What Does NYCFC Have in Gary Mackay-Steven?

The Scottish winger had a solid first start, but is Mitri blocking the path to his best position?

NYCFC’s pair of summer transfer window newcomers made their first start for the club last Thursday evening against the Houston Fighting Tommy McNamaras, and while Eric Miller may still have a role to play this season as a backup fullback, it’s Scottish international Gary Mackay-Steven who’s expected to help the playoff push. But will he? After all, his stats in Scotland weren’t great last year, and it wasn’t obvious how a guy who likes to play as a wide winger would help a team that doesn’t typically employ any.

After cutting tape of Mackay-Steven’s every touch against Houston, I’ve got some good news: it looks like the Pigeons have added another potent offensive threat to their arsenal.

The Houston Game

Mackay-Steven started as a right winger in the 3-4-3, where he kept mostly to the sideline and cut inward on the ball to support the attack with his preferred left foot. Maybe the infield turf or lack of an offensive-minded right back on the overlap played a part, but he looked a bit uncomfortable playing on the right. The bright spots came from his off-ball movement, as GMS continuously made himself available in threatening spots, creating a number of chances. His best of the night came in the space behind a lead run by Jesús Medina, and the shot was headed for the back of the net if not for a desperation block by a Dynamo defender.

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Even when they weren’t the preferred option, Mackay-Steven’s trailing runs were neatly timed. Below, Rónald Matarrita sends a dangerous goalmouth cross that Héber should probably have put into the back of the net. But at the same time, GMS provides another dangerous option in the space behind the runners, where he finds an opening at the top of the box.

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But too many times GMS’s off-ball work just wasn’t recognized, with Medina often the culprit. In the clip below, as soon as Medina turns on the ball Mackay-Steven starts a diagonal run in behind Houston’s back line. There’s plenty of space to loft a ball in front of the keeper, but Medina hesitates and opts for a backpass instead.

Mackay-Steven’s game changed for the better not long after Taty Castellanos got subbed on at 58′, as Dome responded to Houston’s deep ten-man defense by flipping Alexandru Mitriţǎ to the right and GMS back to his more natural left winger spot.

“When I say play wide and when you arrive one-v-one and cross the ball, he tried to play in that way,” Dome Torrent said of Mackay-Steven after the game. Operating for about half an hour on the left side, GMS did just that, bombing up the wing and creating separation to launch dangerous balls into the box. He connected on six of six crosses from the left side after the switch, including three key passes.

Looking Ahead

Mackay-Steven’s wing play against Houston provided plenty of danger, but familiarity with teammates takes time, and Dome Torrent promised after the game that we’ve yet to see the best of his new winger. Moving forward, Torrent’s quandary will be how to best use GMS along with the other offensive weapons at his disposal. With the uncertainty surrounding Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, NYCFC’s top two choices at winger right now very well may be Mitriţǎ and Mackay-Steven. But both like to play on the left, even though they have differing tendencies. While GMS likes to stay wide and send left-footed crosses into the box, Mitri prefers to cut inside and shoot on his right.

Last Thursday, we saw Dome initially opt to have Mitri on the left and GMS on the right, each with instructions to cut in on his preferred foot. But the second half switch put Mitri on the right and Gary left as natural wingers, providing width and crossing the ball against a low ten-man block. This change was quite effective against the Dynamo, but is it something Dome will revisit? Was it just because there were no outside backs in that makeshift second-half formation to provide the width with overlapping runs? Or was it because Castellanos had taken the field and provided a target for crosses?

Trying to figure out how to arrange your winger talent is a good problem to have, and one Torrent will definitely tinker with from game to game (and in game, too). Whichever side he plays on, we’ll definitely be seeing more of GMS. ❧

Image: Hendrick ter Brugghen, Bagpipe Player