D.C. + Chicago Preview: Good Times Are Coming

But they sure coming slow.

I don’t know where, I don’t know when, but pretty soon New York City Football Club is going to win a game. You could feel it last weekend when NYCFC traveled to a big stadium-opening date against Minnesota United—a team that would be good if it had any semblance of a defense—and slugged out a 3-3 road draw by playing like, well, a team that would be good if it had any semblance of a defense. Hey, it’s progress.

It wasn’t just the newfound resilience and attacking swagger that made it feel like maybe it’s time to open your heart and let this team back in. At halftime of the Minnesota game, Dome Torrent yanked a woefully misused Tony Rocha, brought on a banged up Alexandru Mitriţă, and something magical happened: everyone played in their natural positions.

Well, almost everyone. It wasn’t until Héber came on at 86’ that we finally got a look at NYCFC with all three DPs and their multimillion-dollar striker on the field together. What we saw in that last stretch was tantalizing. But just as encouraging were the forty minutes prior, when Maxi Moralez and Alex Ring found their old places in a tried and true 4-2-3-1 and all the little things you’d started to worry might be irreparably broken about this team—stability in the buildup, control in the attacking third, structure in the counterpress—started to click again.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, and a gnawing anxiety about what will happen when key players get hurt and Dome goes all mad scientist again. But with the squad nearly at full strength and three games over the next eight days to work the kinks out, we’re going to start to find out what this team looks like when it plays the way it was built to. Not a moment too soon: five draws in six games (!?) have left NYCFC mired in the depths of the Eastern Conference. Thanks to some eminently beatable teams around the table’s soft midsection, though, predictive models from FiveThirtyEight and American Soccer Analysis still give NYCFC a 54% and 70% chance, respectively, of making the playoffs. All we have to do now is start winning.

Here are some things to watch for this week:

D.C. United

Against D.C. in March, NYCFC tried to enter the final third via diagonal switches from left to right.

One of the more interesting subplots of last month’s home draw against D.C. United was NYCFC’s reliance on diagonals to enter the attacking third. Dome must have seen tape of D.C. applying a heavy horizontal shift in defense, because there was a clear plan to pull Maxi over to Mitri’s side for combination play in the buildup then hit the weak side with a long switch to Jesús Medina’s wing. The tactic didn’t succeed at breaking down the bunker but the idea wasn’t bad, and with D.C. starting a backup left back in place of the injured Joseph Mora we may see it again this weekend.

NYCFC’s diagonals made sense against D.C.’s narrow defense but didn’t always come off as planned.

NYCFC’s wing-to-wing approach was basically the opposite of how LAFC wrecked shop in a 4-0 win at D.C. a couple weeks ago. Bob Bradley’s team stayed true to form, creating shots with central throughballs from the midfielders. Given how dominant D.C. center backs Steven Birnbaum and Frédéric Brillant can be in the air, challenging them straight on has a certain logic to it. But for NYCFC to pull it off Mitri would have to be a little more judicious about picking his moments: he shot from outside the box six times against D.C., settling for low-percentage attempts in the same zone where LAFC’s short passes led to goals.

Left: Alexandru Mitriţă looked for long shots from the top of the box against D.C. United. Right: LAFC found greater success with short passes (key passes in yellow, assists in blue) from the same zone.

Chicago

Is Torrent finally giving up on Ben Sweat? It sort of felt like it last weekend when he started Rocha (a midfielder) in a left center back role that Sweat (a left back and occasional center back) should’ve strolled into. If our boy Ben’s going to work his way out of the doghouse this week, he’ll have to exorcise the lingering ghosts of last June, when he pretty much singlehandedly penciled the first L on Dome’s MLS résumé by getting torched over and over at the feet of Aleksandar Katai.

Ben Sweat and Aleksandar Katai have a history to forget.

To be fair, Sweat’s hardly the only NYCFC player who’s been polishing his defensive blooper reel lately. Against a Chicago offense newly invigorated by wunderkind Đorđe Mihailović and ex-Atlético Madrid attacking mid Nico Gaitán—and which has climbed to 8th in the league for home-adjusted expected goals per game, up from 22nd last year—slipups anywhere in the back line could be costly.

Chicago’s opponents have created twice as many chances (key passes in blue; key passes that led to big chances in red) in the right attacking halfspace, on Bastian Schweinsteiger’s side, as in the left one.

The good news is Chicago has a defensive liability of its own in six million dollar man Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose experimental retirement plan as a midfield playmaker–turned–center back appears to have been made more or less permanent. It’s not a bad way to capitalize on his distribution and organizational skills while going easy on his 34-year-old legs, but it comes at a cost: opponents have targeted his defensive zone and created twice as many chances from the right halfspace as from the left. Maxi, Héber, and whichever name Dome draws from his big ol’ bag of right wingers on Wednesday will look to follow suit. ❧

Image: Artur Widak, Polish Pisanki Traditional Easter Eggs

Written by Dummy Run

Twitter: @thedummyrun