NEW YORK – If New York City FC makes the playoffs, they will point to this stretch of three games as the turning point.
It started with a strong effort in a 2-0 loss to FC Dallas a week ago and continued with back-to-back home wins over Toronto FC and, on Saturday, the San Jose Earthquakes.
It is still an uphill battle and NYCFC will need help, but there is a tangible difference in the first-year squad late in the regular season. As a result, NYCFC is two points below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference, but sixth-place Montreal still has three games in hand.
“That might still not be enough, but we can certainly hold our heads up high with the way we’re playing at the minute,” midfielder Frank Lampard said. “If we continue that until the end of the season and win all our games, we’ll give ourselves a fair chance.”
On Saturday, Lampard put forth his best performance in an NYCFC uniform, according to head coach Jason Kreis, who sung similar praises of Andrea Pirlo on Wednesday night.
With more time together, both in games and on the training field, Lampard and Pirlo are starting to find a rhythm in the middle of the field and especially in the attacking third.
“I think it was really massive that both those players were able to make the contributions they did over three games in a week,” Kreis said.
David Villa returned after missing Wednesday’s game with a hamstring injury, and his inspired performance was worthy of his captain’s armband. The Spanish legend had a goal and an assist.
But the biggest contribution on Saturday didn’t come from a European-based transplant. It came from an MLS lifer in veteran midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who struck for his first two goals of the season and a brace for just the second time in his career.
“It’s great, it’s brilliant, a testament to his professionalism,” Lampard said of Grabavoy. “I’ve seen him train and the way he carries himself, a squad player. When he’s not playing, a great attitude and when he plays he works for the team. He got what he deserved today.”
Inserted back in the lineup, albeit in a different role, Grabavoy has shoned during this key stretch for the expansion side. The reward was a pair of critical goals in a must-win game against the Quakes.
“In the last three games I think I’ve found myself counted on to be one of the first three or four guys in the box,” Grabavoy said. “At the same time I have to try to change my game and I think the last three games I’ve really made it a point to run and get into the box and be around the other front two or three guys and help make plays.”
San Jose rallied to pull within a goal, but unlike earlier in the season, NYCFC didn’t fold down the stretch and closed out a second straight September win. It’s a far cry from a stretch of one win in seven games that saw Kreis question his team’s desire after back-to-back losses to Los Angeles and Columbus.
“We can only control ourselves,” Grabavoy said of NYCFC’s playoff chances. “Obviously we’re going to need some help from other teams, but for me two or three weeks ago we could have laid down and died and I think we’ve done the opposite. That’s the most positive thing.”