It's the final home game of the regular season and we welcome back the first opponent in MLS Orlando City faced: New York City FC. Our fellow 2015 expansion club has gotten the better of our Lions thus far, to the tune of a win and a draw in the first two meetings, so it's Orlando's last chance to grab a win over the other new kids on the block in Major League Soccer.
Here to help us catch up with the visitors is Sam Dunn from our sister SB Nation blog, Hudson River Blue. Sam was gracious enough to answer our questions three (like the bridge keeper!) about our kind-of-rivals from the Bronx in our usual Q&A style. You can look for my answers to Sam's questions over at HRB.
1) How has Jason Kreis learned to best utilize the talents of Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo within the existing framework of the team and how much has that had to do with the team's recent improvement in form?
Devotees will remember the elegant destruction that Pirlo perpetrated upon OCSC in just 30 minutes off the bench during the 5-3 artillery shelling at Yankee Stadium on July 26. Lampard's introduction to the side, exacerbated by a nagging leg injury sustained in training, was much tougher to finagle.
Fast forward to September, in which "Danq Franq" was named NYCFC's player of the month. How did Jason Kreis make it happen? By getting the other cooks out of the kitchen. Case in point: Kwadwo Poku hasn't started a single game since all three designated players were healthy at the same time. Is Poku a destructive force on the ball? Yes. Did he score the first-ever brace in NYCFC history? Sure shot. Does he take up similar spaces on the field as Lampard? Unfortunately, yep.
You can't sign Frank Lampard and not play the guy, so Poku went to the bench. It's important to note, however, that once Lamps was installed as the first-choice Number Ten -- with Ned Grabavoy to his left and Mix Diskerud to his right in a 4-2-3-1 -- the team embarked on a three-match win streak. Form is a strange thing, of course, and the squad dropped an embarrassing home result to D.C. United not long after. But, for three games running against Toronto, San Jose, and Vancouver, Frank made it abundantly clear why he was the guy with the Times Square billboard even before he was actually signed by New York City.
Something to note about Pirlo: he hasn't been a prominent force in every match, but he's led NYCFC in touches in every single game he's started. He bosses the middle of the field harder than the Warden from Shawshank. With Andrew Jacobson at his side playing the role of box-to-box attack dog, the Maestro has made no small amount of hay playing keep-away while the rest of his battery mates run into space. He flicks tricky balls into the box with the easy grace of a saint. Forget the fact that he can't run or tackle. It's mesmerizing to watch in the context of Major League Soccer.
2) The reviews of Mix Diskerud's performances this season have been, well...mixed. What has the U.S. international done well and where have his weak spots been in 2015?
Nice pun! You're good people. Really good people, lemme tell ya.
To say nothing of his dual citizenship, the Mix Master is a man without a country. Ask yourself this question: what position does he play? No, don't say "central midfield" to me right now. Which specific space on the field is Mix most productive?
The answer is that there is no answer.
This isn't to say that Mix and his immaculate hairdo have zero strengths. Far from it. He's an above-average midfield tackler, and his stamina is absolutely outlandish. Jason Kreis has often remarked that Mix will look as if he's about to die, only to get a second and a third wind. Free of context, you can't put a price on that. It means that, in the final half hour, he can make a discernible contribution in a lot of places: this year, that's been as a number eight, a number ten, or a right winger. Unfortunately, he rarely distinguishes himself at any of these positions over a full 90-minute span. He's not a natural attacking man, lacks the vision to be a deeper playmaker, and can't cross effectively enough to boss the wing on a weekly basis. In the attacking half, one occasionally forgets he's even out there at all.
Diskerud is a drifter. He drifts! Suffice to say he's good at a handful of things, but great at almost nothing. We've seen a similar story play out with the national team: for every kung-fu kick goal from a gorgeous Michael Bradley ball, there are a half dozen disappearing acts. It isn't because he doesn't understand the game plan; the guy just doesn't have the field vision.
We've been pretty merciless in our evaluations of Diskerud on Hudson River Blue. His signing was meant to alleviate the unmitigated outrage over the grotesque, egregious mismanagement of the Lampard/Manchester City contractual fiasco (read: repeated lies). For a time, his presence did ease that tension-- his opening day goal at the Citrus Bowl was an absolute peach. But he literally hasn't created a chance for himself since that massive day in March. I can't say with confidence that he'll be a part of New York City's long-term plans, especially considering that he's tying up a boatload of allocation money to keep his contract under DP level.
3) Some of NYCFC's role players have been the team's most pleasant surprises this year - Poku, McNamara, Ballouchy, etc. How has Jason Kreis gotten these players to contribute, particularly while waiting for guys like Lampard to get going?
It's cool that Ballouchy scored a couple early goals this year. After all, one of the guys from Once a Metro referred to him as "Brigadier Backpass." Nice to see him find the net when the Boys in Blue were still searching for their stride. By the middle of the season, however, Mehdi Ballouchy revealed himself to be, well, Mehdi Ballouchy. But hey, thanks for the curler against Portland (which came after he missed a much easier chance in the first half).
As for Kwadwo Poku and Tommy McNamara, they started together for the first time at PPL Park on June 6. That night, Poku assisted on McNamara's opening goal and New York City ended a disgusting 11-match winless run in thrilling fashion. It was not a coincidence.
The two have combined for 11 goals in all competitions, and constituted an adrenaline shot straight to the heart of NYCFC. We haven't seen much of them since all three DPs got match fit, but the young guns served an indispensable purpose while the fans were desperately waiting for the star men to get situated. T-Mac made a home for himself out wide to the left, while Poku shifted between second striker and the right wing.
Each guy brings physicality, a thirst for winning the ball, and creativity with the ball at their feet. McNamara is a better finisher, while Poku is the superior chance creator. With David Villa in front of them and Pirlo behind, these two have produced some of the finest highlights for NYCFC this year. Poku needs to enhance his defensive contribution and figure out how to better manage his stamina, but the raw product so far is incredibly encouraging (in his debut MLS season, he's landed at No. 7 on the league's annual "24 Under 24" list).
As Raf mentioned on this week's PawedCast, rumors have fluttered that McNamara is in Jason Kreis's doghouse. I don't know how that could possibly be the case -- T-Mac is incredibly down-to-earth in person, carrying himself with the kind of air that belies his 24 years. But how else can one explain his absence while fit? All I can think of is that Kreis trusts Ned Grabavoy with his life on that left wing, those two having spent so much time together at Real Salt Lake.
This season is going to end, almost surely, without a playoff appearance for New York City. The cupboard is anything but bare going forward. McNamara and Poku are essential pieces for this club; not just for the on-field product, but with the fans as well. Ballouchy might not stick around past the end of his contract, but the youth movement projects to be plenty strong for New York's newest team.
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Big thanks to Sam for helping us get to know more about our enemies. I do, however, opine that Pirlo did a masterful job of giving the ball to Poku in that 5-3 loss and it was Poku that destroyed us. Oh well. One man's opinion.