PURCHASE, N.Y. – There was no ambiguity for Jason Hernandez on his first introduction to Patrick Vieira.
The new New York City FC manager made his intentions crystal clear from the first day of the preseason.
The message was short and concise – there is the team, and nothing else matters.
“Everybody in every way was going to do everything they had for the club,” Hernandez said. “Whether that comes from the office and the business side of things or on the field from our leaders being held to the same standard as the last guy on the bench, I think it creates an environment where everyone really feels part of something and they feel they’re pushing this thing in the right direction.”
That direction is a steep uphill trajectory from last year, when NYCFC finished eighth in the Eastern Conference to end a disappointing inaugural season in Major League Soccer.
A year later, the club can finish second in the East with a win against Columbus Crew SC (or a draw if Toronto FC do not win in their game vs. Chicago) in their Decision Day showdown Sunday at Yankee Stadium (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
A distant hope a year ago, the MLS postseason is now a reality and the MLS Cup itself isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
While there have been a few key additions on the roster, including Ronald Matarrita, Maxime Chanot and Jack Harrison, players and staff say it is the change of culture that is the biggest difference and that comes directly from Vieira’s inclusive message.
According to those same players, Vieira’s tactics differ a bit from other MLS coaches and he brings a more European approach. That includes two-a-days during the season, at least once a week, and an attention to detail about everything, from the opposition to what to wear on a road trip.
For example, on a recent road trip to play D.C. United, the players, technical staff and support staff received an email detailing the travel attire for the players (white polo, blue pants, blue and orange half zip sweatshirt) and the staff (blue and orange polo, blue pants, full zip track jacket) and what team gear to pack for both.
The team regularly has breakfast and lunch at the training complex at Purchase College and on road trips always eats as a group, usually at the team hotel and occasionally at a local restaurant.
Hernandez believes the camaraderie is a big reason why NYCFC have an MLS-best seven wins on the road this season.
“He made a huge emphasis on us, from Day One in preseason, that our meals and our activities were going to be together as a group,” Hernandez said. “Over the course of the season when you have ups and downs with these guys, it becomes like a family and it becomes like a brotherhood.”
That doesn’t just include the players on the roster and the technical staff. On a recent day after training, the entire team, communication staff included, had lunch together at a White Plains Italian restaurant.
And then there’s the preparation for each match, which for the team begins at the very start of the week.
“We dissect everything,” midfielder Mikey Lopez said. “We dissect our own play and dissect the opposing team’s play. It’s been fantastic training under them, being coached by them in games and in training.”
That attention to detail is something Hernandez said he hasn’t seen in his 12 years in the league.
“I haven’t been with a staff that I feel goes through with a fine-tooth comb every detail leading up to a match,” Hernandez said. “Halfway through the week, I already feel prepared for the match and the last couple of days are fine-tuning what we’re doing.”
Throughout Vieira’s sterling playing career, he said he’s picked up different attributes from the various managers he’s played under and those he’s studied, including Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wegner, Roberto Mancini and Pep Guardiola.
“He’s close to Guardiola in the areas of the plan to play, the studying of the rivals during the week, the different work in the week, thinking about the different rivals you play,” NYCFC captain David Villa, who played for Guardiola at Barcelona, said. “I like that.”
Vieira has also been steadfast about how the team was going to play, the formation, building from the back. He remained dedicated even through struggles when NYCFC opened the season with just one win in their first eight games.
Critics said playing that way in the tight confines of Yankee Stadium was a recipe for disaster. But the team rebounded from its early struggles at home and head into the regular season finale unbeaten in their last seven in the Bronx.
All the while, Vieira never wavered, never relented in his first season in charge of a senior professional team.
“It’s really important believing in what we do. We believe in that. The first time he arrived here he said he had a clear idea, he has a system, he plays sometimes thinking about the other rivals, but always with our ideas,” Villa said. “Of course, it’s difficult because in soccer you’re not only playing you, you play against a team and if you lose, the people don’t see what happened before the loss and if you win, it’s the opposite.”
Although he’s demanding, Vieira’s calming presence has also been a key factor in NYCFC’s turnaround. In press conferences and in the locker room, he’s often reacted the same way after a win as a loss.
That could be one reason NYCFC has been able to bounce back after difficult losses. They’ve only lost back-to-back games once this season, in that early-season funk.
“He instilled the idea in us that of course over the marathon of a season you’re going to have days in a season where your performance isn’t great or the results aren’t what you want,” Hernandez said. “But the reality is that good clubs don’t go on losing streaks, and good clubs find a way to bounce back and respond, and send a message with their response.”
It’s a message that has been delivered by Vieira, loud and clear.