Kevin Nelson reports from Orlando.
The stiffer-than-normal preseason competition at the Florida Cup, in the form of Brazilian titans Corinthians and Palmeiras, featured weird mascot antics and a halftime performance by a singer wearing a full winter jacket in mid-70s temperatures. All that would be interesting on its own, but the debut of new coach Ronny Deila was the real headline. With the relatively unknown Norwegian taking the touchline for the first time, supporters finally got some glimpse of an answer to the defining question of the preseason—what will Deila’s NYCFC look like?
Luckily for Deila, he inherits a roster with ample continuity. Last season’s starting XI returns in its entirety and, barring injury, that same lineup can be predicted in pen going into the season. That familiarity should make the transition all the easier to whatever new tactics Deila throws their way.
In the weekend action, following an initial academy runout against Corinthians, Palmeiras created chances with ease against NYCFC’s first-choice defense in the first half. But for the first team’s debut, we’re inclined to note this as a function of offseason rust rather than a symptom of larger tactical problems. Deila did not make any groundbreaking changes in defense, setting up his team in a 4-4-2 that looked quite similar to arrangements Dome Torrent flexed at times. Deila pushed the attacking midfielder forward alongside the center forward to address both Palmeiras center backs as they built out of the back, but geared down the press—possibly due to early preseason fitness in humid weather—from the high octane badgering NYCFC usually puts forth.
On the other side of the ball, Deila’s attacking philosophy seemed to fit his roster well. He took advantage of the wingers’ preference for inverted play by encouraging Alexandru Mitriță and Gary Mackay-Steven to cut onto their strong foot toward the central areas of the field. As the attacking group collected in the inside channels, it set up a natural interchangeability, where positional rotation and combination play could form organically. Whether that’s a happy coincidence or a managerial adaptation to the players at hand is anyone’s guess.
There was no better example on the attack than Andres Jasson, who replaced an injured Maxi Moralez early in the first half. Nominally playing as a central attacking midfielder–second striker hybrid, the 18-year old had the freedom to roam throughout the opposition half, regularly popping up on either wing or dropping in to collect possession. Jasson made the most of his opportunity, drifting out to the wing to beat his defender 1v1, with a sly hesitation, and whip in a perfectly placed cross to assist NYCFC’s only goal. The young squab, our 2019 Academy Player of the Year, displayed enticing energy and movement in a performance that left fans wondering if a homegrown contract was on the way, but ultimately a grassroots revolution may be needed to convince the Yale 2020 commit that an Ivy League education is overrated (an absolutely ironclad position that nobody can doubt).
The excitement from the youth ranks did not stop there. Fellow academy product Osaze De Rosario, son of MLS and Canadian legend Dwayne De Rosario, was on the other end of Jasson’s assist with a beautiful header. Seeing the teenager dunk on a Palmeiras center back was undoubtedly the highlight of the match, but De Rosario showed some hesitancy to get involved in the buildup to the extent we’d expect from a player like Heber or Taty Castellanos. This raises a question of how much this offensive system could improve with a center forward capable of dropping in to take advantage of the space created by his free-roaming teammates. An extra layer of fluidity could distort opposing backlines with a higher degree of efficiency than what we saw against Palmeiras and pave the way for outside-in runs from the wingers.
For attacking width, Deila relied on the fullbacks to get upfield on the flanks. Anton Tinnerholm and Ronald Mataritta (8th and 12th in xA/96, respectively, among MLS fullbacks) both have the skill set to thrive in this role, acting not only as a release valve when the defense compressed but also as an attacking threat up the wing.
The weight the fullbacks may have to carry stresses the importance of depth at those two positions. There’s stability at right back with Joe Scally, a player so promising that Borussia Monchengladbach invested in him based almost entirely on his academy and USYNT showings. However, with the return of Ben Sweat to his natural habitat, there is a concern on the left side of this equation if Tony Rocha slots in as Mataritta’s primary backup. Although Rocha is a useful player, his talents don’t line up with what Deila needs from the left back, at least based on our Florida Cup–sized sample. Rocha’s stability in possession, lack of pace, and inability to generate offense up the wing make him better suited to an inside left back role, supporting the attack from deeper positions, and likely necessitated the signing of Icelandic international Gudmundur Thórarinsson.
In central midfield, whether deploying a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, Deila clearly favors a double pivot. With Gedion Zelalem and Justin Haak putting in promising performances against Palmeiras, NYCFC must be quite really pleased with the depth available here. The pair replaced Keaton Parks and Alex Ring in the pivot as Deila made sweeping changes for the second half. Some struggle ensued with the youthful lineup, but Zelalam and Haak stood out for their composure on the ball and positional awareness, despite lacking some of Ring’s defensive bite. Add James Sands to the mix (who did everything on the day either perfectly or terribly), and the holding midfield looks strong moving forward.
The first two matches of preseason are far from the full sample needed to draw real conclusions, but we can reasonably predict that Deila is a double-pivot and hard-working winger enjoyer who may not set the whiteboards on fire tactically. And with the academy pressing into the depth chart, we’ll be watching closely as he moves the club closer to its first competitive action, later next month, in the CONCACAF Champions League. ❧
Image: Odd Nerdrum, Sleeping Boy