D.C. United 1-2 NYCFC + Philadelphia Preview: Is Alexandru Mitriţă Good at Soccer?

Just, you know, asking questions here.

First of all: yes. Obviously. If he wants to be.

But I mean, like, how is Alexandru Mitriţă good at soccer? What does he do so uncommonly well that Claudio Reyna stuffed a steamer trunk with crisp bundles of unmarked hundreds and set sail across the Atlantic in mid-February—this is, I assume, the only way to get to Romania—to ink a transfer contract in matching neck tattoos?

It was a fair question to ask back when NYCFC made Mitri the third-most expensive buy in MLS history, before Alejandro Pozuelo and Brian Fernández bumped him down a couple slots, and it’s a fairer question now that he’s been in New York long enough to get recognized while walking his French bulldog. We’ve just about got a decent sample size on our little guy, and the results are—well, they’re mixed.

Here are some things Mitri is most definitely better than you at: shooting, dribbling. If this were the NBA, the Knicks would’ve signed him to a max contract by now. (There’s a chance they will anyway and he’ll wind up being their best guard in a decade.) On the other hand, here are some things that Mitri might not be better than you at, if you happen to be the median attacker in Major League Soccer: pretty much everything else.

That’s a little worrying! It’s not that Mitri’s stats are bad, exactly, it’s just that if you only had this chart to go on, you might not pay millions of dollars to secure his services over those of an MLS journeyman like Juan Agudelo. So do numbers lie, or is it maybe time to start thinking of CFG’s scouting department as that guy at poker night who meticulously calculates pot odds on TAM-range bets all night but then goes all in on a straight flush draw?

We’ve seen that play out before with Jesús Medina, who looked like a smart investment for about half of last year before suffering a six-week hamstring strain whose long-term side effects appear to include terminal amnesia about what to do when somebody kicks a soccer ball to you. At 24, with a stint in Italy already under his belt, Mitriţă was always going to be less of a gamble than a 21-year-old from the Paraguayan first division. But that also means he’s more of a finished product, with fewer growth years left to pin our hopes and dreams on. What we see from Mitri in the second half of this season might wind up being pretty much what we get.

But will his second half look like his first? There are reasons to be optimistic. For one thing, he’s coachable (at least if your coach isn’t filled with wickedness). Back in the spring Mitri had a little bit of a shot selection problem. Before picking up a knock in April he was firing off about five shots a game with an average chance to score of less than 8% apiece. Since working his way back to health, he’s upped that to 14%, increasing his overall expected goal output while lowering his shot count. Fewer possessions wasted from 30 yards out on the moral equivalent of shirtless bathroom selfies can’t be a bad thing.

One big reason it’s been easier to get into the box is the signing of one Héber “Air Bear” Araujo dos Santos, whose work at striker takes the heat off Mitri and gives him room to work between the lines. Back when D.C. United visited Yankee Stadium in March, novice center forward Taty Castellanos let Mitri’s moments of on-ball brilliance go to waste:

Fast forward to last week’s Open Cup rematch, and things looked very different. True, Chris Durkin and Antonio Bustamante, who can barely buy a beer between them, aren’t exactly a big-game-ready double pivot. But just watch the way NYCFC’s new attack picks them apart here:

Héber’s holdup play and counterpressing, Ben Sweat’s advanced wingback position, Maxi’s freewheeling midfield role: these weren’t features of NYCFC’s play for the first couple months of the season. Each helps free Mitri to get creative, and he does it in style, scrambling the lines, juking defenders, and looking for dangerous one-twos with Héber at the top of the box. Drifting inside is how Mitri eventually found a goal, thanks to some stellar service from the severely underused Keaton Parks.

But those exchanges with Héber also show a more worrying thing about Mitri, which is that he tends to dawdle and sulk off the ball. Look, forwards don’t need to be in motion all the time, and Mitri’s idol Messi famously walks better than most players run. But until he can show us that his frequent bouts of flaneurism are more about manipulating space than hanging a hapless Ben Sweat out to dry, the one low-gear guy in a high-gear press deserves to have his teamwork called into question.

Which brings us to the Philadelphia Union. The opponent at Yankee Stadium this evening won’t look much like the one NYCFC steamrolled in the playoffs eight months ago. An offseason revamp has Philadelphia atop the Eastern Conference table and neck and neck with Atlanta and NYCFC by your usual nerdy stats measures. But unlike Dome Torrent, Jim Curtin didn’t fight his way back to the top with help from high-dollar signings—the Union’s two biggest pickups, Marco Fabián and Sergio Santos, have had a limited impact so far. Instead, the team has relied on a new diamond-midfield system, some quality minutes from homegrowns like Brenden Aaronson, Ilsinho’s god-tier production off the bench, and pretty much total buy-in across the board.

Basically, it’s a team where nobody walks, nobody gives up on plays, nobody picks a shot because it’ll look sick on YouTube. Whether NYCFC’s going to be that kind of team in the second half is all on one $9 million man. But if and when Alexandru Mitriţă turns it on, look out. ❧

Image: Tapestry (Narcissus)