How good is Patrick Vieira, NYCFC coach? Depends on how you value playoffs

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

His regular seasons have been two steps forward, but NYCFC's boss is facing a step back in two straight postseasons.

New York City FC fans find themselves in a familiar scenario: A road playoff game unraveling, thanks to self-inflicted wounds, creates a path to victory that is narrower than the Yankee Stadium pitch.

The postmortems on the most recent playoff loss cannot ignore the fact that New York was culpable in many areas on the field when it mattered, and that head coach Patrick Vieira may once again find himself answering questions about his handling of crunch situations when the season is on the line.

In 2016, Vieira’s surprise personnel switches and unforced tactical switches seemed to undermine his own team way more than they surprised Toronto. That ended in an embarrassing 7-0 aggregate loss.

In 2017, the team looked like a much better setup, but the coach’s adjustments to the ejection of Alexander Callens seemed caught between two strategies: punching back in search of crucial away goals, or stemming the bleeding. The results were duly mixed, and if Vieira’s second full regular season with New York has largely been a successful one, the popular verdict is likely to be mixed, too. That may not be fair, but the drama of the playoffs is what determines popular memory.

It was an emotional night at MAPFRE Stadium, but New York City wasn’t rolled over by a team playing for its very existence. Instead, its goal-shy attack had every opportunity to at the very least score the club’s first playoff goal. Eventually, it did, but the fact that it was only the team’s 10th goal in the last 10 games should tell you everything about how much the team needs to improve.

While the attack doing its job might have taken some heat off the defense, consider the shot underneath Sean Johnson and the entire NYCFC team playing Keystone Kops to Harrison Afful’s George Best. It will re-establish the “soft center” image of NYCFC that Vieira had done much to change.

Vieira will focus on the positives because he has to. The team will play at home in its next game, has an away goal, and knows from Leg 1 that its midfield can harry its opponents out of the ball at will. Alexander Ring may have turned over possession for a goal after the red card, but that was in his role as the indefatigable firefighter trying to help clean up the mess left by the ejection.

The consensus is that, unlike last year, Vieira was not to blame. His team was set up to compete, and it did so for long stretches of the game, only to be undone by self-inflicted wounds. Vieira’s an honest and thoughtful coach, though, and when he plays back the sequence between Callens getting sent off in the 52nd minute and Andraz Struna entering the game in the 75th minute — a period in which Columbus scored twice — he might ask himself if he could have been quicker to react with a contingency plan.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Struna adjustment came at a moment when the team was already being overrun. Ring had deputized at the heart of the defense in the wake of Callens’ ejection and was immediately run ragged chasing a Crew attack sensing blood. Vieira tried throwing on Ronald Matarrita in place of Rodney Wallace to stabilize things, but two minutes later, Ring was caught in possession in the build-up to the second goal.

Vieira’s final substitution, bringing on Sean Okoli for Jack Harrison, did little more than remind viewers that the subbed out wide men, Wallace and Harrison, had contributed precisely two goals between them since May, and the men around David Villa had once again come up short when it mattered. Wallace looks a mile off his 2015 form with Portland, and Harrison, having gone from draft protege to England U-21 call-up in two seasons, needs careful managing to take the next step up to big-time player.

Presumably, that growth comes under Vieira, who seems happy developing his own coaching career in New York, even as he continues to be linked with vacant jobs in England and France.

That speculation will continue. The first European impressions of his U.S. coaching resume will linger longer on the good regular-season placings he’s coaxed out of his New York teams than they will on playoff implosions.

Here, in the U.S. sporting ecosystem and within our MLS bubble, coaches or teams who underperform in the postseason are seen as having fatal flaws. Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew SC has been the form team in MLS coming into the playoffs. We praise his understanding of the idiosyncratic rhythms of an MLS season. NYCFC’s goals had dried up at the wrong time, so we damn Vieira.

But, yes, a cooler assessment of his time in New York will read well abroad, and even from an American perspective, despite the decisions Vieira might have made sooner on Tuesday night, he’s no worse a coach for how the game unfolded. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where his team keeps things tight enough to prevent Columbus scoring as it chases the game this weekend, and that should be enough to eliminate New York City. Perhaps when that happens, Vieira will remember his own take on the fallout from the U.S. World Cup exit, which he offered me a few weeks ago:

“It’s a short drama … you can’t throw away everything good you are doing because of it.”

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