Going on form alone, New York City FC is not in a good place right now. They haven’t defeated a playoff team since July 14, and since Ilsinho put Ronald Matarrita in the spin cycle and gave Ben the night Sweat-s, the City Group-funded club has but a single win, and that came over lowly Chicago.
But before you dismiss NYC, back that sass up because the Union could be the first team since late May to face the baseball-based Light Blues at full strength.
Dome Torrent has now been in charge of NYC for 18 matches and during that time he has had the services of his three best players for exactly zero minutes. Deep destroyer Yangel Herrera picked up an ankle injury in May that was supposed to sideline him for the season, but the 20-year old Venezuelan returned for an 18-minute cameo last Sunday against DC United. Team MVP and creative hub Maxi Moralez, however, missed the DC match — his second straight absence — but should be ready to return against the Union. Talismanic striker David Villa started against DC but has only recently looked like his old self after missing July. In his first four matches back, Villa averaged under three shots per match; in his last five, that number has ballooned to over six.
During Torrent’s tenure, he has had Villa starting for 10 of 18 matches and Moralez for 16 of 18. He has had both attacking wizards together for nine of 18 matches and NYC has gone 3-3-3 in those contests. The three losses have come to Philly (woot!), New England, and Columbus; the three draws have come against DC United, Montreal, and Red Bulls; and the wins have come over Toronto (twice) and Chicago. So even with two-thirds of his best on the pitch, Torrent has only been able to knock off the weakest of the east.
The cost to NYC of missing these guys — and, for many, of Torrent’s tinkering as well — has been turning wins to draws at home, and draws to losses on the road. Under Patrick Viera, NYC went 6-0-1 on the diamond at Yankee Stadium while Torrent has only managed a 5-1-3 record. Still not bad, but certainly not the dominant home record a title contender (as NYC expected to be) should have.
Who will the Union face
So what does all this mean for the Union? Simple: Take form out of the equation and get ready to face a top three team in the Eastern Conference.
Luckily, this doesn’t change much for the Union. They have battled well against many of the best clubs in the league this season and they know what to expect from New York City: Ball movement, quick, numerically-heavy counterpressing, and an effort to use Moralez as the link between midfield and attack. For Philly, knocking out that link will be key.
If NYCFC is able to start Yangel Herrera, Alex Ring, and Maxi Moralez in the center of the park, they will likely divide up duties thusly: Herrera will prioritize defense but step forward when Ring drops to collect the ball, Ring will be defensively aware but attempt to join attacks late, and Moralez will float around looking to find pockets in the defense that allow him to turn and play balls through the lines.
Notably, the number of through balls NYC attempts has dropped from nearly 1.75 per match under Viera to about 0.9 per match under Dome Torrent. Yet NYC is also creating nearly three more chances per match than they were under Viera. There are obviously going to be a lot of drivers of these changes. Jesus Medina has been less consistent or healthy as he was to start the season, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi has been used less frequently after looking like a consistent threat in behind earlier in the year, and NYC has found it more difficult to pick opponents apart without Ring in a box-to-box role that helps draw defenders off of Moralez.
One important fact to keep in mind is that NYC is secure if they can just lock up a point on Sunday. In theory, that puts the onus on the Union to attack. But with their poor form, NYC will absolutely be looking to make a statement in their final regular season match, so Philly can expect a fast-paced if not exceptionally open match.
The big issue with creating an open game is that… it’s hard to open things up at Yankee Stadium. Jim Curtin mentioned in his press conference that it’s extremely hard to play through the center on such a small pitch, and there’s simply no disputing that fact. New York City is well-adjusted to the limitations of its environment, and even as their overall structure has suffered under Torrent they still have but a single loss at home. Philly, with its strength in the center, will need to feel their way around the right side of the field and figure out if they are comfortable operating with the same level of fluidity as normal.
Philly will also need to find out how to penetrate the NYC box without relying heavily on central-focused attacks. Similar to how Red Bulls defended in Talen Energy Stadium last weekend, NYC will likely use their physically-gifted central midfielders to protect the front of their box. This means the Union may have more success driving in low crosses behind the defensive line and looking for Cory Burke and Ale Bedoya to run onto those balls, with Fafa Picault and Haris Medunjanin cleaning up anything that pops loose in the ensuing chaos.
In the end, this is what counts: The Union can finish third in the Eastern Conference with a win. You can see how all the different possibilities play out if they lose or tie here, but rest assured that they can still secure a home playoff match without a win, but their fate will be out of their hands.
All MLS matches kick off simultaneously on Sunday, so if you are heading up to Yankee Stadium for the game, charge up that phone, set some alerts, and get ready for a wild close to the season!