfielder Tony Rocha was starting at center back.

Greater control in the attacking third gave NYCFC’s fullbacks time to get up the wings, but Tony Rocha struggled at left center back.

On paper, the lineup announced Saturday afternoon had echoes of the ultra-defensive 5-2-3 we’d seen at Orlando in week one. It looked like another sign of a club still in search of its identity, another reminder of the surprising trouble Domènec Torrent and his staff have had finding a style. “The style is generated by a methodology,” Albert Puig, Dome’s assistant coach, once wrote. “If the details are identified, explained and practiced until they become a habit amongst the team, then we have developed an identity where we are speaking the same language.”

If there had been any encouraging news during the week, it was a report from the training ground that our problems in the final third were finally being addressed. Was this a new focus on the kind of habits that could give rise to style? On Saturday, the opening stages of the first half looked promising. Compared to the Orlando game, Dome’s team was playing at a higher tempo—and with swagger. Early on, you could see a major tactical difference in the much narrower positions of NYCFC’s front three against Minnesota.

Left: Mitriţă (28), Moralez (10), and Lewis (17) wide and isolated in the first half against Orlando. Right: Moralez, Castellanos (11), and Tajouri-Shradi (29) combining from narrow positions in the first half against Minnesota.

With Alexander Ring and Ebenezer Ofori operating as a double pivot and Maxi Moralez and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi coming in from the wings to occupy the halfspaces, City easily overloaded the center of the pitch. Up top, Taty Castellanos was more aggressive and direct than he’s ever looked in an NYCFC jersey. The front three were able to retain the ball with ease, allowing Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm to get upfield and largely pinning Minnesota in their own half.

On the defensive end, Rocha was a problem from the start. With Ronald Matarrita supporting the forwards and Minnesota’s pacy Ethan Finlay playing on Rocha’s outside shoulder, the first half was a game of high risk, high reward. The two teams combined for four goals in just eight minutes, leveling the score at 2-2 before Sean Johnson’s mistake handed Minnesota the lead in tragic fashion.

After all the positive signs in the opening half hour, the own goal was an undeniable blow. Instead of folding, though, the team rallied around its keeper and continued to attack with poise and confidence. The front five accumulated 415 touches, almost three times as many as against Orlando and considerably more than at home against ten-man Montreal.

Halftime brought a necessary change on the left side of defense, as Rocha made way for Alexandru Mitriță and NYCFC shifted to a more familiar 4-2-3-1. With Sands and Chanot at center back and Ring and Maxi sliding into their more customary midfield roles, Dome’s team played some of their most controlled and fluid soccer yet seen this season. Twenty minutes of dominance led to Tajouri-Shradi’s equalizer, capping an impressive return for a winger rumored to have fallen out of favor with the coach.

Should we start talking turnaround? It’s almost certainly too early to tell. A much-improved offensive showing couldn’t make up for another confusing lineup from Dome, whose selection of Rocha instead of the more athletic Sweat continued the trend of playing his charges out of position. And Mitriță once again fired off shots from tight angles when runs from Taty and Héber presented simpler scoring options, reminding us that after six games, notable wrinkles remain. But after ninety minutes of positive play and a memorable display of unity, maybe NYCFC is starting to find a style that can carry it through these difficult times. ❧

Image: Edgar Degas, The Singer in Green