Warshaw: New York City FC are the clear favorite in the East

Okay. We see you New York City FC.

Heading into the final weeks of the season, it was an open question on whether the Eastern Conference had an alpha.

We can definitively say now that there is an alpha, and it is the team in the Bronx. NYCFC dismantled Atlanta United at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, sprinting, then galloping, then merely going for a nice stroll on the way to a 4-1 victory. With the win, NYCFC almost assuredly locks up the top seed in the East, a Round One bye and a spot in the Concacaf Champions League.

NYCFC fans will tell you that the Cityzens planted themselves atop the East weeks ago — they were 6-0-2 in their last eight games before beating Atlanta. It wasn’t that simple, though. Six of the eight games have been at home (the two away wins were Cincinnati and Vancouver); none of the wins came against a top-four seed in either conference; the last time they did play a top-four team (Atlanta), they lost; and they got outplayed by Toronto two weeks ago. NYCFC had shown that they were good, they hadn’t shown that it was their conference to lose. Wednesday night put them over the edge. It didn't hurt that the second-place team were without their best player.

It’s NYCFC, then everyone else in the East right now.

Maxi Moralez is the best attacking midfielder in the East. Alex Ring is the best defensive midfielder. Alexandru Mitrita is the most dangerous winger. Anton Tinnerholm is the best right back (when healthy). Sean Johnson is the best goalkeeper.

Let’s get this straight heading into the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. 

You cannot leave space in front of your back four against NYCFC. They will eat you alive. Like this:

Or this:

Every team tries to protect that space. No one goes into a game thinking, "meh, it's fine if they can run at our defenders." But NYCFC actively open that gap up. They pull on both ends of the accordion. They intentionally empty the middle of the field when they start their possession. 

On one end...Ring, the defensive midfielder, drops between the center backs. The other center midfielder, either Keaton Parks or Tony Rocha, drops deep next to the defenders.

On the other end… the four attackers start verrrryyyy high. Like, higher than you’ll ever see. Like, behind the opposing defense; beyond midfield. The attackers play chicken with the opposing defenders. Follow us and leave that space in front of you -- or don’t follow us and risk us getting behind you. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

NYCFC use their positional play to setup the field in a way that suits them. Before you know it, Moralez and Mitrita and Heber and Valentin Castellanos and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi are flying at you and you’re cooked like the chewy stew at grandmas. Nobody wants that.

And if you over-compensate to compress the middle of the field, they switch to a 3-4-2-1 and release their wingbacks to attack the space down the flanks. Instead of piercing through the middle, they get the ball wide and crash the box.

Are there concerns for NYCFC still? Yes. 

  1. They’ve still shown vulnerability trying to pass out of the back, as seen by Ring’s giveaway that lead to FC Dallas’ equalizer last weekend. 
  2. Their games also tend to get extremely open — a product of what we discussed above — and they aren’t great at making the field compact when they need it. As a result, they may struggle to shut down a game. Against both Dallas and Atlanta, they allowed the game to stay open while they were leading.

But the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. NYCFC's rolling. Getting to MLS Cup out of the East likely goes through the Bronx, both metaphorically and now physically. 

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