NYCFC's style hits its ceiling, but blueprint for future is right under its nose

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto smacked NYCFC, 7-0 on aggregate, showing New York's limits. But TFC also showed what NYCFC needs to do for 2017, Paul Tenorio writes:

New York City FC manager Patrick Vieira may have learned a valuable lesson in these MLS playoffs, but it should be less about the dangers of altering his team’s style of play and more about why balance matters.

Vieira came under fire this week for shifting away from the attack-minded mentality that helped NYCFC finish second in the Eastern Conference in 2016. New York came out in the first leg against Toronto FC in a defensive shell. The strategy fell apart in the final 10 minutes when TFC scored twice to take a commanding series lead.

The result forced New York to go into the second leg in need of goals in order to advance. The result, however, showed what happens in the playoffs when you live by the “we will outscore you” mentality.

Toronto battered NYCFC, 5-0, to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. The vulnerabilities of this New York City team were fully exposed. It might have been the perfect argument for why Vieira took the approach he did in Toronto. This NYCFC team isn’t good enough to play an out-and-out attacking style against a balanced and dangerous Toronto team.

It is something Vieira, Claudio Reyna and NYCFC will have to fix this offseason if they hope to challenge for MLS Cup next year. They need only look at the team that beat them on Sunday as an example.

Toronto didn’t struggle to score goals last season. TFC netted 58 times, good for second-best in MLS. Where TFC did have problems was defending. Toronto allowed 58 goals in 2015 and was ousted with a three-goal loss in the playoffs.

This year, Toronto gave up just 39 goals – tied for second-best in MLS – after bolstering its defense in the offseason.

The “we will outscore you” mentality might work in the regular season. It’s fun to watch. But it simply won’t work to win MLS Cup. Or at least, you would have to be the exception, not the rule.

The last five MLS Cup winners ranked 1st, 14th, 1st, T-1st and T-3rd in goals allowed. Those teams’ stats in the goals-against column: 28, 47, 30, 37, 39.

The lone exception is the 2012 LA Galaxy, which gave up 47 goals and finished fourth in the West before downing Houston in the MLS Cup final. (Houston was tied for fourth that year with 41 goals allowed.) Columbus, which advanced to MLS Cup in 2015, gave up 53 goals last season, which ranked sixth-worst in MLS.

The teams with the highest goals against in 2016 in the East were Orlando, Columbus and Chicago. None made the playoffs. The next three, NYCFC, Philadelphia and New England, are all out. Montreal, which allowed 53 goals, is the exception of this postseason, but the Impact is alive in part because it slightly altered its style of play to defend and strike through the counter.

The same holds in the West. The four worst defensive teams – Portland, Vancouver, RSL and Houston – are all watching from home. Seattle is alive, but gave up just 43 goals, 10 fewer than Montreal.

The lesson: You have to be able to defend to win in the postseason.

New York City FC gave up 57 goals this season. Vieira knew that vulnerability and tried to account for it in a two-leg series. The plan failed in the first leg, and that forced New York into an almost unwinnable situation in the return leg. Pushing players forward with Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore waiting to counter was never an ideal scenario.

The 7-0 aggregate loss is the worst since MLS switched to this format and makes clear the blueprint for building up New York from its second year to its third. Vieira & Co. need to upgrade the back line and find the right balance to complement MVP candidate David Villa and its other attacking pieces.

If they don’t, it’s unlikely they will lift MLS Cup.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.