It’s 10:45 am, and Patrick Vieira is patrolling a patch of grass on a nondescript training field in Bradenton, Florida.
On this particular Thursday, the man who helped France claim historic World Cup and European Championship victories — the brilliant midfielder who won the English Premier League three times during a memorable spell at Arsenal and went on hoist a quartet of Serie A titles to boot — finds himself offering some sage advice to fresh-faced 22-year-old forward Khiry Shelton.
Undeniably one of the EPL’s all-time hardest, most tough-nosed midfielders, Vieira’s tone softens considerably as he offers his tutelage, his arms drawing an imaginary path for Shelton to follow on his next run, which he dutifully follows. “Good, Khiry,” says Vieira, a broad smile coming across his face. The youngster gets a pat on the back from David Villa before trotting back to his position.
After winning everything there is to win in Europe then trading in his boots for management, this is Vieira’s latest challenge: bringing together New York City FC’s collection of European mega-stars and American upstarts, pointing a club that failed to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs in its expansion season toward the promised land. The expectations are massive. Vieira seems unfazed.
“I’m happy here,” Vieira says at the team hotel later. “I have a great team and a great staff. Now all I have to do is win.”
"All I have to do is win.”
Certainly that’s the expectation of any coach, but it’s particularly true at City Football Group, the conglomerate which owns NYCFC, Manchester City and a host of other global clubs.
It was their expectation last year, as well, when former Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis was hired more than a year before the club’s first game then indoctrinated in Manchester, partially by Vieira, before assembling a team from scratch. Things didn’t go as planned. City fell short of a playoff spot, undone by a lack of chemistry and a shaky backline. Kreis paid the price, relieved of his post one week after a season-ending loss to New England.
Vieira feels those expectations. And this coaching assignment – his first senior role after guiding Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad (EDS) for the past two years – is quite a bit different than the European posts the Frenchman had been linked with in the past. With it come the intricacies of Major League Soccer’s unique roster rules and regulations, guidelines that complicated the lives of former foreign coaches like Ruud Gullit and Hans Backe.
“I just think that coaching in the MLS is of course harder than in Europe,” Vieira explains. “Because of the salary cap and the roster, and the way you have to make things balanced in the squad, making sure you have the players you need … In Europe, if you want a player, you just go out and buy them. Here, you can’t do it unless you have all these certain criteria. It is really interesting, really fascinating.
“Because this is all about coaching as well – having the balance in your roster and spending your money the right way. I like it. I really do like it. Of course I still have a lot of the rules to learn to understand, but next to [NYCFC Director of Player Recruitment David Lee] and [Sporting Director] Claudio [Reyna,] I’m getting it.”
The Arsenal legend joins a club many perceived as a bit long in the tooth last year, and it’s no secret that rejuvenating the roster was among Vieira’s priorities from the get-go. A bevy of offseason acquisitions fit that mold. Still, New York’s trio of global superstars remain: 34-year-old Spaniard Villa, 36-year-old Italian legend Andrea Pirlo and 37-year-old Frank Lampard, perhaps playing the final season of his career.
It makes for an interesting juxtaposition on the training pitch, where relative newcomers like Thomas McNamara, Patrick Mullins and Kwadwo Poku trade touches with players they’d watched in World Cups.
On this day, Vieira seems a good fit for such a group. His coaching style, perhaps molded by his days leading youngsters in Manchester, is well suited for NYCFC’s young charges. The 39-year-old is upbeat, highly instructive. During stoppages in play, there’s rarely a moment when Vieira isn’t offering some sort of guidance. In other moments, Villa or Pirlo take their turn playing teacher.
Vieira also retains a bit of an aura from his playing days, which he’s only five years removed from, and his resume gives him instant credibility with his players.
As a coach, however, he remains unproven, though he says his time in Manchester helped prepare him for the task at hand with NYCFC.
“I think it was a massive step for me, going from my ambassador role [at Manchester City] to the coaching role with the academy,” reflects Vieira. “It was the right step to do – because it was important for me to find out who I was as a coach, to know the style of play that I wanted to implement to the team. I think going with the [academy] allowed me to make the mistakes that I wouldn’t have been allowed to make at a higher level.”
Of course, the task is not his alone. Vieira readily admits he’s tapped into Villa, Pirlo and Lampard to serve as proxies for the coaching staff as well.
“There’s a lot of exchange [between young and old],” he continues. “You saw it this morning. David, the way he’s talking to Khiry, the way he interacts with Mix, or Tony [Taylor] or Tommy – they have the responsibility and I’ve put it on their shoulders because they have the experience. They’ve been through what these players are going through so they have the answers already. They have a massive power to influence the success of the group.
“What I like about [David, Frank and Andrea] is that they are good human beings, good people, humble people. Football doesn’t have a lot of people like that.”
Vieira and the club’s stars can offer tutelage to the club’s young core, but finding significant minutes for those players may prove a challenge.
He has been openly critical of the youth development model in England, going as far as to suggest that teams in the Premier League would benefit from fielding “B” sides in the Championship so players are exposed to “man football,” as he often puts it. Vieira acknowledges that may prove an even bigger challenge stateside.
“When I’m seeing players coming out from college at 22 or 23 years old and playing a three month season over the year, something’s not right, you know what I mean?” Vieira says. “When you come out of college at 22 or 23, that’s really late.
“It’s going to be a challenge because of how the system works. And we need to find a way to work in that system, that’s the way it is, but to try and see if we can be more creative … There are basics that you just have to learn at an early age. If you have to wait until 14, 15, 16 to learn them, it’s too late. It’s all about how much they will want to implement soccer in the US as well. If you really want to develop soccer, you will need to come up with a different way of developing young players.”
It's a problem NYCFC face on this side of the Atlantic as well. Reyna has vowed not to rush the process – the academy won't field a U-18 team in 2016, while 11 feeder clubs help provide a talent pipeline – and the club renewed its USL affiliation with the Wilmington Hammerheads in early February to provide opportunities for young first-team players.
That’s big picture thinking. Right now, Vieira knows he must focus on the task at hand: preparing NYCFC’s players for a playoff-caliber season. Many could learn a thing or two from their manager.
Halfway through training, Vieira can’t help but step up to a ball that’s trickled to his feet, whizzing it skillfully into goal from 25-yards out. During 5-v-2 games, Vieira sneaks in a touch or two, and is the first to join in on the ribbing when an unnamed player gets megged.
He also seems to encourage the same sort of high-energy, physical play that earned him his reputation as a player.
“What I want to do is [for us] to play the way I see the game,” Vieira says. “That means I really want to play the positive way – the positive way meaning that we play with an open mind. I want players to go on the field and play to win the game. I don’t want players to go on the field and say, ‘We’re playing to not lose the game.’ … It may happen that we’ll go and play a fantastic game and we’ll lose the game. It will happen. That’s the way football is.
“But we will win more games playing that way than the other way around. So I just want the team to show passion, to show intensity in the game, I want the team to have an attacking mind. I don’t see the game as sitting back, getting the ball and counterattacking. Of course I’d like the team to reflect who I am as a person.”
Laughter is a constant soundtrack to this particular session. That’s not to say Vieira’s players aren’t taking their jobs seriously, but there is an undeniable air of positivity in camp.
Maybe it’s the weather, or simply a reflection of their coach’s personality. When NYCFC newcomer Ethan White tries to play a ball around Pirlo, the former Juventus man deftly deflects it away with his arm. Vieira doesn’t see it, and play continues. White chuckles, Pirlo gives a mischievous shrug, and the young defender gives the Italian a playful shove.
But there is pressure to bear. Immense pressure. Perhaps more on Vieira than anyone else.
He’s been linked with top jobs in the EPL in the past, and there are many who view his stay at NYCFC as a mere layover on a journey to a more glamorous European destination like Manchester City, where Pep Guardiola will take over this summer on a three-year contract.
Vieira emphasizes he’ll do what feels right, trusting his instincts just like during his playing days. When it’s suggested that he might eventually move on to a bigger club, he cuts the question off mid-sentence: “I already am coaching for a big club,” he says, steely-eyed.
“I made the decision to come here because this was the right place for me. This is where I can achieve what I want,” Vieira emphasizes. “If it works for the next 10 years, I’d be more than happy to stay. If I stayed here for 10 years and we win year after year, I’d stay no problem at all. [Failure] is part of the job as a coach. It’s part of the pressure – you have to do well. If I do well, I would be more than happy to stay.
“I don’t have an ambition to go. People say, ‘Oh, he’s just coming here for a few years.’ For me to say it’s wrong, it would be a waste of time,” he continues. “I don’t have anything to prove to anybody on that side. The fact is that I’m coming here and am really happy here because I’m really fascinated with this project. That’s the reason why I signed the three-year contract here.
“If I don’t get sacked before then,” Vieira adds with a smile, “I will be here for the three years easy.”