Accommodating Andrea Pirlo remains a challenge for New York City FC
New York City FC's home opener against Toronto FC on Sunday was preceded by a filmic montage to rile up the crowd, with a voice-over by Patrick Vieira.
In his commentary, the club's new manager characterized the team he wanted to see represent the NYCFC name. The Frenchman described an "energetic" team to reflect the "spirit of New York" -- remarks that had some echoes of Jesse Marsch's infamous "energy drink" ideal for the 2015 Red Bulls.
And in flashes against Toronto, it was possible to see what Vieira was getting at, although the energy in question was not so much the Red Bulls' no-frills high press. It was more the idea of the ball fizzing around the confined space of the Yankee Stadium field, within a commensurately narrow formation, as NYCFC tried to choke the midfield and rely on their technical ability.
At the heart of that ideal is the passing of Andrea Pirlo. NYCFC played an unorthodox 3-4-3 formation -- with the four deployed as a kind of box so that the actual formation often resembled a 3-2-2-3 -- and, to use an NFL analogy, it felt a little like watching a pocket being constructed for an aging quarterback to do his work. Federico Bravo was cast in the role as minder for the Italian, doing the grunt work to protect him.
And until Toronto adjusted, it looked to be working. Tommy McNamara and Mix Diskerud were lively when pushing forward out of the midfield they'd helped congest, and while Khiry Shelton and Tony Taylor turned into trouble as often as they beat their man on the outside, the collective support for David Villa up front meant that New York was decent value for its 2-0 lead approaching half-time.
The trouble is, to paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, and from the moment Toronto pinched its own wide men in to put pressure on Bravo and Pirlo higher up the field, New York's energy and focus began to dissipate into collective anonymity.
NYCFC were under pressure at the end of the first half and gave up a stoppage-time goal; then, after the break, Toronto's own energy and growing confidence in moving the ball quickly opened up the slivers of space that Sebastian Giovinco needs to work his magic. The Italian duly scored twice in the match, equalizing with a fine goal.
Vieira talked boldly after the game about the "philosophy of the team and this organization [being] to construct more goals than we concede," which is perhaps why NYCFC have scored six goals and allowed five in two games that have, at times, featured clown-car defense.
The coach has inherited a side that has now played 36 MLS games and managed a shutout in just three of them. As such, there's a fair shout that, rather than worrying about a platform for Pirlo to create from, Vieira might want to consider building more confidence into his shaky back line.
Pirlo does not defend, and you might argue it's worth it when he delivers the kind of sublime ball over the top that he sent in after 42 minutes and almost gave Villa his hat trick. But you should also consider that a few seconds earlier, Pirlo was being hauled to his feet by Toronto's Will Johnson as the visiting midfield began to bully NYCFC off their stride. A few minutes after all of that, the arrears were cut to 2-1.
It's tempting to say that the answer for New York is to identify its own version of Gennaro Gattuso, the butt of many of the jokes in Pirlo's autobiography but also his beloved guardian on the field with Milan and Italy.
Perhaps Bravo will turn out to occupy that role, although results were inconclusive on Sunday. New York's players still spent a conspicuous amount of energy but precious little focused intensity in the center of the park.
With Vieira also waiting to reintegrate Frank Lampard into the midfield, perhaps a trade for a true defensive midfielder is needed to balance the glut of pass-and-move players the manager is trying to accommodate in the center.
Diskerud's indifferent debut season for New York had some suggesting he might soon be surplus to requirements, but Vieira seems to like the player and has reshuffled to keep him in the center of the field. Diskerud looks happier on the field and was also at ease when he appeared by his coach's side in the postgame news conference on Sunday.
There is another intriguing possibility for a trade. With four goals and six assists, Kwadwo Poku had a breakout 2015, but he wasn't even on the bench against Toronto. Vieira insisted the 24-year-old will have a part to play in a long season, but in the ongoing microcalculations that go into building an MLS roster, sometimes it's about sacrificing a player at the right time to maximize value.
If Vieira has any doubts about Poku or just needs a player better suited to the support work for Pirlo, then he and director of operations Claudio Reyna might consider whom they could get on the open market for what Poku might fetch.
In another league, of course, it wouldn't be an either/or proposition for a club of New York's resources, but having gone all-in on the aging galactico model, the team is still faced with the problem of how to accommodate both its attacking threat and defensive liability. Trusting that the former is greater than the latter is not a formula for sustainable success.
Ironically, Sunday's opponents might offer a few pointers to NYCFC. Toronto FC are also built around the offensive strengths of their star players, but the experienced MLS veterans they added in the offseason are all about game management, and all are solid upgrades on the players they supplanted.
Johnson adds bite in midfield, Steven Beitashour offers defensive nous and ability on the overlap and, as coach Greg Vanney said after the game, Drew Moor is a vocal organizer who instils confidence among his teammates; after colleague Damien Perquis was implicated in the New York goals, Moor helped steady the line as Toronto clawed their way back into the game.
New York don't have a convincing version of that sort of presence yet, whatever the to-be-determined merits of Frederic Brillant (shaky so far) and Ronald Matarrita (promising). To put it kindly, they're a work in progress without the ball.
So expect more energy to be spent pursuing one more goal than the opposition -- however many that means in practice -- and expect much of that energy to be spent on helping Pirlo to work smarter, not harder.
Will it work? Four points from a possible six says yes. Six goals for and five against suggests a rather smaller margin for error.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, Grantland, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.