Herrera, Moralez and Ring have ushered in the post-Pirlo era of NYCFC's midfield
Patrick Vieira’s press conference on Sunday was stunningly short. The New York City FC coach, who has sat in that same seat in the bowels of Yankee Stadium dozens of times, didn’t need to say much.
This postgame moment was typically the point at which Vieira would be asked about Andrea Pirlo, a line of questioning that would grate an otherwise stoic coach. That those questions weren’t asked serves as a testament to New York City’s convincing performance and to Vieira’s management of the situation. It also speaks to the team’s future.
Pirlo had come under increased scrutiny in the opening two months as his balance of majestic distribution and passive-at-best defending tipped too heavily toward the latter. The liabilities presented by his place in New York City FC’s XI kept adding up.
REMAKING NYCFC’S MIDFIELD
On Sunday, New York City FC’s future was clear: Alexander Ring did a yeoman’s job, playing his usual role of precise distributor and providing defensive cover while neutralizing United’s flashy, expensive No. 10, Miguel Almiron. Almiron had the most touches in the match but notably produced no truly dangerous moments. As Vieira noted afterward, Atlanta’s only real opportunities came from set pieces.
Ring, along with 19-year-old Yangel Herrera, who has replaced Pirlo in the lineup the past two games, served up another slice of humility to the Atlanta hype-train which has come back down to earth after a raucous start to its first season.
That duo’s defensive work frees up NYCFC’s No. 10, Maxi Moralez, to combine with a potent front line in more advanced positions, exactly what he was brought in to do. That was evident on Sunday, as Moralez had a team-high 80 touches and created a game-high four chances created, per Opta.
Moralez didn’t arrive in MLS with the same fanfare as Almiron or teammates Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba, but he is an equally essential addition to his respective team, and most importantly, he represents the direction in which NYCFC is headed.
EXPIRATION OF A LEGEND
Pirlo brought the resume of a World Cup-winner, European legend and worldwide cult hero which NYCFC needed at its launch in 2015. His value on the field has wavered, though it was never as bad as some of the worst things you’ve read about him. His coolness is both a blessing a curse: When he’s in form, he can play a nonchalant pass through four defenders over 40 yards. When he doesn’t connect on those passes, he looks lazy.
But his prominent place on the squad as a now 37-year-old always had an expiration date.
As with any conversation around the decline of an all-time great, this was an awkward situation for Vieira to handle. It came to a forefront as Pirlo’s distribution waned, and as NYCFC’s trademark defensive vulnerabilities started pointing back to him, as was the case when NYCFC conceded a howler at home against San Jose last month and in a humbling loss to D.C. United in April. So often, NYCFC wants to play out of the back without the proper protection and personnel to do so.
Vieira has handled the transition wonderfully, brushing off speculation while slowly decreasing Pirlo’s minutes to test his options.
It’s ludicrous to suggest that media can directly force a lineup change, but it is equally naïve to think coaches, players and teams don’t feel that outside pressure, despite whatever “bubble” or “you-guys” rhetoric they spew. Vieira stayed the pragmatic course, even as his regular insertion of Tommy McNamara late in matches for Pirlo changed games, including McNamara’s winning goal in that San Jose match.
Moralez is at the start of a three-year deal as a Designated Player, and Ring is in the prime of his career. Herrera’s place in the Big Apple is the least certain as a loanee from parent club Manchester City, but he’s here at least for 2017. McNamara adds another interesting layer as a guy who is a cult hero in his own right.
On Sunday, though, the future of NYCFC was on display, and its direction in the midfield was clear.
Vieira’s press conference, just four questions and about as many minutes in length, summed up the conclusions that played out on the field.
As the NYCFC spokesman standing at the podium asked: “No more questions? Really?”
No more questions.
Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.