Why NYCFC is Major League Soccer's most frustrating team

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The potential is there, but the usual mistakes remain. New York City FC is at a crossroad.

NEW YORK – Major League Soccer is rife with parity and the most bizarre of results, and no team in the crowded Eastern Conference is more frustrating to figure out than New York City FC.

Whereas David Villa brings endless moments of brilliance, NYCFC’s collective defending remains its Achilles’ heel – the most discernible weakness standing between a good team, as it was in 2016, and a great one.

The inconsistencies which plagued last year’s team appear to be creeping into this season’s squad. Wednesday was no different. A 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution at Yankee Stadium could only be framed as disappointment. Twice the home side blew a lead to settle for a point in a game which the Revs were largely bystanders.

In the beginning of season, we looked a little bit more balanced than we did last year. We have to get back to the basics of defending.

- Patrick Vieira

NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira was the embodiment of frustration after the match, stalking the fourth official and, eventually, all four officials before having a heated conversation. He declined to discuss what he said to the officials, or to his team in a purportedly extensive post-match speech, but a typically upbeat and somewhat stoic Vieira was very clearly perturbed.

“Yes, we just have to be more …” Vieira began saying postgame, before a long, restrained pause. “We can talk about concentration, we can talk about focus, but if you score the chances that you create, then the game would be different. On the other side, we’ve been really naïve, the way we were defending today.”

The Big Apple roller coaster has seen NYCFC thoroughly thrash a below-average D.C. United team in the second week of the season only to trip over its own feet against the same opponent a month later. An impressive three-game unbeaten run against Columbus, Atlanta and FC Dallas at the start of May was halted by a road loss to a poor Real Salt Lake team. Sunday’s loss in Atlanta offered further humility.

Some of that is the ebb and flow of MLS. Wednesday’s game, though, only brought more questions as NYCFC held nearly 60 percent of the possession.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Much like last year, we still don’t know who, exactly, this NYCFC team is. It mostly appears to be a contender for the Eastern Conference title, one of several sides simply trying to keep up with Toronto FC. But there is still the lingering feeling that a team capable of losing 7-0, as it did last season to the rival New York Red Bulls, remains inside this group’s core, and the more moments of inconsistency persist, the more uneasiness festers. This is a team at a crossroad.

Diagnosing what is wrong is a real challenge. Defending appears to be the problem, in general terms, but who is to blame? Is it goalkeeper Sean Johnson? The back five, collectively? New England’s first equalizer came at the fault of David Villa, who moments earlier wonderfully orchestrated NYCFC’s first goal as he weaved through a comedy of lunges from Revs defenders. Your MVP forward getting beat defending a corner kick isn’t exactly indicative of a minute-to-minute concern. An unmarked Xavier Kouassi scoring the equalizer in the 86th minute is, however.

The midfield was long thought to be the heart of the problem, and Andrea Pirlo shouldered most of that blame for his lax defending and risky back-passes. Alexander Ring’s emergence, in particular, seemed to solve that, eliminating another likely suspect from the list of excuses.

So what is the problem at Yankee Stadium? It appears to be mental. There are inherent frustrations in seeing potential fall short. But this is exactly the style that NYCFC has been built around. Vieira has long been disinterested in lamenting goals conceded. Those will happen, he has insisted. The firepower is there up front to take such a risky approach, with Villa’s continued dominance and Jack Harrison’s emergence.

The balance still isn’t there. And finding that will be the greatest test yet for Vieira, whose first year and change as a first-team manager has been overwhelmingly promising.

“Looking more at the balance of the team,” Vieira said, “in the beginning of season, we looked a little bit more balanced than we did last year. We have to get back to the basics of defending, especially when the ball is in our box. …

“We just have to find the right balance between scoring goals and conceding goals.”

NYCFC has quickly established itself as one of the most entertaining teams in MLS. The mounting frustration confirms that is no longer enough.

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Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.