Boehm: NYCFC got their groove back just in time, and have a kid to thank

What turns a team from tailspin into title contender? What one individual can tame the strange alchemy of a collective’s form, chemistry and confidence?

Can it really be possible for just one player, no matter how talented, to transform a side’s fortunes from flatlining to fabulous in a mere 108 minutes of match play?

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex, dynamic sport, that appears to be what Yangel Herrera – at the tender age of 20 – has done for New York City FC since returning ahead of schedule from a serious ankle injury.

NYCFC made easy work of the Philadelphia Union in their Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round matchup on Wednesday night, seizing an early advantage via Ismael Tajouri-Shradi’s golazo and icing the victory with textbook strikes from David Villa and Maxi Moralez. A lot went right for the home team: Their front four are clicking, their influential veterans made sure to crank up the intensity to postseason level and the Pigeons remain near-untouchable on their compact home field at Yankee Stadium.

And quietly, clinically, ruthlessly, their young midfield terrier asserted himself on a Union side that prefers to enjoy the ball and set the tempo. NYC’s engine-room trio of Herrera, Moralez and Alex Ring were an iron triangle, setting the tone with tigerish pressing, bossing space and time on a pitch where both can appear and vanish in what seems like a heartbeat.

For weeks on end we watched the Cityzens struggle and strain down the stretch. From late July to late September NYCFC went 2-5-4, and in terms of the eye test, mostly looked every bit as uninspired as that record sounds. Observers were left to ponder whether coach Dome Torrent had mucked up the tactics, or the team’s shape and philosophy, or whether there were locker-room issues simmering behind the players’ clear frustration with their poor results.

After churning through five painstaking months of rehabilitation and recovery, Herrera returned to the pitch as a substitute in the Cityzens’ 3-1 loss at D.C. United on Oct. 21. Within minutes he’d notched an assist on a Villa goal, and though that was mere consolation, those 18 minutes provided the Venezuelan his next progression towards a full 90, and an influential role, in the 3-1 Decision Day presented by AT&T victory over Philly that proved both preview and carbon copy of Wednesday’s triumph.

It’s not to say Herrera is his team’s MVP, or even one of its chief leaders – this is still Villa’s team until El Guaje calls time on his superlative career, and others can provide the vocal guidance. He’s certainly not their most recognized player, and he fulfills a role that doesn’t necessarily sell jerseys or season-ticket packages.

But Herrera is the reason we’re all looking at the blue half of Gotham quite differently than we were just a few days ago. And if they are to mount a serious challenge to Atlanta United in the Conference Semifinals, he must continue to be right at the beating heart of things.

He’s put in plenty of work to get to this point – the kind of hard, unseen graft that only players, coaches, athletic trainers and other rehab specialists can truly appreciate – and time is still of the essence. NYCFC have less than four days to recover, prepare and rally their fans out to the Bronx for Sunday’s Leg 1 clash.

History shows that most playoff upsets are built on a strong first leg on home soil. So Herrera, Villa and the rest of NYCFC will have to adopt an aggressive, “ambush” mentality against Atlanta just like they did vs. the Union. Herrera will again be pivotal, this time facing a far more loaded attack than Philly’s.

Are NYCFC capable of pulling it off? Answering that question got a lot tougher this week, and Torrent has Herrera to thank.

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