Pigeon Post

A jumbo mailbag on NYCFC’s playoff prospects, season-end awards, next year’s CCL, and … pigeons carrying pineapples?

We asked for mailbag questions. You gave them to us. And since we’re still feeling good about that number one seed and you’ve got a whole first round bye week to read this, The Outfield staff decided to answer Every. Single. Question. The one about our best playoff eleven. The one about who takes a penalty kick with the MLS Cup on the line. The ones about … you know what, honestly, who can say what some of these questions are about. Y’all are weird.


Playoffs, Baby, Playoffs!

Should we be worried about the team having all that time off? And are we all Twins fans now? —Björn Bellenbaum

Yes and no. There are justified concerns that not playing a real match for 17 days might hurt the great form NYCFC has developed over the final stretch of the season. I was hoping that the club would set up a friendly with a USL or Canadian Premier League team for next week to keep the players in rhythm, but with no indication that’ll happen, we may have to settle for intra-squad scrimmages to keep everyone on their A-game.

That said, the time off is looking like more blessing than curse after Héber and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi picked up knocks last weekend. If we all cross our fingers and pray to the god of soft tissue recovery, this break could be just enough to get these two back for the conference semifinals.

And we are Twins fans no longer: they have failed us in spectacular fashion and now our allegiance must shift to the Astros or Rays. Let’s just get behind Houston, actually, since they have a much better chance of beating New York (sorry, Yankees fans, but this website has priorities). Either way, except in the unlikely event that the Yankees lose in the American League Championship Series in four or five games, we’re about to endure the saddest reminder yet that NYCFC doesn’t have its own stadium. —Kevin Nelson

Do you think the bye can actually end up being detrimental because our players will be out of form come their first playoff game? —NycfcFanatic

Like Kevin, put me down for yes and no. I’ve never put much stock in these types of things. If NYCFC loses its first playoff game, the knee-jerk explanation will be that players were rusty. If they win, we’ll say it was because they were well-rested. But this is really a player-by-player thing. Some guys may need the rest, some may need to compete a bit more to stay in form. It’s up to Dome to figure out who needs what.

The bye can be quite an advantage in other ways, however. The winner of Toronto vs. DC United could pick up a red card or lose players to injury. And our potential conference finals opponents on the bottom half of the bracket could lose a player to yellow card accumulation by the third round, whereas NYCFC cannot. —Chris Campbell

What’s the appropriate formula for determining the differences in results probability between playing a playoff game at Yankee Stadium vs. Citi Field? —JayH

For the 2019 season, Citi Field has actually been more favorable for offenses compared to Yankee Stadium. The ballparks are both in the bottom 5 for Ball Park Factor, a stat that compares home and away run-scoring differences in The MLB. So you should bet the under.

Oh, did you mean soccer? —NYCFC Tactics

How does your ideal NYCFC starting eleven compare to the average starting eleven for playoff teams, on a position for position basis? —LionNYC

Everyone knows this NYCFC squad is stacked—I don’t think a single position in the starting eleven is below average for the 14 playoff teams. That’s a testament to how efficiently Claudio Reyna has shifted the team’s budget down the roster, spreading it across a wealth of talented TAM players: only four playoff teams spent less on player salaries this season and only one distributed its salaries more evenly. Just imagine how scary this team would be if Jesús Medina still played professional soccer. —Dummy Run

What’s the ideal lineup and formation for this Audi Cup run? Does that change depending on who we face? How so? —jpena212

If you’re the kind of fan who obsessively watches pre- and post-match content for clues about what to expect from NYCFC—and who am I kidding, you read The Outfield—then you’ve probably heard Dome respond to reporters approximately 68 times now about picking his team based on the opposition, the performance “in the facility,” and the feeling he has before a match.

You’re also probably aware that Dome is a fan of keeping opponents on their toes, and as the season’s gone on we’ve been treated to a whole fruit basket of formations, from 3-4-2-1 to 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-2-2-2 to 4-2-4, often within the same match, based on the state of the game, the condition of the players, and probably whatever Dome had for lunch that day.

Call this response a cop-out, but I’d expect to see whichever set of players allows for the most tactical fluidity. Part of the joy this season has been that trying to guess what shape the list of names in any given lineup will take has become futile, almost irrelevant. We’re as much in the dark as opposition coaches are! Which augurs well for a deep playoff run and maybe even silverware. —Christopher Jee

We’re going to penalty kicks in the playoffs. Everyone is healthy. What’s your order of takers, from 1-11? —LionNYC

Here’s the thing about penalty kicks: they’re such a rare and arbitrary event that it’s extremely hard to know who’s good at them, to the point that the best answer to this question is probably “Whoever feels good about taking one.” (Except for Maxi. Maxi should definitely not feel good about taking one.) —Dummy Run

Who are our best and worst matchups for the MLS Cup playoffs? —ubersloth

NYCFC’s only boogeyman this playoff run is LAFC. The Western Conference Champions are formidable: they’ve got the Supporters’ Shield, the Coach of the Year, the MVP, and the best point total, goal differential, and expected goal differential in league history. Compared to that, the East looks easy. [Disclaimer: The Outfield is not responsible for any bad playoff juju accruing from our writers’ hubris. —Ed.] —NYCFC Tactics


End of BEST NYCFC SEASON EVER Awards

Who is most deserving: Dome for Coach of the Year, Maxime Chanot for Defender of the Year, or Héber for Newcomer of the Year (i.e. what should we be most outraged by if they don’t win their respective award)? —LionNYC

If I can take off my homer hat for a second, Bob Bradley and Matías Almeyda both have strong claims to Coach of the Year, and as good as Chanot’s been, there are other defenders who are just as deserving. Héber, on the other hand, not only put up better numbers than Zlatan and Josef; his arrival also slid NYCFC’s midfielders back into place and helped turn the team’s season around. What more could you want from a Newcomer of the Year? —Dummy Run

Is missing Héber or Maxi really that detrimental to our squad? We’ve won games without both of them. Who’s really our most valuable player? —Shwafta

Hard to argue missing either of those guys doesn’t hurt the team. Maxi finished the season with 20 MLS assists (and the most actual assists from open play) while Héber finished second in non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes played.

But even without Héber’s incredible efficiency in front of the net, NYCFC would have other options to fill the scoring void. Taty Castellanos can play the nine and is an aerial threat in the box. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Alexandru Mitriţǎ can bang in goals.

Minus Maxi, though, this MLS Cup-bound train would be missing its engine. Sure, we can get by playing Keaton Parks a bit higher up the pitch (assuming he’s healthy), but all roads to the final third run through Moralez, who can win a game in all kinds of ways. Maxi is absolutely the club’s most valuable player and critical to any postseason prospects.

As for second place, Héber’s certainly worthy, but I would have to give the edge to Anton Tinnerholm. Tinnerholm’s offensive production is unequaled among MLS right backs, and Dome has figured out how to really unleash him with long switches to his side.

Besides, what would we do without him? NYCFC doesn’t have any comparable options at right back. Eric Miller has been anything but exciting. Scally is still only 16 years old and has yet to play a regular-season minute. And while Ibeagha’s fullback cameo was wonderful, he isn’t exactly a chance-generating machine. It’s no coincidence that while Tinnerholm was out with a concussion, NYCFC’s play up his side dropped dramatically, from a season average of 31% of the team’s touches in the right third to 24% at FC Dallas, 22% against Atlanta, and 24% at New England, according to Whoscored. —Chris Campbell


This Guy vs. That Guy (Sometimes Literally)

Yangel Herrera was considered by many to be NYCFC’s most important player after David Villa last year. How has NYCFC overcome his absence in terms of changing shape, players, or tactics? —LionNYC

Oh man, that’s the kind of question you’d have to re-read a whole season’s worth of The Outfield to get a good answer to (and you should!). But I’ll say this: even though Yangel clearly earned his graduation from MLS to La Liga, NYCFC’s best run in 2018 came while he was out, so this wasn’t impossible to predict.

It helps that Keaton Parks, Tony Rocha, and especially Ebenezer Ofori are safer passers and get caught on the ball less often, leading to fewer dangerous midfield transitions. On the other hand, Herrera’s defensive motor would have come in handy this season for a team that often lined up with just two midfielders. NYCFC still has one of MLS’s best high presses but they’ve dialed the heat down a tad without the indefatigable Venezuelan and these days do a little more defending in their own half. —Dummy Run

Why are we so much better with Parks in the lineup than Ofori even though they have both scored just as many goals this year? —Sabo

Parks is a more offensively talented and ambitious player than Ofori, so his skillset is more useful when partnered with Alex Ring. Ofori’s defensive advantage over Parks is often redundant, since Ring is capable of cleaning up in front of the backline as the lone holding midfielder, and his conservative style sometimes persuades Ring to try to do more than he should offensively. (We all know how much trouble this team can get in when they’re caught on the counter with the captain upfield.) In general, Parks’ slightly softer defense is greatly outweighed by the value of having a second creative midfield presence alongside Maxi.

The stats bear this out, as Parks outperforms Ofori in every attacking metric, setting up twice as many shots per 90 while playing, on average, 12 yards closer to goal. Ofori may raise NYCFC’s floor, but the team looks better with Parks in the lineup because he raises their ceiling. —Kevin Nelson

Would you rather fight one Sean Johnson or five Maxi Moralezes? —mgarbowski

Critically important question but easy to answer. Just think about how this would play out head to head: the five Morali would use their speed to nimbly dodge the strength and power of Sean Johnson, surrounding him like lobos on the prowl. The alpha Maxi, recognizable by its markings being the most platinum blonde, would feign a head-on attack while the other four swarmed the hapless American on all sides, subduing him by each taking a different limb. —Justin Egan

Anton Tinnerholm is second in the team in assists. Is that because he’s a better player than our left-backs and/or because we play more through the right side of the field? —LionNYC

Well for one thing he’s played 700 more minutes than Rónald Matarrita, plus Mata’s teammates have sort of let him down by converting his 2.1 expected assists from open play into exactly zero goals. But Tinnerholm’s got the advantage in rate as well as volume: he generates more open play xA per 96 minutes than Mata or Ben Sweat, which is pretty impressive considering how much of NYCFC’s offense comes up the left.

NYCFC’s expected buildup by zone, attacking from left to right. Red indicates more total expected goals from possessions that passed through that zone (via American Soccer Analysis).

How does he do it? I’d chalk it up to both Tinnerholm’s quality and his tactical role as the free man when NYCFC overloads the left side of the buildup before switching play to the right in the attacking phase, which has been a regular feature of the team’s style this season. —Dummy Run


CONCACAFed

Super psyched to be in the CCL! When can we expect the schedule for it to be released? —Marcos Ochoa

Take it away, Dylan Butler:

How much risk will competing in CONCACAF Champions League present for NYCFC’s chances of winning the Supporters’ Shield next season? —Andy Mitchell

Historically, it’s true, playing in the CCL has negatively impacted teams’ regular season performance. We’ve seen a couple extreme cases lately, with 2018 Toronto and 2019 Sporting Kansas City going from top-tier elite teams to missing the playoffs the year they played spring CCL ball.

What’s the deal with the CCL hangover? It’s mostly about the collective bargaining agreement and roster rules. Although some clubs have invested in USL squads, roster rules prevent them from acting as a true reserve squad that could fluidly move players up to and down from the first team. Roster rules also limit clubs from signing more than 30 players to MLS contracts, and most teams don’t even fill that many.

This is the reality of being a salary-capped league: you’re incentivized to invest your cap dollars in the best possible starting eleven, with cheap reserves and homegrowns filling out the roster. Top-heavy squads aren’t built to cope with an overloaded schedule.

The good news is that, apart from wasting a DP slot on Jesús Medina, NYCFC has put together a pretty savvy and deep MLS roster. Dome did a great job this season dealing with injuries and international call-ups, and his decade of UEFA Champions League experience and emphasis on tactical versatility might make him better equipped than your average MLS skipper to deal with CCL rotation.

More importantly, the MLSPA’s CBA is about to be renegotiated, and one of the top items on the players’ agenda will be increasing the cap. The more money MLS allows teams to spend, the more well-run teams will be able to distinguish themselves.

As the Leagues Cup expands in 2020, more MLS teams are going to be playing in secondary competitions. We should be happy NYCFC is playing in one that matters instead of some dumb SUM cash grab.

Of course if the players strike over the CBA and MLS has to forfeit its CCL games, none of this will matter either way. —Justin Egan


“Yup, these are my readers.”

If you could have one NYCFC player show up to your bar mitzvah, who would you choose and why? —adam

I see three viable options on NYCFC’s roster depending on what you’re going for (I’m not Jewish, so apologies to all if I grossly mischaracterize what goes down at a bar mitzvah):

1. If you’re trying to maximize your gift haul, you invite Maxi Moralez. He has the highest salary on the roster and seems like the generous type. Added bonus: his height would make any 14-year-old feel like a man.

2. If you want a hype man, Héber’s your guy. I bet he’s comfortable in a room full of strangers and would be the type of friend who’d exaggerate how cool you are to everyone else there. There’s a good chance that he gets Grandma out on the dance floor, so factor in some hip fracture risk with this pick.

3. If you’re a fan of an innocent prank, you could bring Ring, Tinnerholm, Parks, and Gary Mackay-Steven but only allow one of them to be seen at a time. Make sure they wear the same outfit (maybe those suits the club is always tweeting about?) and keep them in rotation all night to see how many people notice they’re not the same person. To do this on hard mode, don’t even try to disguise their accents. —Kevin Nelson

What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? —FootyLovin

EXT. MLS HEADQUARTERS (WHICH FOR SOME REASON LOOKS LIKE A CASTLE) — DAY

WARSHAW: Halt! Who goes there?

DOME: It is I, Dome, son of Pep Guardiola, from the Pitch at Etihad. King of Catalonia, defeater of the Red Bulls, sovereign of all the East!

WARSHAW: Pull the other one!

DOME: I am. And this is my trusty servant Maxi. We have ridden the length and breadth of the MTA in search of footballers who will join me in my Pitch at Etihad. I must speak with your lord and master, Don.

WARSHAW: What, ridden on a train?

DOME: Yes

WARSHAW: You’re using pineapples!

DOME: What?

WARSHAW: You’ve got two empty halves of pineapples and you’re bangin’ ‘em together.

DOME: So? We have ridden since the snows of winter covered this land, through the kingdom of bodegas, through …

WARSHAW: Where’d you get the pineapples?

DOME: We found them.

WARSHAW: Found them? In the Bronx? The pineapple is tropical!

DOME: What do you mean?

WARSHAW: Well, this is a humid subtropical zone.

DOME: The pigeon may fly south with the sun or the cockroach or the rat may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land?

WARSHAW: Are you suggesting pineapples migrate?

DOME: Not at all. They could be carried. 

WARSHAW: What? A pigeon carrying a pineapple?

DOME: It could grip it by the husk.

WARSHAW: It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A thirteen-ounce bird could not carry a two-pound pineapple.

DOME: Well, it doesn’t matter. Will you go and tell your Master Don that Dome from the Pitch at Etihad is here.

WARSHAW: Listen, in order to maintain air-speed velocity, a pigeon needs to beat its wings 43 times every second, right?

DOME: Please!

WARSHAW: Am I right?

DOME: I’m not interested!

WIEBE: It could be carried by a Staten Island pigeon!

WARSHAW: Oh, yeah, a Staten Island pigeon maybe, but not a Bronx pigeon, that’s my point.

WIEBE: Oh, yeah, I agree with that.

DOME: Will you ask your Master Don if he wants to join my Pitch at Etihad?!

WARSHAW: But then, of course, Staten Island pigeons are not migratory.

WIEBE: Oh, yeah.

WARSHAW: So they couldn’t bring a pineapple back anyway.

WIEBE: Wait a minute—supposing two pigeons carried it together?

—Chris Campbell

What fruit or vegetable most looks like NYCFC’s best shape in terms of formation? —LionNYC

Oh my god …

Is it a pineapple? Is it a pinecone? Does a pinecone count as a vegetable? Has Dome been planning this all along? WE NEED ANSWERS, PEOPLE. —Dummy Run

Image: Alessandro Zuek Simonetti, Pigeon, Chinatown, NYC

Written by The Outfield

Twitter: @OutfieldNYCFC