New York City FC fittingly celebrate their first home game with a first win
Sometimes, Major League Soccer gets the occasion it wants. Sunday evening was just such an occasion, when, after a few opening-night butterflies, Yankee Stadium played host to the first-ever home game by New York City FC and sent the 43,507 fans home celebrating a 2-0 win, featuring what's destined to be an iconic goal by David Villa.
That is to say, most of the fans were celebrating. A vocal contingent of New England Revolution supporters had also appeared for the occasion and entertained themselves by cheerfully and loudly inquiring, "Where's Frank Lampard?" -- destined to be an unfortunate serenade for NYC for the first few months of their campaign.
Not that New York's fans cared on Sunday night. With Villa rounding into form and growing more dominant as the game went on, they have more than enough instant hero to go round while Lampard sits out an increasingly pointless-looking Manchester City campaign across the Atlantic. The Third Rail members -- the name taken on by NYCFC supporters -- had packed the area behind one of the goals and were in loud form all evening. They serenaded their team beneath a banner celebrating the numbers of legendary Yankees baseball players. And while it might be a long long time before the number 7 is added to an NYCFC equivalent, the team's first-ever captain was at least putting down a marker for future NYC folklore.
Even so, the balance of the fans took a while to find their voice. Delays at the gates had meant seats were still filling up 15 minutes into the game. With the stadium awkwardly configured for soccer, the atmosphere was slow to emerge as fans adjusted to their new roles as much as the team on the field were doing.
While Jason Kreis abruptly cut short a reporter who had questioned the width of the field after the game -- by first asking him if he knew the average widths of the field, then correcting him tersely -- the strange, angled configuration of the layout confounded some of the fans familiar with the staging conventions of dedicated soccer stadiums.
They weren't the only ones.
Speaking in the locker room after the game, Revs center back Andrew Farrell told ESPN FC, "It was strange, like an optical illusion. I mean, it was the same for both teams, but it made it hard to play the offside trap, for example. You couldn't get your bearings easily."
It's not easy to get your bearings against Villa, mind you. Villa lit up a first half otherwise dominated by the Revs, and their wind-assisted crosses from Chris Tierney, with a run and finish of the highest quality in the 19th minute.
Nothing much looked on when Villa picked up the ball beyond the left corner of the Revs box, but suddenly, the Spanish international darted for goal, played a perfect give and go with Ned Grabavoy, then lifted the ball precisely over Bobby Shuttleworth in goal with the Revs defense nowhere to be seen.
As Villa celebrated by the Yankees home plate -- covered for the occasion by an NYCFC crest -- the mood in the stadium that had begun to get a little nervy lifted. The Revs midfield had picked up where Orlando left off in Week 1, closing the supply lines to Villa and leaving him isolated and outnumbered. The goal changed all that.
The roar in the stadium even turned into rather overreaching chants of "Olé" as New York started passing the ball among themselves, only for a poor Mix Diskerud touch to almost gift New England a chance and remind the crowd this team is still very much a work in progress. Kreis claims he has repeated that mantra to "deaf ears" in the press when trying to keep expectations for his expansion team realistic.
Certainly, for more sober-minded observers there was plenty of reason for pause in the first half as the Revs put repeated pressure on Saunders. Yet despite one bizarre clearance by the keeper on which the ball ricocheted off his heels and another moment when Saunders was left pawing the ball off the line after half-blocking a point-blank diving header by Juan Agudelo, New England, whose final touch looked ring rusty, couldn't make the breakthrough and trailed at the half.
That was as good as it got for the Revs. Kreis told his team to "be more aggressive" in the second half, disappointed that the home side had been "very, very defensive" in the first half.
"We scored the early goal, which can be good, but it can be a bad thing for our game, because oftentimes, you'll see the team that scores the early goal thinks they now need to defend for the rest of the match. That can't be our mindset.
"I feel as if we're going to be that negative about things, we might get by with a point here or a point there, but over a season we wouldn't have enough points to be successful. We need to be positive. We need to be aggressive."
Kreis's players seemed to heed the message, and his former Salt Lake charges, Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez, began applying their industry higher up the field, with instant dividends.
"It's hard to put your finger on what changed," Grabavoy claimed afterward. "The team were working hard in the first half, but it just wasn't quite clicking. If you've seen us in training, it's much faster and more positive, but we just had to be more positive in the second half."
Grabavoy played his part in both goals, reprising the kind of support role he'd played at RSL and prompting Kreis to claim after the match that "Ned Grabavoy is an extremely important player for this team and was an extremely important player for Real Salt Lake. Very much underappreciated by fans, but incredibly appreciated by coaching staff."
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Given Villa's performance, it's unlikely Grabavoy's reputation will undergo a dramatic ascent in the coming days, but it was his through ball that set up Villa to deliver the decisive cross for the second goal, and while New York find their feet, Grabavoy's ability to honestly execute his coach's intentions in midfield will be a significant part of the transitional era into a recognizable Jason Kreis team.
For now, the performance at times resembles a rough sketch. A lot of the pieces are in the right place, and you can see how the team wants to articulate, but the overall effect can at times feel like watching stop-motion animation. As beautiful as Villa's goal was, a more typical moment from the performance might have been the move early on that ended with a tame shot steered at Bobby Shuttleworth by Adam Nemec.
NYC were much better in the second half, but there's plenty of room for improvement. Not that the home crowd, or the MLS front office, will care, after what in the end turned out to be the type of showpiece occasion -- decorated by the type of showpiece goal -- that they would have had on their wish list for their home opener.
But the historic occasions are out of the way now, and it's time to see if steady growth can ensue.