Two very different teams met at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night.
New York City FC, in their debut season, took the pitch sporting two of the best players of this generation: Spanish striker David Villa and Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo. Things haven’t gone exactly as planned for New York — they entered Thursday’s encounter four points out of playoff position.
United, on the other hand, entered the encounter as league-leaders. And they’ve done it using a much less flashy approach: they’ve assembled a savvy group of veterans who’ve carved out result after result; sometimes flashy, always rich on character, United have ridden their no-nonsense approach to the top of the table.
It would be NYCFC who’d emerge victorious, riding a trio of goals — including one that involved both previously mentioned megastars — to a 3-1 triumph over D.C. A series of defensive breakdowns washed away Alvaro Saborio’s opener, snapping the Black-and-Red’s three-game winning streak.
“Our inability tonight to show up for the entire game was the difference,” a frustrated Ben Olsen told the media in attendance after the match. "Give them credit — they came with really good energy in the second half and we turned it down. We thought it was gonna be another night when we squeaked by, and we don’t have to stay at a certain level. When you do that, it’s a dangerous game that you play in. And we got bit. We’ve been asking to get bit a little bit. Hopefully this is a lesson for all of us to get back that chip that we need to win in this league.”
D.C. looked sharp over the opening 45 minutes or so of the match and took the lead on a 36th minute blunder by Pirlo himself. The Italian collected the ball near the center stripe, turning and playing it back towards his center backs. An attentive Chris Rolfe intercepted the pass and strode towards goal, eventually squaring the ball across to Saborio for the goal.
NYCFC, on the other hand, looked listless for the opening stanza - it was only after the restart that they came alive. In the 51st minute, Thomas McNamara leveled the game after a lovely combination between Villa and Kwadwo Poku; thirty minutes later, New York took the lead for good when Pirlo and Villa combined for NYCFC’s second. United’s back line looked a bit ragged by the time Poku combined with McNamara to find the icing on the cake, an 88th minute insurance tally.
United have not lost many this year, but the games they’ve dropped often follow a similar formula — a strong opening stanza, followed by a second-half breakdown, or an opening blunder followed by a strong finish. On Thursday, Olsen lamented his side’s occasional inability to put together a 90-minute performance.
"Poku and Villa made us look like boys,” Olsen said. "They just absolutely were manhandling us in the second half. We didn’t have a lot of answers for them. It wasn’t just our backs. It was midfielders and forwards — we just had too many guys in the second half not be up to speed. Again, give them credit. They put a lot of effort in today and I thought Villa and Poku — who caused us fits in the first half and the second half — they were both great.”
"I thought [our first half was one of] our best halves in the last few weeks at least,” added Rolfe. "Coming out in the second half, we should have been confident and continued that path, but they put it to us. They had more energy, a better idea of what they wanted to do, and it showed."
It’s worth mentioning that D.C. remain a comfortable eight points ahead in the East. But they’ve also played four matches more than the second-place New York Red Bulls, and they won’t get much time to right the ship, either. They’ll travel to Panama to face Arabe Unido in a CCL clash on Wednesday before returning to RFK Stadium for an encounter with the San Jose Earthquakes a few days later.