The left back questions are back.
What a difference a couple of months can make. Cast your mind back to the season opener against Orlando and you may remember a very different 3-4-3 than the one we’ve now seen in four straight matches. Dome Torrent’s side looks like it’s settling on an attacking identity and finding cohesion in midfield and forward areas. In the four games since going three-at-the-back, NYCFC has scored seven goals, the last four all scored or assisted by our new striker Héber.
Congrats to NYCFC’s stubborn left back problem: that means you’re front and center again!
NYCFC has a formidable history of fullback frailty, as fans who endured Chris Wingert’s heart-palpitating antics and the horror of Jeb Brovsky’s mustache can attest. Already this season we’ve had Ben Sweat’s penalty giveaway against LAFC and Tony Rocha’s awful first half against Minnesota to remind us that those problems never really went away. This weekend, when Orlando sent right back Ruan up Sweat’s flank to drop in a cross that Maxime Chanot could only deflect to Nani for an easy 18th minute goal, it wasn’t an accident: James O’Connor’s team purposefully targeted NYCFC’s weak left flank.
Sweat’s defense has long been one of MLS’s worst-kept secrets, but he’s also been known to cause some hitches in our buildup. The narrower 3-4-2-1 version of Dome’s new system addresses the buildup problem by sacrificing attacking width to create a four-man overload in midfield. On Saturday, with Maximiliano Moralez and the returning Ismael Tajouri-Shradi dropping deep to receive the ball and Ebenezer Ofori and Alex Ring bossing the center, Sweat and Anton Tinnerholm found time and space to get upfield into threatening positions. Unfortunately, this only served to showcase another of Sweat’s shortcomings: crossing.
In a halftime interview, Dome harped on his team’s lack of numbers in the penalty area when the ball was being crossed: “We always want to arrive with three in the box,” he said. Though neither fullback was particularly successful at completing crosses, Tinnerholm tried to combine in order to get to narrower positions near the goalline, giving his teammates more time to find space in the box. On the other side Sweat appeared to lack confidence, often crossing at the wrong moment, delivering the ball poorly, or spurning runners in the inside channel, where crosses are much more likely to be converted.
To be fair, this was Sweat’s first start at wingback in the new system. His six assists in 2017 suggest he can be a more efficient provider given time to acclimate. For all of NYCFC’s improvement between the lines this month, the forwards still have work to do on coordinating movement in the penalty area, and it hasn’t helped that injuries have forced Dome to start four different front lines in the last four games. Picking out runners in the box will get easier.
But if Sweat continues to be a weak spot on the roster, maybe Sporting Director Claudio Reyna ought to take some of the blame. While NYCFC spent the offseason focused on (belatedly) replacing David Villa and building a Catalan human tower out of central midfielders, Rónald Matarrita’s health wasn’t getting any more reliable. Reyna’s had plenty of time to find other options at left back. Now, with four road games looming and Matarrita settling into his favored position on the left flank of the injury report, Dome will have to dig deep again to come up with short-term solutions for a long-term problem. ❧
Image: John Ruskin, The Valley of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland