Things were never going to be easy for New York City FC in the early goings. As a brand-new expansion side last year, they would've had to defeat both the odds and history to make the playoffs, which was a longshot that didn't happen.
So when they fired highly-touted American coach Jason Kreis after one season -- a move widely criticized as premature -- and replaced him with Frenchman Patrick Vieira, who had no experience in MLS, NYCFC's situation somehow looked even worse.
But Vieira may have been just what NYCFC needed. After a slow start, they now sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and are looking like a surefire playoff contender. And as they prepare to visit the third-place New York Red Bulls on Sunday (1 p.m. ET on FOX), the rivalry brewing across the Hudson River is finally starting to feel like a legitimate contest after the Red Bulls previously dominated.
NYCFC's change in fortune started when Vieira molded the roster into the one that fit his vision, bringing in 10 new players and releasing 11 by the start of the 2016 season. Fixing NYCFC's lack of balance and defensive options in the midfield were among the biggest results of Vieira's offseason moves when Federico Bravo came in as a midfield partner for Andrea Pirlo. When Bravo was injured recently, Vieira gambled on turning Andoni Iraola into a makeshift defensive midfielder, which has ensured attackers in the center of the pitch continue to have freedom to roam and push for goals.
One thing out of Vieira's control, however, was the return of Frank Lampard, which has helped NYCFC considerably. Once labeled by many as potentially the worst Designated Player signing in MLS history, Lampard has now scored five goals with one assist in nine games, more than his total stats last year, and has become a real contributor on the pitch. Granted, he may not score the nicest goals -- one actually went off his hand undetected and another bounced off his knee -- but goals are goals. Due to injury, it took 13 games into the 2016 season before the 38-year-old Lampard finally took the field, but now it's looking like it was worth the wait.
David Villa remains the leader of NYCFC, and the way he and Lampard have been able to play off one another has been one of the keys in unlocking more goals. When Villa drifts away from the goal area into the flanks, Lampard can push ahead into the space Villa leaves behind and put himself in scoring position. With Lampard on the field, NYCFC also gets another player who can excel at holding up the ball and switching the point of attack as needed.
The young guns are pulling their weight, too. Rookie Jack Harrison, who was selected No. 1 overall in the draft by NYCFC this year, has been something of a revelation. Like Lampard, the 19-year-old missed the first three months of the season due to injury, but he's integrated himself quickly with a blend of skill and speed along the flanks that makes him a significant scoring threat. With a team around him that is allowing the youngster to succeed, he is playing like a star. He now has three goals and two assists in eight games, and NYCFC has scoring threats all over the field.
Vieira hasn't been afraid to drop players who aren't showing well. Mix Diskerud, who joined NYCFC last year amid high expectations and a regular role with the U.S. national team, simply doesn't have a place in New York City anymore. He underwhelmed last year in his MLS debut, and although it could be argued Kreis wasn't using him correctly, this season it became apparent that Diskerud just doesn't bring enough to the table. He still carries considerable name recognition due to his place around the edges of the U.S. national team, but he has spent the past six NYCFC games on the bench -- five of them wins -- and Vieira essentially announced last week that Diskerud is for sale.
There are the intangibles that Vieira brings, too. Players have lauded Vieira as being able to say the right things to motivate the team and keep their mentality strong. Vieira does bring an interesting dimension as a coach -- having just turned 40 a month ago, he is close in age to many of his players and he has been coached by greats like Arsene Wenger and Roberto Mancini.
Across MLS managers, Vieira has been perhaps the most flexible in terms of changing formations and trying unorthodox or less popular formations as opportunity arises. He has been a proponent of a three-man back line at times to bolster NYCFC's attack and overwhelm opposing defenses, which has given his attackers opportunities to succeed. That he has been willing to shake things up is what makes NYCFC an unpredictable team to go up against this season.
Strangely, NYCFC have struggled at home all season. Their unusually small pitch that is squeezed into the baseball diamond at Yankee Stadium has been blamed for hampering their style of play. On the road, however, the team has been exceptional, which really tells the story of their top spot in the standings. They are averaging about 1.9 points per game on the road, which is the highest in MLS since the LA Galaxy averaged two points on the road in 2010. (The Galaxy won the Supporter's Shield in 2010 for the best regular season record, by the way.)
Heading into Sunday's derby match, their road record bodes well. If NYCFC is going to win, it is more likely to happen at the New York Red Bulls' home venue than it is at Yankee Stadium. That's good news, because up until three weeks ago, the New York Derby (or the Hudson River Derby, depending who you ask) was a one-sided affair with the Red Bulls winning every time the two sides had faced off in their brief history.
But now, the better NYCFC gets, the higher the stakes for bragging rights and hurt egos get in this derby. NYCFC's change in fortune is not just good for NYCFC fans, it's good for soccer fans who love a good rivalry. This one is just getting started.
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