Tactical Look: How should New York City FC fill their open DP spot?

Frank Lampard - New York City FC - Celebrate

As the MLS offseason draws closer, New York City FC are faced with the challenge of rebuilding their midfield. This week, it was announced that both Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola will be moving on. While others might be critical of Lampard’s spell in the Bronx, I would prefer to highlight this goal below.

That is a 38-year-old man, in the oppressive New York heat, literally running box-to-box while shaking off a much younger foe’s physical challenge at the end of a game that had already been decided, on the chance the ball would break to him. No one would have noticed if he had quit on the play at any moment of the sequence. Instead, he did what he’s always done. His work rate is legendary, and this play embodies his passion and love of the game. Respect is due to Frank Lampard, for his career has earned it.

City can now acquire a new Designated Player, and this is an opportunity for the franchise to take the next step. We have seen how successful roster building in MLS is a complicated process, and the importance of the right DP signings can not be overstated. NYCFC benefit from the combination of location and ability to pay high salaries, making them a marquee destination in MLS, and possibly global soccer.

While the the team improved dramatically this year, there is no escaping the fact that the two biggest games in franchise history were both this year, and ended with heartbreak. First they were beaten yet again by the New York Red Bulls, this time in embarrassing 7-0 fashion. Then, in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs they were finished off by Toronto FC to the tune of 5-0. In seven games against Toronto and the Red Bulls in 2016, NYCFC’s record was 1-4-2, with an aggregate score margin of 6-21. When planning their next acquisitions, it would seem important to keep the match-ups with their direct rivals in mind.

When City matched up against both squads, the team appeared to be completely overwhelmed by opposition midfielders that were younger and more mobile. While Andrea Pirlo and Lampard both proved they could operate effectively in MLS, having two players 37 or older in one midfield imbalanced City and gave a significant advantage to their opposition. Lampard and Pirlo were both extremely clever, but not always able to do what was necessary in battle:

Less than 15 seconds after letting Michael Bradley have this header uncontested, Sebastian Giovinco scored TFC’s first goal, effectively ending the playoff series before the second leg was even six minutes old.  There is a uniqueness to games played in the much smaller dimensions in the Bronx, highlighted by the fact that regular season MLS games at Yankee Stadium in 2016 had an average of 3.71 goals per game, while there were only an average of 2.76 goals per game elsewhere. Every inch of the smaller space is vital, and City need to be able to compete in those instances.

In addition to their rivals and terrain, NYCFC should consider the needs of their team, and current roster strengths. Lampard leaves as the second leading scorer in franchise history. While he was second in MLS with a 0.84 goals per 90 minutes played ratio last season amongst players with at least five goals, he was on the field for just 2,119 (out of a possible 6,120) minutes of career MLS regular season action. 

Their next signing will need to be healthy and present from the first day of the 2017 campaign. Tommy McNamara is the third in NYCFC history with 10 goals and David Villa should not be expected to shoulder the goalscoring burden alone for the 2017 season. That said, NYCFC do have an exciting collection of young attacking players including McNamara, Khiry Shelton, Jack Harrison and Steven Mendoza. Any one of them could elevate their play to All-Star levels next year, and City should give their development room to breathe. Bringing in an established player who needs to play on the attacking line might be a good short term boost, but could hinder the minutes of their long term prospects.

And there is no hiding the fact that NYC conceded the fourth-most goals in the league this year. They are certainly lacking a Ciman, Waston or Hedges-type player who is unquestionably an elite MLS center back. While Liam Ridgewell’s signing has shown that a DP center back can help an MLS team win a title, I expect NYC to target an area higher up the field. Currently, their best central midfielders are probably Pirlo and Federico Bravo. Take a look at how those two defended against Red Bulls below.

Fortifying their midfield could arguably reduce the number of goals conceded as much as upgrading the center backs. They can use their Targeted Allocation Money and General Allocation money to bring in a player of enough quality to upgrade the central defense.

They should use this DP slot to bring in an elite, dynamic midfielder capable of scoring goals and amplifying the influence of Pirlo, connecting their buildup from the back with Villa and the kids further forward. It will be intriguing to see who they sign, and how that signing shapes the third season of soccer in the Bronx.

Matt Pavlich is a youth soccer coach in the New York City area who holds a NSCAA Advanced National badge. He is currently working with Asphalt Green Soccer Club on the girls side, and Martin Luther King high school on the boys side. He has worked for Opta since 2011, primarily focusing on MLS. He also played varsity soccer for Vassar College.