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NYCFC Playoff Preview: How the Best Team in MLS Barely Made the Playoffs
NYCFC went from a mid-season MLS Cup favorite to having to claw their way back into the playoffs. Justin Egan explores what went wrong and what it means for City's playoff match-up with Atlanta.
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New York City Football Club has been the biggest mystery in MLS this season. The underlying analytics for City aren’t just good- they’re all-time good.
This season’s +21.42 expected goal (xG) differential and +17.61 goals added (g+) differential are 7th and 8th best, respectively, in the entirety of American Soccer Analysis’ (ASA) database.
For those of you in the “soccer isn’t played on a spreadsheet” crowd, the Pigeons were not only proverbially good, but actually good on both sides of the ball. The real goals for and against numbers almost perfectly line up with the expected goals metrics. The only reason why the actualized scoring ranks are worse is because teams like New England, Nashville, and Seattle all drastically overperformed their xG differential and probably aren’t as good as their records indicates.
Despite these elite numbers, New York City struggled at times with Bruce Arena’s favorite1 analytic: the score. NYCFC basically spent the entire season oscillating between an unstoppable machine that made other Eastern Conference playoff teams look like beer league squads, and an impotent little kid trying to play a video game without a controller plugged in.
Instead of talking about a team that should be a major MLS Cup contender, the big question on everyone’s mind this Sunday is: which New York City FC will show up on Sunday?
How did we get here?
From a roster building standpoint, the 2021 season started three months too soon for NYCFC.
The club had invested serious allocation dollars in keeping its core of Valentín “Taty” Castellanos, Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, James Sands, Anton Tinnerholm, Ishmael Tajouri-Shradi, and Keaton Parks together to play around aging maestro Maximiliano Morález.
However, the Pigeons had begun the year with only five players for the front four attacking spots in Ronny Deila's 4-2-3-1 after not replacing Alexandru Mitriță following his banishment to Saudi Arabia at the end of the 2020 campaign while Héber continued his rehabilition on his surgically repaired ACL.
Reinforcements finally arrived with the additions of the South American trio of Thiago Andrade (April 10th), Talles Magno (May 19th), and Santiago Rodríguez (June 9th) and allowed New York City to start Summer 2021 in an epic fashion.
Despite a nine-game scoreless streak from Taty Castellanos, City rebounded from a heartbreaking loss versus New England on June 19th to roll off seven straight wins and closed out July with absolute annihilations of Orlando City (5-0) and Columbus (4-1) at Yankee Stadium.
By the end of July, the Pigeons were the clear MLS leader in expected points per game (2.08) and everyone’s favorite pick for the actual best team in MLS. While actual points lagged behind, the on-field performance seemed to indicate that it was only a matter of time before reality caught up with the analytics.
Only that didn’t really happen. After the hot start to June and July, NYCFC fell from second to eighth place by mid-October and were on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
New York City’s expected points per game plummeted over half-a-point to 1.47 for the period between August 1st and October 17th. That included City’s worst stretch of the season from late September through early October when the team went on a 6 game winless streak where only scored two goals and managed to embarrass supporters by only taking a single point across three games against the Red Bulls.
While the Boys in Blue were able to right the ship to get across the playoff line and secure a home playoff game with a resilient effort the final five games of the season, unresolved issues remain from the late-summer downturn.
Here are the major storylines for New York City to pay attention to heading into the playoff game Sunday afternoon against Atlanta.
It’s not a surprise to anyone that Taty Castellanos vs. Atlanta’s Miles Robinson-led backline is going to be the match-up to watch this Sunday. We told you in the beginning of the year that Taty Castellanos was the best striker in MLS, and boy did he deliver.
Taty collected the MLS Golden Boot2 by basically willing NYCFC into the playoffs with an utterly outrageous six goals over the last four games of the season. Taty proved that he is not only the best striker, but without a doubt the best two-way player in the whole flipping league. What makes Taty so good on both sides of the ball is actually the same exact thing: his unmatched workrate.
Defensively, Taty had no equal this year leading the NYCFC’s press. His 347 defensive pressures in the attacking third were lightyears ahead of any other MLS player by 82. In recent years, when teams have complained about playing on the small pitch at Yankee Stadium, it really has just been coded language for: “We don’t like the fact that a Yerba mate-fueled Taty is just going to run at our defensive line and disrupt our buildup with murder in his eyes all game.”
Offensively, his relentless ability to make runs and create scoring opportunities for the full 90’ in addition to an improved aerial ability put him with the New England Revolution’s Adam Buksa as the elite diarchy of MLS offensive strikers this season. Taty’s skill in receiving the ball in dangerous areas is one of the strong predictive factors that has most models giving NYCFC an overwhelming edge against Atlanta.
The Attacking Depth That Wasn't
It’s probably not too hyperbolic to say that Taty Castellanos is more important for NYCFC than any other player in MLS is for their team. It basically boils down to the fact that when Taty scores, NYCFC wins games with only two losses coinciding with a Taty goal. The more recent problem for NYCFC has been the games where Taty doesn't score.
The amount of goals from players-not-named-Taty has been steadily declining since the beginning of the season. Up until July 31st, players-not-named-Taty had scored 23 goals in 15 games while their production cratered to seven goals in 14 games during the late summer implosion from August 1st to October 17th. A lot of that can be pinned on major offensive decline during this dark period from Maxi Morález, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and Jesús Medina.
After a hot start to the season tallying seven goals, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi hasn’t played any significant minutes since September due to an undisclosed injury and hasn’t scored since the first week of August. Scoring low xG golazos was obviously not sustainable for Jesús Medina, and he has regressed to his typical3 offensive form. The Paraguayan continued to make lineups because of his defense, but has only scored two goals since August 1st. Needless to say, it's probably not great if your second and third leading scorers, respectively, stop scoring goals.
While splashing $15 million+ for the young South American trio had everyone ogling at NYCFC's newfound depth, the reality has been a little less rosey. Of the three, only Santiago Rodríguez has made a strong impact and cemented a place in the starting lineup. They are young projects that have shown some glimmers of their talent, but neither Talles Magno nor Thiago Andrade have shown the propensity to contend for serious minutes despite the aforementioned declines by Medina and Tajouri-Shradi.
The lack of secondary and tertiary scoring options supplementing Taty could be a huge issue as Atlanta's Gonzalo Pineda and New England's Bruce Arena have multiple weeks to devise schemes designed to take Taty out of the game.
What Maxi will NYCFC get during the playoffs?
Maxi Morález has always been the lifeblood and beating heart of New York City FC. Maxi came off a disappointing 2020 campaign where he only started 10 games due to injury and NYCFC once again struggled to replace him in the lineup with no backup #10. It made you wonder how much Maxi had left in the tank before Father Time caught up and who exactly would be the long-term replacement at the #10?
The good news for Maxi is that he spent the first couple of months of the season punching Father Time right in the face. NYCFC’s diminutive maestro didn’t get a lot of mainstream credit, but up until July 31st you could make a strong argument that he was the best attacking midfielder in MLS- leading the position with 2.02 g+ and second in the league only to Carles Gil in both assists (5) and xA (5.16).
The bad news was that during the late summer collapse, Maxi degenerated. From August 1st to October 17th, Maxi sported the second worst g+ of any attacking midfielder in the league with -1.01. Of particular concern was his negative g+ Passing, which meant his best skill was helping the opposition score more than his own team. At 34, was this a sign that Maxi’s age was catching up to him? The answer to this is probably yes and no.
Managing the minutes of an aging, star player- especially during the hot summer months- has to be one of your important load management priorities. For the first time in his entire career in New York City, Maxi finally had an understudy in Santiago Rodríguez who could seamlessly fill in at attacking midfield. However, a lower-body injury saw the Uruguayan out for nearly an entire month, which meant there was no replacing Maxi in the lineup. Santi’s injury and a hellish schedule that resulted in NYCFC practically playing every 3 to 4 days for much of the summer created a recipe for disaster.
Maxi has seemingly benefited from the last couple of international breaks and the cooling of weather. Since October 17th, Maxi has regained his form and has sported a league best g+ Passing of 0.63. It’s not a coincidence that Taty Castellanos’ torrent of goals to end the season followed Maxi’s improved play, and is music to the ears of NYCFC supporters with the playoffs about to begin.
With contract extension negotiations in progress, NYCFC will be glad to have Maxi back for another season, but will have to evaluate during the offseason the role and minutes of the soon-to-be 35 year old for 2022.
Ronny's Elbow Back Tactic Saved the Season, But...
In typical NYCFC fashion, major injuries- this time to Anton Tinnerholm and Keaton Parks- have greatly impacted the potential NYCFC playoff lineup and will force Ronny Deila into making tactical adjustments. Such adjustments have not been his strong suit during his New York City tenure. NYCFC has played best over the last two years when the Pigeons have the personnel to play Deila's favored 4-2-3-1.
Deila tends to get a little too cute when he doesn't have his first choice lineup by playing players in unnatural positions rather than making the formation adjustments that his predecessor Dome Torrent was known for. The most obvious examples were the abysmal "Alex Wing '' fiasco last year, the multiple episodes of Alfredo Morales at centerback, and the odd 10-man formations that NYCFC has used during the eight games the club played down a man due to red cards.
However, Deila does deserve a lot of credit for inserting James Sands at right back for the last four games of the season to compensate for the injury to Tinnerholm. Instead of inserting a square-peg-in-a-round-hole like he did for his Ring and Morales experimentations, Deila totally redesigned his 4-2-3-1 around Sands playing as an elbow back. And it totally saved NYCFC’s season.
The elbow back- a hybrid centerback/fullback- has been a trendy tactical twist that has been popular in Europe this year. The big idea is that teams can be flexible with their backline. In some phases of the game you can sport a two-man backline and in other phases the elbow back joins the other two centerbacks to form a three-man line.
The way that Deila implemented this with Sands was by forbidding overlaps on the right when the ball was in the attacking third. At most, Sands would be available on the right side to recycle possession. By not getting forward, Sands could form a three-man backline with Chanot and Callens in defensive transition before returning to NYCFC’s typical 4-2-3-1 shape in the defensive third.
This created a big ripple effect. Since Sands was playing back, Thiago Andrade- the only player responsible for providing attacking width on the right side- could now play more forward and have less defensive responsibility. The 3-man backline also allowed Malte Amundsen, filling in for an injured Gudmundur Thórarinsson, to play in his more natural role as a left wingback. With Malte getting farther forward, Santi was able to tuck inside as more of a central midfielder.
The results of the last four games speak for themselves: Taty entered beast mode, the team scored 11 goals, and NYCFC won 3 games. Despite Gedion Zelalem getting a stupid, early red card versus Philadelphia on Decision Day, a home playoff game at Yankee Stadium was clinched and Ronny Deila got to look like a tactical genius.
...But That Won't Matter in the Playoffs
Deila told the media on Friday that James Sands could line up in the midfield, centerback, or right back on Sunday. Part of that is obfuscation you would expect from a manager that doesn’t want to reveal their gameplan before their playoff game, but the actuality is that Deila will have to throw out his beautiful elbow back gameplan due to the extinction of every single regista on NYCFC’s roster.
With Keaton and Nicolás Acevedo4 out for the season with injuries, and Gedion Zelalam on a red card suspension, there is no one outside James Sands that has seen regular minutes in the midfield to slot next Alfredo Morales in the double pivot of NYCFC’s 4-2-3-1. That makes rookie Tayvon Gray the likely choice to start as a more traditional right back.
This becomes more complicated with the muscle injury that Alexander Callens picked up on international duty this past week. Deila said that Callens was likely to play on Sunday, but given NYCFC tendency to fib on injury reports, there is still a grim, chaotic possibility that the Peruvian may not be ready to go.
The options in the midfield are not great if Sands then has to pair up with Chanot at centerback. The most realistic possibility is that either Santiago Rodriguez or Jesús Medina would join Morález & Morales in the midfield. The drawback to that is Medina is not great at dribbling and passing, while Santi’s attacking prowess would be tempered if asked to play a more box to box role.
The only other remaining midfield options have even more serious question marks. Gudi Thórarinsson has played central midfield in his career, but hasn’t started a game since October 17th. It was a good sign to see Gudi get some minutes off the bench during the international break for Iceland, but whether or not he is fit enough to start is doubtful. The Outfield confirmed that homegrown Justin Haak is still on the team, but has only played a total of six minutes the last three years. Human-victory cigar and MLS xG per minute leader Tony Rocha is a more practical veteran option, but has only played 56 minutes this year.
Fortress Yankee Stadium
The true tragedy of the yo-yo of NYCFC’s season is that this is likely going to be the last time the Pigeons will play at Yankee Stadium during the playoffs. While it’s incredibly sexy to talk about things like tactics, who is going to score goals, and Taty Castellanos, the most important factor is going to be that fact this game is being played at 161 Street & River Avenue in the Bronx.
Homefield advantage is such a big factor in MLS and when NYCFC plays at Yankee Stadium- it’s hard to imagine any team in the league being favored to beat them. Despite their major question marks, it's hard to consider NYCFC as something other than the overwhelming favorites this Sunday against Atlanta.
Historically, Atlanta has struggled while playing at Yankee Stadium. Their main strategy this season has been to gamble on their great attacking talent of Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Luiz Araujo and Marcelino Moreno being better than opposition and hoping that Brad Guzan does enough at the other end of the field to keep them in the game defensively. The problem with that is you can’t fit all four goal scorers into the 3-4-3 that Gonzalo Pineda has been playing and NYCFC has the attacking and defensive talent to punish Atlanta on both sides of the ball in a wide-open game.
So this Sunday, let’s root, root, root for the home team. Let’s relish the fact that in the craziness of our world today that we get to see Taty Castellnaos play at Yankee Stadium this one last time.❧
Image: Jackson Pollock, War
**sound of intense sobbing**