Tempo-Free Soccer: Uptown funk and the reason for New York City FC's current woes

Sunday’s derby loss against the New York Red Bulls had to be disheartening for NYCFC. Despite being up a man for the majority of the match after Matt Miazga received his second yellow in the 35th minute, NYCFC could not take advantage and were easily dispatched 2-1. As a result, the team from the Bronx has now only one win to their credit over the first 10 games.

Despite Jason Kreis taking the reins over a year before playing their first game, immediate success has proven elusive – as is generally the case for expansion teams in MLS. Certainly, it has not helped that of their three highest profile players, Frank Lampard has yet to arrive from Manchester City, David Villa has been hampered by injury, and Mix Diskerud has struggled to lead in the middle of the field.

Given that, Kreis has been forced to tinker. His successful RSL squads were defined a clear tactical style and consistent lineups; by contrast, per Opta, NYCFC have already trotted out five different formations to start games this season, more than any other team. All of these issues underscore the simple problem that has led to such a poor start: the team is struggling to put the ball in the back of the net. NYCFC are averaging a meager 0.7 goals per game, which is the second-lowest scoring rate in the league after Montreal.

Looking deeper at attacking data provided by Opta, it is striking how little width NYCFC is showing in attack. Looking at shots taken by MLS teams in the penalty box, or the “danger zone” as analyst Michael Caley calls it, we can see that very little is being created by NYCFC from the flanks, as demonstrated by the percent of these shots coming from crosses. 

Team % of Shots from Crosses
New York City FC 19.4%
FC Dallas 22.6%
Portland Timbers 34.8%
Seattle Sounders FC 35.9%
New England Revolution 36.0%
Vancouver Whitecaps 39.1%
New York Red Bulls 41.2%
Colorado Rapids 43.6%
LA Galaxy 44.7%
Philadelphia Union 45.8%
D.C. United 48.3%
Montreal Impact 50.0%
Sporting Kansas City 50.8%
San Jose Earthquakes 51.2%
Toronto FC 51.5%
Orlando City SC 53.7%
Houston Dynamo 56.3%
Chicago Fire 62.9%
Real Salt Lake 63.0%
Columbus Crew SC 72.0%

NYCFC has the lowest percent in the league. On its face, this is not necessarily a good or bad thing as it represents a stylistic choice more than anything else. However, when a stylistic choice is not resulting in goals, then you have a problem.

If the attack is not going to come from the wings, then it has to be generated in the middle of the pitch. Here again, NYCFC has struggled to connect their midfield to their forwards. They boast the second highest possession percentage in the league, but it has been of the toothless variety.

In particular, it appears that Diskerud might be playing too simply. He is the highest volume passer for NYCFC, but compared to other high volume passing central midfielders, an abnormally high percentage of his passes are short ones that do not stretch defenses. On average, Mix is playing approximately 14 short passes for every longer pass.

Name Short Pass: Long Pass
Mix Diskerud, New York City FC 13.8
Dax McCarty, New York Red Bulls 10.5
Tony Tchani, Columbus Crew 10.4
Michael Bradley, Toronto FC 10.1
Juninho, L.A. Galaxy 8.6
Darwin Ceren, Orlando City 8.4
Gonzalo Pineda, Seattle Sounders FC 7.8
Matías Laba, Vancouver Whitecaps 7.6
Diego Chara, Portland Timbers 7.4
Lucas Pittinari, Colorado Rapids 6.7
Matt Polster, Chicago Fire 5.8

Having a high ratio of short to long passes is perfectly fine, as long as those short combinations are resulting in chances. Unfortunately for Diskerud and NYCFC that has not been the case.

It is still early in the season and help is on the way with Lampard due to arrive, but it is clear there are some systemic issues that must be worked out before NYCFC's current situation improves.