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NYCFC 2020 Season Review, Pt. 5: A Octnovember To Remember
By Justin Egan
EXT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE - DAY
A bloodied yet unbowed RONNY DEILA [note to casting: should be played by an extremely sleep-deprived Ryan Gosling] pauses at the door of an abandoned warehouse. Inside, our bound and duct-taped villain, MISTER TWENTY-TWENTY [note to casting: find some bald guy who looks like Gerhard Struber], grows panicked at a mysterious beeping coming from a nearby locker. The villain’s eyes grow wide as he reads the name on the locker: VALENTIN CASTELLANOS.
[muffled panicked noises]
Now this is what I call a ... negative formulation.
The beeping stops. The color drains from Mister Twenty-Twenty’s face. Deila walks away without looking back as the explosives detonate and the warehouse crumbles in the background. The smiling specters of HÉBER, JAMES SANDS, and TONY ROCHA IN AVIATORS SMOKING A CIGAR beam down on Deila from the sky, then fade from existence, their souls now at peace.
Okay so maybe I need to workshop my screenplay a little, but with NYCFC winners of four straight games entering the playoffs, even the most begrudging Deila critics are a couple steps down the path toward accepting that the coach may actually be doing a good job.
In the games MLS decided to count toward the regular season, NYCFC ranked seventh in points per game, sixth in goal difference, fourth in expected goal difference, and second in goals added. The first part of that list left fans feeling a little disappointed after a triumphant 2019, but the last part is better at predicting future results. All the analytics point toward NYCFC being an elite team that, if not for home advantage, should be discussed as an MLS Cup contender.
The most important factor for NYCFC’s recent run of form has been a healthy Maxi Moralez. Since the starting No. 10 returned from an MCL injury a few weeks ago, NYCFC has not only won four of four, they’ve scored more goals than any team in the league.
Nothing shows Moralez’s importance to this team like his performance against Montreal. Playing the full 98 minutes and looking fully fit for the first time since the MLS is Back tournament, the Argentine veteran had a hand in all three goals of a 3-1 win. The biggest difference was NYCFC’s renewed ability to counterattack quickly through the middle, which had been sorely lacking since Alexandru Mitriţǎ left for Saudi Arabia and Jesús Medina took over the No. 10 role.
For opponents, it was damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Try to bunker like Montreal and watch Maxi hit NYCFC’s elite fullbacks in wide areas. Try to pin Anton Tinnerholm by attacking his side like Toronto and watch Maxi break your lines on the dribble. Press and clog the middle to deny Maxi like Chicago and you’ll get beat over the top with long balls to Taty Castellanos.
Related: Long Balls to Taty (Justin Egan)
Point is, NYCFC is a lot more dynamic with Moralez in the lineup. Without him, it’s pretty much just get the ball wide to the fullbacks and hope something happens.
The other big story in the homestretch was that Taty Castellanos started scoring a bunch, racking up 6 goals and 3 assists on his way to winning the MLS Player of the Month for Octnovember. If you’re a longtime follower of The Outfield, you know we stan our young Olympic diving medalist. Though he was scoreless for the first eight months of the regular season, analytics showed a young player ready to explode, and the explosion came against the best possible opponent.
Why were these goals, ahem, expected? Because even when he wasn’t scoring, Taty was finding lots of shots—the most shots in the league, in fact—from good positions. The general consensus in the analytics community is that while finishing skill exists, it’s not all that important. Compared to a player who’s scored a lot of goals on low-quality chances through half a season, a player who’s gone goalless on lots of xG is more likely to score in the second half.
The important ability is finding good shots, and there Taty’s numbers put him among the best strikers in MLS. For all players over 1000 minutes, on a per 96 minutes basis, Castellanos ranks first in shots, first in shots on target, and fourth in expected goals. Goals added, which measures the value of every on-ball action, not just shots, puts him eighth out of everyone in the league for his value per 96’ compared to an average player at his position. That’s higher than two out of four outfield MVP finalists, and he wasn’t even nominated for Young Player of the Year. Is there a more underrated player in MLS?
Taty’s last six games show all the ways he can influence the game. Against Columbus, he scored off a corner. Against Toronto, he zapped a long-range laser off the keeper for Jesús Medina to tap home the rebound and win the game. Against the Red Bulls, he showed off his aerial ability to score on a great near post run and his hold-up play with a cheeky assist to Gary Mackay-Steven. Against Chicago, he served as an outlet over the top to beat the press, then put in a pressing shift of his own to turn a Fire miscue into a game-winning tap-in.
By the way, NYCFC’s offensive explosion hasn’t been all Argentine. Taty and Maxi have had help from Gary Mackay-Steven, who’s answered questions about who could replace Alexandru Mitriţǎ by quietly finishing fifth on the team for total g+ against average.
The offense is clicking. The team is winning. So does this mean that Ronny Deila is a good manager? Fair to say the jury’s still out. The 4-2-3-1 is working, but some key lineup moves only happened because his hand was forced. Taty got his chance because Héber was hurt; Alex Ring only left the wing because of James Sands’ injury; Gary Mackay-Steven got consistent minutes because Mitri peaced out to the Middle East and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi contracted Covid-19. If everyone had stayed healthy, would we still be talking about Alex Wing? If Maxi had been slower to recover, would Medina still be our starting No. 10? And what on earth happened with Mitriţǎ, anyway? Ronny’s going to have questions to answer in the offseason as he helps reimagine the roster for 2021.
Workload is another reason to worry. Since the regular season resumed after MLS is Back, here’s how much of the team’s 1776 total minutes some core players have put in:
Ring - 96.3%
Tinnerholm - 95.6%
Chanot - 94.3%
Parks - 91.9%
Callens - 91.2%
These guys are good and I can understand a coach wanting consistency, but in an insanely condensed fall schedule, those minutes look like they’re taking a toll on the defense that was second best in MLS from July to September with 0.9 xG allowed per game but fifth worst since the start of October with 1.7 xGA. NYCFC has given up multiple goals in three of their last five, mostly due to gaps in defensive coverage and miscommunication. Players looked tired, less like a well-oiled machine than a ragtag pickup squad.
Speaking of consistency, will it be a problem in the playoffs? Switching to a full-time 4-2-3-1 in August was a turning point for NYCFC. While they’re never going to surprise opponents with their gameplan, does that really matter when you’ve got a midfield triangle of Moralez, Parks, and Ring as well as the two best overlapping fullbacks in MLS? On the other hand, Deila could be up against two of this year’s best coaches in Orlando’s Oscar Pareja and (knock on wood) Philadelphia’s Jim Curtin in the next round, and they’ll have had time over the international break to plan for exactly how NYCFC will play.
The good news is they’ll face an NYCFC squad that’s finally rested, firing on all cylinders, and ready to prove that it’s still among the best in MLS. ❧
Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome