Versatile defensive midfielders are NYCFC’s future—and maybe the USMNT’s.
Is this really NYCFC? For four seasons, the club hoarded international slots and rushed green cards through to pack its rosters with as many foreign players as possible. But Saturday night in Denver, the standout young players whose influence and flexibility shaped the game were NYCFC’s two United States Olympic team hopefuls, Keaton Parks and James Sands.
They weren’t the only young Americans on the field. The matchup was rightfully billed as Jonathan Lewis’s revenge game against the club that just couldn’t find a place for him on the pitch. Just six minutes into the game, he showed exactly what NYCFC fans had seen in flashes over the last two and a half seasons: Lewis was played in behind Sebastian Ibeagha (who tried and failed to commit a tactical foul) and zipped to the endline before cutting the ball back to assist a tap-in from the 16-year-old homegrown Sebastian Anderson.
The quick Rapids strike aside, NYCFC controlled the game on its way to a 2-1 victory over a mostly lifeless Colorado side, even before Anderson’s reckless challenge on Rónald Matarrita in the 34th minute reduced the hosts to 10 men. And in some happy news for a squad that’s suffered from absences lately, Sands’ return brought positional and tactical flexibility to help unlock the Rapids’ defense.
Colorado seemed completely okay conceding possession to NYCFC, absorbing pressure in its half, and trying to burst out on the counter. Dome Torrent anticipated the low block and rolled out the familiar 3-4-3 with Keaton and Ebenezer Ofori patrolling the middle of the formation. NYCFC counterpressed the Rapids’ back six hard, looking to force turnovers high and create chances before Colorado could regain an organized block.
After the red card the Rapids showed no more signs of threatening, so Torrent pushed Sands into the midfield, leaving Ibeagha and Alexander Callens on the back line. Sands gave NYCFC a reliable hub to circulate possession, and he kept the possession alive that allowed Maxi to find Héber for the equalizer.
The shift to a back four also sent Keaton farther upfield, where he got more involved in the offense than he’s been lately. He showed off his ball skills in the attacking third, picked out runners to jumpstart attacking moves, and snuck in some great off-ball movement to offer an unexpected goal-scoring threat.
Sands slipped back to center back in the 63rd minute when Alexandru Mitriţǎ returned from the injured list, bringing Ibeagha off. The Romanian international took full advantage of Colorado’s reluctance to close down to do what he does best: dribble and shoot.
Mitri’s heater to grab the late lead set up a nail-biting finish with more heart attack-inducing set piece defending on NYCFC’s end, as Keegan Rosenberry nearly leveled the score in stoppage time off a dangerous free kick. It would have been a heartbreaking finish to a game where the run of play was all sky blue.
Dome Torrent is left with several tough lineup decisions this week. Parks has all but sealed his place in the starting eleven over the last month, as his knack for maintaining possession and finding runners in stride opens up the offense for Moralez in front of him. Then there’s the familiar question of how to use James Sands: is he best as a defensive midfielder or a central defender? Including the Americans in the lineup gives Dome the freedom to reshape his team on the fly, and Saturday night that versatility won out. ❧
Images: Freedom Train Crosses America