You know the story for Columbus Crew SC. Nine matches without a win, two and a half months, ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
It has not been the season the Black & Gold expected after two consecutive playoff appearances and a trip to the MLS Cup Final a year ago.
While things haven’t gone well for Crew SC, New York City FC is flying high. Following a debut Major League Soccer season where the Citizens finished eighth and miss the playoffs by 12 points, NYCFC is on top of the East and only seven points back of the top spot in the league.
The turnaround has come thanks in part to the appointment of former Arsenal and France star Patrick Vieira as manager. He has helped to turn around a team with tons of talent — Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo — that couldn’t find the right way to play in year one.
New York City has already visited MAPFRE Stadium once this season, a 3-2 win for the Black & Gold, but much has changed since that point.
Questions for Hudson River Blue
Massive Report: I look at NYCFC from a year ago and the main difference I see is head coach Patrick Vieira. What is different from Jason Kreis that has allowed such a drastic turnaround for City? How is a guy that has never played or coached in this league able to adjust to this team better than one who was here from its inception and had success?
Hudson River Blue: This is a difficult question to answer, because it's hard to evaluate the two against each other without considering the circumstances. On the one hand, Kreis was brought in with an incomplete roster, lofty ambitions, and unfit DPs (Pirlo and Lampard, not Villa). He employed a similar system to that of Vieira, but without consistency in the squad and with a back line that was more four-chairs-duct-taped-together than human soccer players, he had a rough go of it and was eventually (probably unfairly) fired.
Meanwhile, Vieira came into camp with an almost complete roster, an in shape Pirlo, and some new transfers to improve the defense. He had the entire training camp to get the team to buy into his system and a lot of the grind of the start of the season seems to be paying off now.
In any case, Kreis is gone now, and Vieira does look like the real deal. He understands when he needs to make corrections, but has tended to show more faith in the team than Kreis did. Tactically we worked through some experiments this season but have found a line up and formation that works. He seems to have the players' trust and that is coming out on the field now.
MR: We all knew Frank Lampard was good, but his debut season in MLS led many to believe he was over the hill. In almost the same number of games and minutes played, he's more than doubled his scoring output. What has allowed the former Chelsea player to turn this around in year two in the league?
HRB: Two things: Fitness and Freedom. When Frank arrived last summer, he had already logged 990 minutes of EPL action with Man City - Not an insignificant amount for someone age 37. His fitness and his touch were way off when he came into the NYC FC squad, and it took several appearances before he had an okay showing. Kreis had Frank playing all over trying to find him a place. When Lampard was saddled with the deeper lying role, he struggled considerably. When he played too far up, he seemed out of sync with our attackers.
Fast forward to this season. Frank had a very long offseason rehabilitating a calf injury (and many of our fans were not happy with how it was handled). When he did finally make an appearance, he looked more rested, but still out of place. Vieira tinkered with the squad and found a formation and a place for Lampard to be successful. In our 4-3-3, Frank plays as the roaming midfielder in front of Pirlo and a defensive midfield partner (usually Andoni Iraola). As it was with Chelsea, Frank is finding himself with the freedom to explore scoring opportunities in the box. He has been in the right place at the right time several times this year, which has been the key to his great scoring rate of 8 in 12 appearances.
NYC fans are hoping the run of form continues, and it looks like there's still more to come from Frank the Tank.
MR: We talked about this last time, but the defense for New York City is not doing the offense any favors. Forty goals conceded is tied for the worst in the league. What is going wrong on that side of the ball?
HRB: The 40 goals stat might be a little misleading as there are teams that give us problems, especially when we become stubborn tactically. Red Bulls (unfortunately) comes to mind and have owned us in all but one occasion. We've conceded 11 of our 40 goals in two games against RBNY this season, so when you take out those lopsided numbers you get a number that's a little easier to stomach.
That being said, our defense is not a strong unit, and I think it falls mostly on the organization in the middle. We've featured three centerbacks prominently this season: Jefferson Mena, Jason Hernandez, and Frederic Brillant, and we've tried just about every combination of these three to try and get something going. Vieira has been quick to pull one following a poor outing, which I imagine does not inspire much confidence.
We looked in the transfer market to improve our CB situation and brought in Maxine Chanot who most recently played for Belgian club KV Kortrijk. Chanot, like Brillant, has been bought in to steady the ranks, and so far so good. He came on as a sub in our 5-1 drubbing of Colorado and was named to the team of the week following our 0-0 tie with San Jose.
In all, we're looking for some combination that isn't a disaster. The team's identity flows from its attack and ability to score goals, so even an average defensive unit will be enough to make a Playoff run.
To read Massive Report’s answers to Hudson River Blue’s questions, head on over to their site and read From Their Mouths, Not Mine.