New York City FC's playoff exit was painful but Vieira has them on track
The short and eventful history of New York City FC added another painful chapter on Sunday with the 5-0 defeat at the hands of Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium. But don't feel sorry for the second-year team. What Patrick Vieira wrought in getting the team to an automatic conference semifinal spot was way beyond any reasonable projection you could have made about this team at the start of the year.
As the team that vanquished them can tell you, other expansion sides have endured longer and more painful waits to see any playoff soccer, in much less advanced or competitive moments.
So the misadventure against Toronto aside, this has been a year that should go down as being ahead of schedule for NYCFC. If Vieira continues his work next year, there's an opportunity to consolidate one of the more-defined stylistic projects in the league.
But first there's a fair amount of shuffling to be done and decisions to be made. When you look down the NYCFC roster, it does not resemble a second-year squad waiting for the right supporting parts to be filled in. Instead it looks like the layers of several competing ideals, a budget version of the squad lists you see in struggling Premier League teams with serial checkbook managers.
And that's understandable; coherence has been the bane of this team from the start. The team had marquee ambitions in New York and splashed the cash to match, yet also hired a head coach in Jason Kreis famed for frugally developing young players into a consistent core, and who placed a premium on finding value within MLS. For every Andrea Pirlo there was a Ned Grabavoy. For every Frank Lampard a Mehdi Ballouchy. And then there were the "Football Manager" signings, the team's punts on talent identified by City Football Group's extensive scouting network, which bore inevitably mixed fruit.
Given the disparate approaches to squad building, it's to Vieira's enormous credit that on his arrival this year he imposed a principled vision of attacking football built on possession, on a roster that was hardly custom-built for that job -- or any job.
The major structural elements, of course, are the designated players, of whom only David Villa has been an unqualified success. Politics, injury and age have kept us from seeing the best of Lampard and Pirlo since their arrivals, though Lampard did at least rewrite the story of him as the biggest DP flop ever with his excellent form this summer. But by the time the playoffs came around, injury had slowed him again, and he was a peripheral influence against Toronto.
But for a period, especially in that summer run that was the foundation of its high finish in the East, and which included the team's first-ever victory over the Red Bulls and a thrashing of the Colorado Rapids' vaunted defense, NYCFC managed to make its designated players look like true assets, as Vieira got the midfield spacing and balance right to make the team's attack a truly potent force.
Rookie Jack Harrison, who the team had traded for at the SuperDraft, proved to be worth the hype. Cool on the ball, yes, but he also freed up Villa to do what he did best, and occupied defenders who might otherwise track Lampard's secondary runs. Pirlo found space for his distribution too, and NYCFC became the league's highest-scoring team.
Enough has been written about how Vieira abandoned that approach in the first leg of the playoffs, but in truth it might not have made much difference anyway with Sebastian Giovinco in the form he's in now and New York's defense being the work-in-(little)-progress it's been for too long.
Evidently Vieira didn't want to wait for the offseason to begin the defensive reshuffle that the team so desperately needs. When a shutout is a remarkable phenomenon rather than a routine part of an efficient team, barely worth a passing remark, then something is wrong. By the time the playoffs came around, goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who'd started the first 33 regular season games for the team, had lost his spot in dramatic fashion.
The team's native New Yorker defender Jason Hernandez found himself on the outs too, but watching the centre-back pairing of Frederic Brillant and Maxime Chanot being turned into patsies for the Giovinco and Jozy Altidore show did not exactly suggest that a permanent solution was at hand.
Vieira needs to think long and hard about what he wants to do with his defense and just how much his principles can survive a basic truth: if high-scoring regular-season wins are to translate into playoff efficiency and minimal away goals conceded, NYCFC needs to stop giving up soft goals on the assumption it can cancel them out at the other end.
But if the team's defense comes under understandable pressure because of an insistence of playing out from the back, the decisions Vieira and sporting director Claudio Reyna make about the midfield in the offseason may be what makes or breaks the fortunes of this team for the next two to three seasons.
The first big question will be what to do with the out-of-contract Lampard and Pirlo. The team could do with their salary-cap hit being off the books but they could also do with the clarity that will come from proactively building a group of players to work with each other, rather than trying to budget for the necessary sprinkling of compatible talent to maximize the virtues of aging megastars.
Then there's finding someone prepared to take Mix Diskerud off their hands, presumably while leaving a fair chunk of his wages still on NYCFC's cap hit. And some of the utility players from the Kreis era will be looking nervously at their situations in the coming weeks, as Vieira looks to choose his own tools.
As for Vieira himself, he's strengthened his mandate and shown himself to be a cool coach within the anyone-can-beat-anyone world of MLS. And he's had some big extremes to come back from: he lost a home derby 7-0 and the team's first ever playoff 7-0 on aggregate, but it's not damning with faint praise to say that the fact he got his team in place to lose the latter series in the first place will be the abiding impression of his debut season.
It hurts now, but the NYCFC project is slowly getting on track.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.