The Red Bulls are 5-1-0 this season against the other top five teams in the Supporters' Shield standings (6-1-0 if you include No. 7 Portland). We can discuss all day who the best team in MLS might be, but the best among the best, that’s the Red Bulls right now (while the semantics sound funny, deep down you know there’s a vital difference). They’ve beaten Atlanta, NYCFC, Dallas, Sporting KC and LAFC. That lone loss? The last New York Derby.
Yet it's been an erratic six weeks since that win for NYCFC. The Blues looked amazing in their next two games against Montreal and Columbus, cruising past two potential playoff opponents. Since the Columbus game, however, NYC are 2-1-2 in their last five, and it’s a tally that takes a few pounds off their waistline. They limped to a win over a 10-man Toronto team, struggled to beat a barely-breathing Orlando, drew Vancouver at home, and got crushed by Philadelphia.
Head coach Dome Torrent has admitted as much, telling reporters after New York’s 2-0 victory over Orlando, “I’m not happy tonight. We were able to win, but I’m not happy with our performance because I can’t play that way...we play bad, really bad.”
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And then again after the Toronto win three weeks later: “I didn’t like it I said to them, my players in the first half. But we had the same problem in the second half.”
NYCFC know the way to beat RBNY – play direct passes to the strikers from the back and bypass the Red Bulls’ press – but it’s unclear whether they should deploy it. The club might have more pressing matters than the derby.
NYC’s slump could be a generic mid-summer slump. Or growing pains. Or the lingering effects of losing Yangel Herrera. Or evidence of a search for identity.
In the last five games, NYCFC have deployed (at least) three different looks:
- 4-3-3, with a traditional striker (Villa or Berget)
- 4-3-3, with a non-traditional striker (Moralez)
If we expand to the full 10 games Torrent has been at the helm, we can add one more:
- 4-4-2, with Moralez and Medina as strikers (potentially the first double False 9 I’ve seen)
Those different formations don’t even account for the different variances within the formations – inverted wingers vs. true wingers, single pivot vs. double pivot, Moralez as a box-to-box player or as a No. 10 – or the divergence in basic tendencies. In a win over Red Bulls in July, NYCFC completed 375 passes. Three days later, against Montreal, NYCFC connected on nearly twice as many (730).
You get the point: Torrent is trying things!
If these adjustments seem trivial, sit at the desk across from yours at the office today. When you get up to go to the bathroom, do you turn the correct way the first time? Maybe, but it's a safe bet you thought about it first.
Tinkering isn’t inherently good or bad. When Torrent told his team to play direct to defeat Red Bulls in his third game in charge, he looked like a genius; it was a breath of fresh air for NYCFC fans who had seen Patrick Vieira’s single-mindedness come to bite the team in big teams. But Torrent has tried multiple adjustments since and the team has seemed to lack an edge.
It’s fine to lose games.
It’s fine to play poorly at times.
It’s fine to tweak some things.
But when you put the three together, it’s a dangerous mix. You’re neither getting results, nor building toward something. It’s something a group needs to work through quickly.
Given that, and the knowledge that beating the Red Bulls requires a very specific game plan – NYCFC would play long out of the back and focus on second balls – Torrent has to choose whether to make the tweak. The challenge is deciding if that's who NYCFC want to be moving forward, if that represents the best version of themselves, if playing to beat RBNY simply puts a short-term patch over an expanding leak.
Does a team need a specific philosophy to win MLS Cup? Atlanta, Sporting, Dallas, Portland, and the Red Bulls all have an "It."
The Red Bulls enter Wednesday matchup full of confidence. They know who they are. They know they can beat anyone.
NYCFC enters the game full of questions. Considering they're playing at home, a place they’ve been nearly perfect since their inception and they haven’t shown recent signs of progress, the game would seem to matter more to Torrent than it does to RBNY's Chris Armas, also adjusting to his midseason appointment.
Wednesday’s match won't make or break their season. But Torrent's approach should prove revealing, and could have implications that impact the rest of their season.
NYCFC have the ability to be one of the best teams in the league. Recently, they haven’t shown it. They only have so many games left to get their swagger back.