Chicago 1-1 NYCFC: Sub-Optimal

The formation change made sense. The substitutions didn’t.

A month and a half ago, in Minnesota, Dome Torrent rolled out a new formation that dropped James Sands into the back line as a third center back and pushed Rónald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm further up the pitch. And for a month and a half, it worked. NYCFC entered the weekend’s game at Chicago unbeaten in six—including a win over the Fire at home last month—and finally looked like a team that might challenge for trophies. But what would happen when opponents started to adjust to the new look?

We got our answer on Saturday, and the verdict is: blah.

Torrent trotted out the 3-4-3 to start the match and quickly found out how Chicago’s Velko Paunović intended to attack it, challenging the Pigeons’ pace with longballs and well-placed throughballs. These probing passes would take advantage of the speed of Aleksandar Katai, Przemyslaw Frankowski, and C.J. Sapong to get behind NYCFC’s back three and wreak havoc in the 18-yard box.

NYCFC switched formations shortly after Katai beat the high line in the 21st minute.

While Pauno may have underestimated Callens, Sands and Chanot’s speed worried Torrent enough to return to a familiar 4-3-3, moving Sands into the midfield and holding Matarrita and Tinnerholm deeper, in traditional fullback positions rather than the wingback role they’ve grown to love. But though the switch to a back four was intended to shore up the defense, it led directly to Chicago’s goal. After a month and a half of getting used to having another center back in the middle, Callens and Chanot left a boat-sized channel between them that Brandt Bronico waltzed through to set up the game’s opener.

Top: NYCFC’s defense was comfortable in its man-marking during the opening 20 minutes. Bottom: After moving to a back four, Callens and Chanot left a gap between them that Rocha failed to fill.

But the bigger problem with the formation change was that it left a midfield of James Sands, Alex Ring, and Tony Rocha—guys nobody’s picking for their MLS fantasy teams for the sake of goals, assists, and key passes. NYCFC’s wingback-dependent offense all of a sudden lacked the width to generate quality chances. The only dangerous attacks came through moments of individual brilliance from Alexandru Mitriţă or when Maxi Moralez dropped deep to start the offense. The goal—a Mitri scorcher—combined both, thanks to Maxi’s uncanny ability to initiate in his own half and then teleport himself forward to make the final pass.

Dome had options to fix the offense. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Jesús Medina could have been brought on for Rocha or Sands to play a 4-2-3-1 with Maxi in the playmaking attacking mid role he excels at. Or Keaton Parks could have joined the midfield to help bring the ball forward. Instead, Torrent’s first sub—in the 66th minute, half the game after changing formations—was Ebenezer Ofori for Matarrita, leaving Alexander Callens at left back for the rest of the match. His second, at 78′, was Taty Castellanos for a largely ineffective Héber, though the reasons for the striker’s lackluster play lay in midfield. Tajouri-Shradi didn’t see the field until the end of regulation.

We knew the day would come when someone would challenge the 3-4-3 and NYCFC would be forced to adapt. A situational switch to the familiar 4-3-3 should definitely be on the table, but it’s only going to be effective when it suits the players on the field. An early sub in this one could have made that happen—if not at the time of the formation change, then at halftime after the team talk. Dome needed to pull the trigger and he didn’t. The unbeaten streak remains alive, but this one doesn’t taste good. ❧

Image: Jiro Takamatsu, Perspective Bench