Things are looking up, but an all-month road trip will be a tough test.
In a quick change of the wind, the story of NYCFC’s season has shifted. After going winless in the first six contests and teetering on the brink of desastre, the team picked up seven much-needed points in three matches last week. A five-game undefeated streak has us climbing back into contention, as FiveThirtyEight and American Soccer Analysis now give NYCFC a better than two-thirds shot at qualifying for the playoffs.
What the table didn’t tell you was that even in the middle of the early-season struggles, we’d gone punch for punch at home—without a striker!—against heavyweight MLS Cup favorites LAFC. Then again it also doesn’t tell you that during the upturn, NYCFC still has no answer when Maxi Moralez is out of the lineup, can’t seem to win games Ben Sweat starts in place of the fragile Rónald Matarrita, and continues to play down to the competition when weaker opponents bunker at Yankee Stadium.
This team’s narrative needs a solid dose of lithium, but lately the Pigeons have found some stability by dropping James Sands into the middle of a back three. The improved defensive shape saw NYCFC rank second in the league for expected goals allowed per game in the month of April, with three clean sheets in five games to show for it.
The question now is whether master tinkerer Dome Torrent can get the offensive juices flowing. Last week’s win over Chicago saw a disconnect between the back lines and attacking three, with our forwards playing too wide to be effective. Against Orlando City, Dome remedied the problem by playing Maxi and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi narrow behind the striker, but that left the wingbacks bombing in crosses to no one.
With Héber still settling in and Alexandru Mitriţă working his way back to fitness, the next few games will be all about finding a balance between solidity and creativity. But a month of away dates isn’t going to make it easy.
Montreal Impact (Away)
Saturday, May 4, 5:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 25% – D 28% – L 47%
NYCFC start off a four-game road trip this week against Montreal. Despite missing star winger Ignacio Piatti for seven games and counting, the Impact have gotten off to a swell start and are currently tied atop the Eastern Conference with D.C. United. Credit to Impact skipper Remi Garde, who has his side playing unspectacular yet very organized ball (more organized than their air travel, anyway).
Stade Saputo, which will hopefully be in better shape than last week, has one of the larger pitches in MLS, leaving room for NYCFC’s possession game to spread the field. This matchup should look different than last month’s dull 0-0 draw at Yankee Stadium, as Garde will have time to plan for Dome’s new three-back system. It’ll be interesting to see how each manager arranges his chess pieces in the return match.
L.A. Galaxy (Away)
Saturday, May 11, 4:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 26% – D 24% – L 51%
If you haven’t figured it out, the Galaxy are really leaning into the whole Zlatan thing. New hire Guillermo Barros Schelotto has designed his entire offensive system to fire cross after cross into the box for Zlatan headers, Zlatan tap-ins, and extraordinarily frequent Zlatan penalties. At least for now, with his team sitting second in the Western Conference, it seems to be working.
Zlatan’s quest to break every record in the league comes at a cost to, well, pretty much everyone not named Zlatan. The Galaxy’s second-leading scorer is center back Daniel Steres, who has two goals in nine games; no one else has more than one.
With Romain Alessandrini out till September and Ola Kamara gone to chase yuan at Shenzhen F.C., the Galaxy are left with Manchester City loanee (wut) Uriel Antuna and USMNT yeoman Sebastian Lletget as the main threats flanking—hang on, can’t finish a paragraph without saying his name—Zlatan.
The matchup to watch here is obviously going to be Zlatan vs. Sands (and Zlatan vs. NYCFC’s dubious set piece defense). If Jimmy can play lion tamer, the Galaxy are going to be in trouble. But if it were only that easy.
Chicago Fire (Away)
Saturday, May 25, 3:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 30% – D 27% – L 43%
Following the two-week May international break, we get the third game of the road trip and NYCFC’s second rematch of the month. In April the Fire played a 4-2-3-1 against our 3-4-3, with two very defensive midfielders, in Dax McCarty and Mo Adams, matching up against Ofori and Ring. While the defensive plan seemed adequate, they didn’t have clue how to break New York City’s three-man back line.
Just like the Impact game, we’ll get to see both sides’ adjustments when they run the matchup back. This is likely the most winnable game of May, but road points are always difficult to pick up in MLS. Could be another bumpy month for the narrative. ❧
Image: Mathieu Bories, La ventana de Villeray