What’s up with Medina and Parks? Is this our year in the Open Cup? And more from the mailbag.

Hard to believe, but we’re already a third of the way into the MLS season. Thanks to Dome’s Qyburn-level experiments bearing fruit and CFG loosening the purse strings to sign a human hang-loose emoji at striker, NYCFC has abandoned its quest to become the first team to draw all 34 games and now sits comfortably in playoff position. How the hell did we get here? The Outfield staff spent the bye week digging through questions to see what’s on your mind.

Even if he’s a lost cause, what are the weaknesses that make Medina so ineffective? And where might he still be able to develop? —@Dave_Neu

Given that Medina’s burning a Designated Player-sized hole into the bench right now in a massive misallocation of resources, this may be the most pressing question to ask. Medina has all the technical tools to succeed (you don’t generate a $4 million-ish transfer from nothing), but his play so far can only be categorized as disappointing. Depending on your capacity for optimism and your current state of sobriety, his possession stats might suggest potential to grow into an Ismael Tajouri-Shradi–style inside forward, but it’s clear he’s been unable to consistently to get on the end of attacks this year.

Touch %ChainsxBNPxG+xA
Medina8.526.30.500.24
Tajouri-Shradi8.528.10.710.41
Castellanos5.816.50.130.43
Mitriţă8.422.00.350.48
Moralez10.631.70.700.42
Héber6.619.70.290.68

Touch %: percentage of the team’s touches that the player makes while on the field. Chains: number of pass chains the player is involved in per 96 minutes. xB: expected goals per 96 minutes for pass chains in which the player is involved but doesn’t make the key pass or shot. NPxG+xA: expected goals per 96 minutes from a player’s key passes and non-penalty shots. Source: American Soccer Analysis.

Discomfort with the league’s physicality could be a factor here, as could NYCFC’s usual preference for attacking up the left side. But that hasn’t affected Tajouri-Shradi, who has outperformed Medina by any metric. Increasing his attacking work rate would be a good first step for Medina—getting on the ball more often might help him quit overthinking things and push past whatever’s been eating at his confidence. He’ll have more chances to get involved in the 3-4-3, which tends to pull the wingers into the inside channels. Héber’s drop-ins and Ofori’s diagonal switches to Tinnerholm will create space for Medina to run in behind if he can find a little hustle.

There’s not much of a case for starting Medina anywhere right now, but give him some time: the team’s new tactics suit him better than playing as a wide winger ever did. Besides, at his price tag, Medina’s probably not going anywhere soon, so it’s worth taking the time to help him get right. —Kevin Nelson

One burning question I have is how we maintain this system with the attacking options we have. Not sure how Dome plans to get Maxi, Isi, Héber AND Mitri on the field at the same time. In my mind, this only works in a 4-3-3. Any ideas? —@nycfcist

Yeah, getting all four of those players on the field at the same time will be a challenge. The only way I see them all on the field at the same time under the current 3-4-3 is if Dome tries out Tajouri-Shradi as the left wingback during one of Matarrita’s frequent absences. But as appealing as it sounds to play the team’s four best attackers at the same time, I’m not sure moving to a 4-3-3 would be worth bumping key players out of their best positions. One thing’s for sure, choosing between Isi and Mitri for the starting XI is a great problem to have, and whoever gets left on the bench makes for a nice safety valve in case NYCFC is chasing a goal late. —Chris Campbell

I’d love to see Sands replaced with a third forward going back to a 4-3-3. Do you think the defense could handle that? Would the extra attacker be worth one fewer CB? —@Jonquillo

Thanks to the veteran pair of Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens and a wealth of defensive-minded midfielders, NYCFC’s defense could definitely handle one fewer center back, but I’m not sure the offense could. Moving back to a 4-3-3 would keep the fullbacks from getting as far up the pitch as they have been lately. While Héber’s addition has been massive, most of NYCFC’s chance creation since the formation change has involved the wingbacks in some form or fashion, and it’s not clear an extra forward would be worth restricting the attacking freedom Matarrita and Tinnerholm have enjoyed. Besides, James Sands has arguably been one of NYCFC’s best players so far this season—I don’t think benching him would be in the the team’s best interests right now or for the future. —CC

Should Maxi Moralez, 32 years old, be replaced at the end of this year, since his contract will be up? And is there anyone on the current roster who has shown enough that he could potentially fill the void if he leaves? —@MarkJ525

Based on how nervous I got while reading this question, I don’t think NYCFC is prepared to be without Moralez just yet. The good news is he’s the kind of player who relies more on craft and guile than physical tools, which might help him hold out for a while, though MLS can take a heavy toll on the body. There should be a plan in place for life after Maxi, but this team is so dependent on him to be a creative force (see the table in the first question) that he has to be a part of the near-term future. There’s just no other player on the squad—and not many in the league—who can do what Moralez does. Mitriţă’s not going to be that guy; his distribution isn’t nearly where it would need to be to dictate an entire offense. Unless CFG’s scouting department can turn up a sure-thing DP-level creative midfielder, Maxi should be on this roster next season. —KN

Why doesn’t Keaton Parks get any play time? Where should he be on the depth chart? —@zzzana

To solve the Curious Case of Keaton Parks, we’re going to have to take a little trip back to the preseason. But before we get there, let’s do what Dome thinks we don’t and take a closer look at exactly what kind of player we’re talking about here.

This is a late-game, lead-protecting situation where both teams are playing direct. Keaton’s not afforded a lot of chances to show off the silky ball skills that get The Outfield Slack all hot and bothered, but you can see the talent. He controls the ball comfortably even in traffic. He finds the right teammates and makes the right runs. His defense isn’t very physical and can be a little loose—he sometimes reacts a split second slow or overpursues looking for an interception—but he’s mostly taking good angles, cutting off lanes, and keeping the team shape. This is the kind of center mid Dome can work with.

Just one little problem: NYCFC doesn’t have center mids. In the 3-4-3 that’s become the team’s default formation over the last month, two defensive midfielders help cover an exposed back line when the wingbacks get forward. That’s a gig where you might have to put a body on an opponent now and then to keep him from getting past you. For a pass-reading defender like Keaton, it’s not ideal. In front of the double pivot, one and sometimes two NYCFC forwards will tuck into the attacking midfield areas behind the striker, closer to where Parks likes to play, but frequent fast breaks mean those forwards sometimes have to pop out onto the wings and get downhill in a hurry. Again, not really his thing.

So if Dome knew all that from spending his Christmas bingeing Benfica B games, why’d we sign him? We don’t know whether Keaton’s disappointed in training, but we do know plans have changed since he was brought in on loan. In the 4-3-3 that Dome scrapped because he didn’t have the right kind of wingers, Parks could have been a natural midfield partner alongside Maxi Moralez. In the 3-4-3, his best bet is to become Maxi’s understudy in the linking role, as an inside forward who drops deep to help the buildup. Too bad finding yourself behind NYCFC’s most important and hardest working player is a surefire way to stay on the bench. —Dummy Run

I’ve been thinking a lot about the U.S. Open Cup this year. Based on the new U.S. talent do you think we’ll make a run this year finally? —@nycfcnews2

I really hope this is the year that NYCFC goes on a U.S. Open Cup run. While even a single win would be nice to break our ridiculous streak of flameouts, there’s a bigger opportunity here for a trophyless club. The Open Cup is by far the easiest to win of MLS’s three major competitions, as many teams don’t take it seriously until the end. To claim last year’s Cup Houston only had to win five games, and one of them wasn’t even against a MLS team. Simple, right? Let’s go win something already.

I wrote about our offseason roster moves this past February, and we did add quite a few young Americans as depth.  I don’t think these moves were made with the Open Cup in mind, but it’s a nice ancillary benefit.

It’s a little too early to predict a starting lineup for our fourth-round match in June, but unlike recent years where the squad was so short on domestic players that we had to fill out the bench with multiple goalkeepers, Dome can select from his full roster this year. Open Cup rules allow up to five non-domestic players in the gameday 18-man roster, and thanks to whatever hotshot lawyer’s been handling NYCFC’s green cards we’ve only got five internationals in the squad: Héber, Taty, Mitri, Maxi, and Ofori.

I don’t think anyone’s going to be too surprised by the roster we bring. If NYCFC gets matched up against an MLS team, like we did last season against the Red Bulls, look for Dome to bring a top-tier lineup featuring guys like Maxi and Héber. Against a lower division team, expect a lot more rotation and maybe even some cameos from Justin Haak and Joe Scally.

If you don’t already, be sure to check out the fantastic U.S. Open Cup coverage at thecup.us. And come join me on the Florida Soccer Soldier bandwagon! —Justin Egan

Image: War 1870/71 Franco-Prussian Balloons/Pigeon Post


Written by The Outfield

Twitter: @OutfieldNYCFC