There are no two ways about it. New York City FC’s meltdown on Sunday against the New York Red Bulls was one of the most embarrassing and least forgivable performances in MLS history.
That NYCFC got blanked 7-0 at home in a derby is shocking enough, but the manner of the team’s capitulation only served to compound horrors.
The Pigeons conceded four times from corner kicks – a feat no other MLS team has achieved or even approached since the league started tracking the stat in 2003. To make matters worse, two of those goals were scored by the 5’9″ Red Bull captain Dax McCarty.
NYCFC could barely string two passes together. Frank Lampard came on as a substitute for his season debut, got booed, and then infuriated supporters with another series of achingly tone-deaf comments after the match.
It was an absolute meltdown. Period. But as a number of NYCFC players – and manager Patrick Vieira – said after the game, one bad performance isn’t going to sink the club’s entire season.
But something else is threatening to do just that. Home form.
A third of the way into the season, the numbers don’t lie. NYCFC has picked up ten points from six road games, and just seven points from seven home matches. It’s a points-per-game split that no other team in MLS even comes close to approaching.
The logic in MLS goes that if a team doesn’t pick up around two points per game at home, it’s hard to make the playoffs. So NYCFC, despite sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference, is already fighting an uphill battle to make their first postseason appearance.
So why hasn’t New York City played well at home? Certainly, the club’s struggles in March and April had plenty do with Vieira’s growing pains. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Yankee Stadium’s bandbox dimensions are ill suited to the way NYCFC is equipped to play.
A viewing of the club’s recent successes – wins at DC United and Portland, and a draw last Wednesday at Toronto – suggests several patterns.
One is that NYCFC want to possess. They want to control games through their midfield, and have a will to play out of the back also unrivaled around the league. The system Vieira has settled on – something of a 4-3-3 – works best when NYCFC is controlling possession.
FROM 2014: Yankee Stadium is not ready for MLS
But at Yankee Stadium, it’s near impossible for a team to play good soccer. For NYCFC to be successful, they need space. To play from defense, for the likes of Andrea Pirlo to operate successfully, and for this team to build its style, they need clean conditions.
Yankee Stadium doesn’t provide it to them. The field is tiny. The surface is terrible.
Signs that Yankee Stadium was going to a problem – competitively, not just aesthetically – arrived almost immediately last year. In their second-ever home game, NYCFC was beaten by Sporting Kansas City on a long throw in an ugly, frustrating game.
The club’s stadium situation has always been an embarrassment for MLS – the result of pushing NYCFC into action before the club was ready, a mistake that the league has been sure not to repeat with David Beckham’s Miami – but now it’s costing its tenant more than ever before.
Perhaps you blame NYCFC for constructing a roster obviously not suited to win at home. Outside of the likes of Pirlo, and eventually Lampard, the club’s move to get Jack Harrison in the SuperDraft was made without regard to the Stadium’s constraints.
But it’s hard to be upset with Vieira for trying to play good soccer. On the road, NYCFC’s style is plenty admirable.
And if the club’s home form this season matched their road form, they’d be winning the Eastern Conference even after the meltdown against the Red Bulls.
Vieira’s first season of professional coaching has been filled with challenges. This is one of the biggest and most frustrating – can he get his team to play down to its home field?
This is a long-term problem. The club has, at various points, intended to build a stadium in Flushing and then in the Bronx. But neither proposal got off the ground. At the moment, there the club has no stadium plan whatsoever.
Remember – a decade ago it was the Red Bulls trying to build an urban stadium, realizing that it wasn’t going to happen, and moving to Harrison, New Jersey.
The bottom line is that NYCFC will most likely be playing at Yankee Stadium well into the next decade. At some point, depending on how results go the rest of the season, the likes of Claudio Reyna and Vieira are going to have to grapple with how to build a winner for their arena.
It’s a challenge that plenty of MLS clubs have faced. The old San Jose Clash took great advantage of the similarly small dimensions at Spartan Stadium, while Caleb Porter had the field at Providence Park widened in the 2013 offseason to better accommodate his own preferred possession style.
Vieira’s team is good enough to make the playoffs this year. But they’re going to need to start consistently winning at home. How they do that, with their roster and their preferred way of playing, is hard to figure.
As of right now, Yankee Stadium is killing NYCFC.
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