Warshaw: Vieira has New York City FC reaching new levels in unbeaten start

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see New York City FC at the top of the standings after three weeks. The blue side of New York finished 2nd in the 2017 Supporters Shield standings and added new talent at multiple positions. It’s still early, and though main rival Toronto FC is currently prioritizing Concacaf Champions League, NYCFC has looked consistently excellent through all three games. Yet this isn’t just a good team improving at the margins.

Technical Director Claudio Reyna added nice new parts in Jesus Medina, Anton Tinnerholm, Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jo Inge Berget, Ismael Tajouri, and Ebenezer Ofori. Medina, Tinnerholm, Abdul-Salaam and Tajouri featured in NYC's 2-0 victory over the weekend against Orlando City, with Medina particularly showing well thus far. Beyond the talent, developments in NYCFC’s playing style represent their biggest potential gains in the hunt for a trophy:

Simply put, NYCFC are now a team with multiple defining traits and, thus, multiple ways to win games.

Through the first two years of Head Coach Patrick Vieira’s tenure, NYCFC predicated their philosophy around skill and control of the ball. They would win games by outplaying opponents. Their possession-play started from the back, and they had confident, skillful players across the field who could pass through difficult situations. At their best, NYCFC could dice through opponents, leaving opposing defenders chasing to get a touch of the ball.

If the passing plan ever didn’t work, they would resort to moments of brilliance from individual players. It’s not a horrible plan when you have the likes of David Villa, Maxi Moralez or Jack Harrison.

But as good as NYCFC could look – and be – at times, some days they just didn’t have it. And if they weren’t precise, they weren’t quite as potent. It’s not to say their defense was poor – they gave up the fifth-fewest goals in 2017 – but defending wasn’t something they could count on to win them games.

That’s changed in 2018. They are just as capable as destroying you when they don’t have the ball as when they do.

It’s usually a trait we see from the other team in New York, but NYCFC is threatening to become a lethal pressing team. Against Orlando, both of NYCFC’s goals came from OCSC turnovers deep in their own end. Sloppy plays from Orlando, but ones forced by NYCFC pressure.

NYCFC has now made pressing – or, at times, more specifically counterpressing – a main facet of their game: Whenever NYCFC lose the ball, they immediately react to win the ball back.

Just before NYCFC scored their first goal, they had just lost the ball at the top of the Orlando box, and the guys in light blue had pressure on and around the ball before Orlando could play out. Without any options open, Orlando’s Yoshi Yotun plays the ball back to his goalkeeper:

The crucial moment in Saturday's NYCFC victory over Orlando.

You can even see the two NYC players getting ready to sprint at Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik, who ended up flubbing the kick under pressure; Tajouri scored the opener on the ensuing play.

We see the same situation on the second goal. NYCFC had just lost the ball and transitioned to defending right away. Sacha Klejstan never had a chance to pick his head up before being surrounded, and a few seconds later, NYCFC went up 2-0.:

The gaps closed quickly around Sacha Kljestan on Saturday.

“I think that’s the DNA right now,” said NYCFC winger Rodney Wallace after the match. “And that’s going to be our DNA going forward, hard work and the press from the front, which is going to allow us to have the ball more and ultimately create chances and put the ball in the net.”

This concept of “pressing from the front” and winning the ball back quickly, or counterpressing (gegenpressing if you’re feeling really hipster), has become a dominant force around the world over the last decade. It’s been popularized by former Borussia Dortmund and current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and, to a lesser extent, Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and former Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa.

While a defending tactic in practice – as its premise is to win the ball back – it’s an attacking approach in nature. The best opportunities occur right after turnovers when the opponent is still in attacking posture, and the farther up the field you win the ball, the less distance you have to travel to score. So the more often you can win the ball back quickly and far up the field, the more chances you will have to score.

As Klopp puts it, “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.” (Shoutout to Kristan Heneage for reminding me of this quote.)

In the Orlando game, NYCFC didn’t create a ton of chances. They produced a total expected goals of 0.95, well below the two they scored. If NYCFC hadn’t manufactured the opportunities via their defensive pressure, it could have been lost points.  

After the Orlando game, NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson told reporters, “I think it’s the one thing that we really needed to get better from last year, the reaction when a ball turns over…” The point becomes more important when you consider NYCFC’s home venue, Yankee Stadium. As Matt Doyle wrote in this week’s Sunday recap:

Games at Yankee Stadium have around 10 percent more possessions relative to a typical MLS game. What this means is that 1) there are more turnovers at Yankee Stadium than at other stadiums, 2) more turnovers lead to more transition opportunities, and 3) because of the size of the field, those transition opportunities have an outsize impact on determining the outcome of any given game.

When put into full context, it’s obvious why NYCFC would want to focus on their transition defending, and it’s clear they’ve already made strides. Now, in 2018, when their possession isn’t sharp or Villa, Moralez, or Medina don’t contribute a special moment, they have another playmaker that can beat you. NYCFC are just as likely to pass you to death as they are to suffocate you. Depends on the day. Depends on the play.