How NYCFC improved on a breakthrough 2016 ... and why it might not even matter

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC has the making of a champion ... in another year, when Toronto FC doesn't look close to perfect.

Barring any collapses, Toronto FC will clinch the Supporters’ Shield relatively easily and New York City FC will follow in second place in both the Eastern Conference and Shield standings. Toronto is on a path toward perhaps the most successful season an Major League Soccer team has ever had, and if the playoffs reflect the table, NYCFC will again stand in the way of an MLS Cup berth. And this time, an improved City side stands a fighting chance.

The two teams met in last year’s playoffs, when the Reds trounced NYCFC, 7–0 on aggregate, including a 5–0 win at Yankee Stadium. The Pigeons were more competitive this year, nearly beating Toronto in the Bronx before Victor Vazquez converted a penalty in second-half stoppage time to earn a draw. They held their own for 65 minutes in the second meeting in Toronto before a Sebastian Giovinco free kick and a Jozy Altidore penalty kick opened up a 4–0 rout.

NYCFC followed up that defeat with a five-game unbeaten streak that ended last weekend amid notable absences: injured midfielders Alex Ring, Yangel Herrera and Mikey Lopez, in addition to repeat MVP candidate David Villa. That forced Andrea Pirlo to start consecutive games for the first time since April, and Pirlo’s careless giveaway on Portland’s game-winning goal provided glimpses what NYCFC was and is now when healthy.

Pirlo started in seven of New York City’s eight losses this year, often in place of Ring or Herrera. Those two, combined with Maxi Moralez, combine for a new-look midfield which has been a large part of NYCFC’s progression to a true contender in 2017.

When Pirlo is included in defensive midfield, NYCFC loses the ability to effectively close down players in the midfield. Giovinco skinned Pirlo for his first goal in that 4-0 loss, and the Toronto midfield was able to pin NYCFC deep in its own end by finding the space often left open by Pirlo. When Herrera was in midfield for the first TFC meeting, the Reds struggled to enter the final third and became dependent on their wingbacks to hit crosses into the area.

A midfield better equipped to handle TFC’s offensive onslaught

This year has shown that it’s easy for defenses to get swept away by the wide torrent that is Toronto FC. On the larger BMO Field, NYCFC will need all three starting midfielders to cover ground and defend well in 1-v-1 situations. The trio of Moralez, Ring and Herrera is able to do that; NYCFC is undefeated when the three of them start together, with five wins against the rest of the top six in the East. The three of them, along with Villa, could be reunited as soon as next weekend.

“It’s an important period for us,” Sean Johnson said. “To get guys healthy and back on the field is crucial, especially now going into the last stretch of games. Once we have everybody back, that’ll be the first step but everybody has been stepping up and doing what they can to contribute in the absence of players. We’ve had a good stretch and we can’t look down it.”

The improvements NYCFC made at the back means a repeat of last year’s blowout series unlikely. New York City went from the bottom five in goals allowed last season to the top five thanks to the addition of Johnson in goal and Alex Callens at center back. Johnson has the third-best save percentage in the league, and Callens is second in MLS in minutes played, balancing out the entire back line as a left-footed player who is comfortable covering large portions of the field.

It’s no secret that the best chance a team has at scoring on Toronto comes in transition, just as NYCFC did in July’s 2-2 draw.

While the East is stronger than it has been in years, a TFC-NYCFC rematch in the conference final is still expected. Should that happen, it would only be the fifth time in league history that the first- and second-place teams in the Supporters’ Shield table met in the playoffs, and the first time involving two Eastern Conference teams. If they get to face each other in the conference final, it’ll likely be with the knowledge that the winner gets to host MLS Cup -- and be the favorite to lift it, too.

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