NYCFC 3-0 Seattle + Portland Preview: Position is Everything

How juego de posición can help NYCFC through a white-knuckle summer.

Everything happens so much. That’s a line from @Horse_ebooks, a Twitter account that got popular eightish years ago for spewing what appeared to be nonsense culled algorithmically from the digital detritus of the ebook boom. The fun part was that if you read them in the right frame of mind the garbled tweets started to look not random at all but more like Pascal’s Pensées for our internet-addled age, or “Zen koans which have been dropped on a computer keyboard from a great height.

In keeping with its dumb decade, @Horse_ebooks turned out to be a fraud promoting something—does anyone remember what exactly? wasn’t Russia involved somehow?—and we learned that actually computers aren’t funny and profound, humans are funny and profound, which was a crushing disappointment. Still, I love that tweet, Everything happens so much, and I think about it sometimes as our lives fill up with the artifacts of people and algorithms imitating each other poorly to produce frenetic messes like, for example, the Major League Soccer schedule.

In the 60 days from April 28 to June 28, NYCFC played seven games. Now we’re in the middle of a five game, 16-day sprint that will culminate with a cup knockout game in Orlando on Wednesday followed by a derby in New Jersey next weekend. Because this is MLS, this all happens right when our starters are straggling back from international tournaments and the July heat is turning the subway into a malarial swamp and at this point even the guys you’d almost forgot were on our supplemental roster look like their hamstrings might burst into flames at any second.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if we didn’t keep winning. When NYCFC hosts Portland this evening, both teams will be suffering from success, forced to juggle their lineups to compete in weekend league play and a weekday Open Cup quarterfinal with a whole two rest days between. The Timbers started most of their first string against conference rivals FC Dallas last weekend and will need them again to advance past LAFC—or, let’s be real, just to avoid being humiliated by five or six goals against LAFC—on Wednesday. Given that his Mabiala-Chara-Valeri-Blanco spine is wholly on the wrong side of 30, Gio Savarese just might develop a sudden enthusiasm for the #PlayYourKids movement around lineup time tonight.

As for Dome Torrent, he won’t have a choice. The list of NYCFC players on either the injured list or the bench at a continental final tonight is so long that the lineup practically writes itself. Taty Castellanos will get another run out at striker, where he’s showing devastating potential (just ask anyone in Philadelphia) even as he continues to learn on the job. Keaton Parks could go 90 for the fourth game in a row, a sentence that just a couple weeks ago might have caused me to levitate and speak in tongues. There’s even speculation that the teenage midfielder Juan Pablo Torres will continue his Sergi Robertofication and relieve Anton Tinnerholm at right back. We’re that thin.

The surprise twist of rotation szn is that NYCFC has continued to be pretty damn good. That’s a testament to Torrent and Claudio Reyna, whose team is built, by both design and training, to survive these brutal stretches. Let’s start with the design part. New York City isn’t exactly famous for its income equality, and in its first season NYCFC played to type, blowing its budget on a few spectacularly expensive stars and filling out the roster with minimum-salary cannon fodder. According to American Soccer Analysis, the club still owns three of the top eight spots since 2015 for roster Gini coefficient, an econometric measure of how unevenly salaries are distributed, but each season’s been more balanced than the last. In 2015 the top 11 players on NYCFC’s roster earned 92% of the team’s payroll; last season 86%; this year 82%. Yes, that’s mostly because we’re not paying anyone Pirlo or Villa money anymore, but the reason we don’t have to buy stars is that the club’s been spending smartly on TAM-range players and scouting backups like Castellanos, Parks, and Sebastien Ibeagha who can contribute MLS-quality minutes come crunch time. The depth chart is sound.

No matter how good your squad is, though, rotating your lineup without sacrificing your style is a tough ask for any coach. Just ask Brian Schmetzer, who on Wednesday basically brought his USL reserve side Tacoma Defiance FC to Yankee Stadium disguised as the Seattle Sounders. But to write off the 3-0 whupping that followed would shortchange Dome Torrent, who was missing about half his starters too and playing key players out of position. What separated the sides was that, for all the everything that was happening, one of them still played like a team.

What’s the secret to Dome’s success? Hate to get all Spielverlagerung on you here but there’s a fancy foreign phrase you might want to start working into your soccer convos this summer: juego de posición. It’s one of the most abused tactics buzzwords in the game, and is invariably explained by gesturing at an inscrutably tesselated pitch map and mumbling something about “occupying specific zones in relation to the ball.” Honestly, though, the fundamental idea’s not that complicated: position matters more than players.

It’s very important for me to play positional because that is the reason they can understand in different shapes what is expected.

Dome Torrent, to ProSoccerUSA

Notice that’s position, singular, not positions. We’re not talking about who’s listed as a right-sided defensive midfielder or a left inside forward on the lineup card, we’re talking about how the team as a whole maintains its shape in possession, how players space themselves properly and stagger between the defensive lines to create short passing diamonds, line-breaking passing lanes, and a free man on the weak side when the defense collapses on the ball. Basically we’re talking about this:

Just imagine this with a bunch of super complicated-looking rectangles overlaid on it.

Big deal, you say, that’s just a formation! Which, I mean, yeah, that’s why formations exist—to give players a reference for how to arrange themselves in relation to one another, a mental geometry to shape their movements on the pitch. The thinking part starts when the ball gets rolling, and right here, about two touches after an NYCFC goal kick, you can already see how Maxi scoots over to the halfspace and up behind Seattle’s first line of pressure, Keaton moves into the central channel on a lower horizontal line, and Ring, Mata, and Mitri adjust their positions to complete complementary passing diamonds for Chanot to choose between. No more than three players may occupy a horizontal line, the tactical mystics mutter, while no more than two may occupy the same vertical zone. In other words: Stagger lines! Space yourselves!

The even harder part comes when your shape gets distorted, because that’s what soccer teams spend all their time trying to do to each other, and each player has to think on the fly about how to efficiently recover that shape. When you get right down to it, tactics are just a race against reaction times: you do a thing (a dribble, a pass), your opponent does a thing in response (two defenders leave their line to close down), and whoever figures out first how to exploit the spaces that open up controls what happens next. That’s why positional play is so useful, because players move around but positions on a pitch don’t. Instead of worrying about how to get back to your fixed place on the locker room whiteboard, just recognize the space where someone ought to be and do what needs to be done there. That all probably sounds super abstract, so maybe some video will help.

Look, this clip isn’t exactly Man City. The passing is slow, the recognition is slower, and it’s pretty obvious nobody’s thinking more than about one and a half moves ahead. But they are thinking about space! Isi’s checking into midfield, Mata’s tucking inside when the defensive mids are too high, Maxi’s pushing up the wing when Mitri drops, Ring’s streaking up a channel his teammates have opened for him. None of these moves comes in the instruction manual for their nominal role in the starting formation, but by learning to anticipate the spaces that teammates’ moves create, each player keeps the team in a good shape for what comes next. That’s the bottom line for juego de posición.

It’s important that NYCFC is starting to get the hang of this stuff by summer because positional play makes you versatile. If we’re being honest, a Maxi-Keaton double pivot has no business existing, Ring’s not great at dropping between the center backs, Taty’s still learning to be a striker, and as Dome pointed out this week in a Glenn Crooks article about positional play, Isi’s gone from a wide winger to an inside forward working between the lines. Playing guys out of position has caused problems for Dome in the not-too-distant past, but if he wants to get anything close to his best eleven on the field right now, players need to be flexible—and understanding team play helps that happen.

Soccer, even just minute to minute, is a chaotic sport. Soccer on an MLS schedule is plain crazy. The lesson of juego de posición is, in its own weird way, the lesson of @Horse_ebooks: to bring beauty out of this mess you’re going to have to apply some human intelligence to it. If you don’t, the everything will overwhelm you. ❧

Image: Eugene Delacroix, Studies of Horses