The road trip is finally over, but the international absences have just begun.
In the before time, the team in blue got to play something that historians call “home” games. Instead of having to travel thousands of miles like a wandering group of grifters taking points from whomever they please, they set up their encounters to their advantage in a well-defended region of the Bronx. Prophecy says they may one day return.
This Saturday in Columbus, NYCFC will tie a bow on what could have been a killer five-game road trip. Don’t let the table fool you: NYCFC has multiple games in hand on the teams above it in the Eastern Conference, and according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections we’ve got a 91% chance of making the playoffs, a 26% shot at a first-round bye, and a 7% chance of winning the MLS Cup—the third-best title odds in the league, behind only an unstoppable, potentially record-breaking LAFC and a resurgent Atlanta.
June, however, will be tricky. Thanks to various international tournaments, Dome Torrent will have to figure out how to rotate the roster in the absence of Sean Johnson, Rónald Matarrita, Ebenezer Ofori, and Keaton Parks.
Johnson and Matarrita made the U.S. and Costa Rican provisional rosters for the Gold Cup. Final rosters are due the first week of June, but both will likely jet off after this weekend to prepare for friendlies with their national teams. NYCFC could face some real issues if either player makes the cut for a team that goes on a deep run in the tournament, which doesn’t end till July 7.
Ofori could be out even longer. While NYCFC hasn’t provided any official notice on his international schedule, Ghana starts their pre-AFCON camp in Dubai on June 1, so it’s likely Ofori won’t be available for at least the first half of the month. Final rosters are due on June 10, and group stage starts June 22. The Black Stars are four-time continental champions; a run to the finals could keep Ofori out beyond July 19.
You’d think that with Ofori gone for a while, Dome might finally turn to Keaton Parks, but the young U.S. international is currently getting facetime with Gregg Berhalter with the U-23s. He’ll miss the next two games but might be available for a potential fifth-round U.S. Open Cup match on June 19.
The unfortunate moral of this story, as far as NYCFC’s June lineups are concerned, is that you should prepare yourself for heavy doses of Tony Rocha and Ben Sweat.
Columbus Crew (Away)
Saturday, June 1, 7:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 29% – D 28% – L 43%
The monthlong road trip ends this weekend in Columbus. The Crew have fallen hard out of the playoff picture, and it’s not just bad luck: according to American Soccer Analysis, their 1.17 expected points per game rank tenth in the Eastern Conference. What happened? The easy answer is that Caleb Porter is not Gregg Berhalter and Federico Higuaín, though still skillful at 34, is not the Pipa of years past.
Still, NYCFC will face an uphill battle, since road wins are hard to come by in MLS. Pedro Santos has been a threat on Columbus’s right wing, so it’s probably a good thing Matarrita will still be available. Ironically, this is also Zack Steffen’s last game for the Crew before he leaves for NYCFC’s sister club in Manchester.
FC Cincinnati (Home)
Thursday, June 6, 7:30 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 69% – D 21% – L 10%
NYCFC returns home to face the league’s newest and arguably worst team. Skipper Alan Koch barely lasted two months before going out in flames, complaining publicly that he didn’t have good enough players to compete in MLS. But he may have been right, and only New England and Colorado look like serious challengers in Cincy’s race for the Wooden Spoon. Unfortunately for NYCFC, this is the first game they’ll be without all four of Johnson, Matarrita, Parks, and Ofori. The big question will be who starts in goal between Brad Stuver, who struggled in Johnson’s absence last year, and rookie Luis Barraza, who flashed some modern-keeper midfield ball skills in the preseason.
U.S. Open Cup (TBD)
Fourth Round: Wednesday, June 12
Fifth Round: Wednesday, June 19
I wrote about the U.S. Open Cup a bit in last week’s mailbag. NYCFC enters the competition in the fourth round, along with the other MLS teams. The club’s first match comes June 12 against the USL Championship side North Carolina FC, which should be a great opportunity for homegrowns and other depth players to earn some minutes. If we advance we’ll face either New England or the Red Bulls the following week. NYCFC still hasn’t commented on U.S. Open Cup venues, but I’d wager that if NYCFC draws an MLS team we’ll decline to submit a bid to host and will play away.
Philadelphia Union (Home)
Saturday, June 29, 7:00 pm
FiveThirtyEight projection: W 53% – D 25% – L 22%
This is the most interesting match of the month. Manager Jim Curtin and Sporting Director Ernest Tanner have converted the Union from the 4-2-3-1 they played for years into a 4-4-2 diamond that has them looking like a real contender. They’re understandably pretty excited about how the season’s going, but since this is Philly we’re talking about they express their enthusiasm in unconventional ways.
So yeah, um, anyway. The Union’s expensive new Designated Player Marco Fabian has been effective when not injured or on red card suspension, and the team has also been getting good production out of midroster players like Fafa Picault and Kacper Przybyłko as well as six (!) academy-produced homegrowns on the first-team roster, most notably midfield starlet Brenden Aaronson.
This will be one of the more interesting tactical matchups of the season, as both teams use unique systems not played by any other MLS side. Both the diamond and the 3-4-3 rely on outside backs to provide width, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dome change NYCFC’s shape to deal with the four central midfielders in Philly’s diamond. ❧
Image: Peter Stackpole, Untitled