PURCHASE, N.Y. -- Maybe it was the weather – a crisp, sunny, nearly 70-degree November (!) day in Westchester County, but on Wednesday morning, reports of any inner New York City FC turmoil seemed greatly exaggerated. Outside of the team’s immaculate training pitch at SUNY Purchase, fall foliage crunched underfoot, making everything seem – if not festive, then at least more optimistic than you might think.
And at face value, they may not have quite too much to be cheerful about. Of course, they’re coming into the second leg of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals down 2-0 to Toronto FC. (The game's at 6:30 PM ET on FS1, Fox Deportes in USA; TSN 4/5 in Canada.)
We all know that is … not good. Only two teams have advanced in the playoffs after dealing with that kind of deficit – and none have done so in 12 years. (Those who managed it? San Jose in 2003, and Kansas City in 2004.)
Also – there was that report of locker room discord that circulated this week, with Michael Lewis reporting discontented players had called a special meeting on Monday. A source, according to that report, had even described some NYCFC players as “livid.”
All that should add up to a glum atmosphere, no? But you just couldn’t tell any of that at NYCFC’s training ground, the team used to taking their lumps from all sides, and bouncing back despite it all. First things first – they all flat-out denied all reports of internal trouble, dismissing it all as a fabrication.
“There’s no problem at all. You see us trying here today; we’re all together,” said Frank Lampard. “There’s been no nonsense. It’s been made up.”
Ouch. So, what’s the truth? We’ll never know – but they’re doing well to put up a united front and defend their head coach. It’s team spirit that could serve them well on Sunday.
Here’s where, up close and personal, it seemed the team’s head was at training. First, despite Andrea Pirlo’s absence from training on Tuesday, some of the marquee names will still be available – there’s Lamps, after all, who said he felt totally match fit. And anyone asked about David Villa felt vindicated that he wouldn’t, in fact, be suspended after Sunday’s kickout on TFC’s Armando Cooper.
“We weren’t worried at all,” said forward Khiry Shelton. “There were things that had gone on during the match for both teams that could have led up to suspensions, but we’re glad it didn’t happen.”
Head coach Patrick Vieira said he felt equally vindicated. “I think we are in a world where we can all express ourselves and our opinions. I respect that,” he said of Toronto head coach Greg Vanney’s lobbying for a suspension. “Of course I’m really pleased with the decision from the league. I think they review the incident and they make the call.”
Besides Villa’s presence, more upside, the City guys noted? A potential home field advantage – wait, wait, it exists. Despite the team’s kinda dreadful home record earlier on, it’s improved as the season’s gone on – and with a near-sellout crowd, atmosphere will tilt towards the home side’s favor.
“It’s certainly improved, and I think you can see it in results,” Lampard said. “Last year and early this year it wasn’t great, and I think from mid-season, we’ve made it our home more. It’s the stadium to make our own, because it’s so imposing in itself. The pitch is what it is, and I think we’re comfortable with it now…. I think we need to carry on the way we’ve been going with our home form, and if we do that, we’ve got a good chance.”
The air among the team’s core remained cautiously optimistic, too. Just take fan favorite Tommy McNamara’s word for it.
“I don’t think we feel too much pressure,” he said. “We’re excited to have our first playoff game at home. We know we dug ourselves a little bit of a hole. But we’re confident in ourselves, and believe in ourselves that with the support of the crowd how we imagine it to be, that we can get ourselves back into this game and put a lot of pressure on [Toronto].”
Vieira remained totally unruffled as well. The imposing Invincible always comes off polite, if not effusive with media – but this time, he hung around what felt like extra-long, literally laughing off any pointed questions over nearly 15 minutes.
Why take off Villa when he did this past Sunday? “Why not?” He said, staring back at the reporter who asked.
Why all the perceived lineup changes? “That is my job, I have to make a decision,” he said. “And you guys have to question it, and I respect that, because that’s part of your job.”
This was not, clearly, a man outwardly worried about Sunday – nor one worried about what would look, to outsiders, like dramatic lineup changes. NYC will have to shore up their defense, in particular, in the face of Toronto’s pointed attacking danger, but Vieira showed he’s still willing to raise huge questions as needed, if he sees fit.
For one thing, the goalkeeping situation remains in the air. Will youngster Eirik Johansen return in place of longtime starter Josh Saunders? Possibly, Vieira said. And again, he chuckled and shrugged, keeping his positive poker face. “Regarding the goalkeeper position, I don’t want to focus on that one,” he said. “That’s one of the ones that’s a tough decision, and if I make a decision, I stick by my decision.”
So anyone hoping for the team to roll over and accept defeat now, well, sorry to disappoint. It’s a long shot for City to advance, but stranger things have happened in the MLS postseason. And if their training session was any indication, they’re ready to scrap it out on Sunday until the whistle blows.
“I don’t think we have to panic,” Lampard said. “Once the dust settles, you realize that we’re all capable of doing that.”