The sunrise of the 2019 MLS campaign for NYCFC was a turgid, up and down affair that concluded with NYCFC and Orlando City SC sharing the points in a 2-2 draw.
The boys in blue jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first half with goals from Ebenezer Ofori and the newly appointed captain Alex Ring, but conceded twice in the second half to blow the lead and frankly were lucky to walk away with a draw the way Orlando played in the last 45 minutes.
City were fortunate not to concede a penalty kick late in the match as it was clear that center back Maxime Chanot handled the ball in the box, but referee Baldomero Toledo didn’t see it that way, even after consulting the video assistant referee (VAR). If Toledo awards a penalty kick there, and there was absolutely a case for it, City could’ve easily left Florida with no points at all. However, there were some positives from this match, and the MLS season is a marathon, not a sprint and the important thing is how they respond from this going forward.
A key positive for City in this match was that they had gotten offensive production from players in the squad that aren’t the usual suspects. Ebenezer Ofori opened the scoring account for both himself and NYCFC in the 2019 MLS season with a long strike from distance that ricocheted off the inside of the left post and in for Ofori in the 13th minute. He found a pocket of space from a good position on the field, let it rip and it was a spectacular way to start the season for Ofori, who had an up and down campaign in 2018. Maybe a good start like this will elevate Ofori’s game to where it can be potentially which would be a massive lift for the Pigeons.
Right before the half, Alexander Ring doubled the lead after receiving a magnificent through ball from DP Alexandru Mitriță that went past multiple Orlando defenders and left Ring free on goal with only the goal keeper to stop him and Ring finished strong to extend the first half lead right before halftime. Historically, one of NYCFC’s biggest issues was a lack of secondary scoring behind City legend David Villa, so to get goals from midfielders who aren’t exactly offensive minded is a sign of good things going forward. Ofori and Ring combined for 3 goals all of last season and in the opening match they’ve nearly matched their offensive production. That is a massive development if they can get more goals from those players, while getting the goals from the attacking players such as Mitriță, Maxi Moralez, Jesus Medina, among others. Also if those goals don’t come from said attackers in a match, it’s a good thing to know that in a pinch, they can get goals from unlikely places.
Mitriță shined whenever the ball was at his feet in Orlando and it was evident that he was the most dangerous player on the pitch for NYCFC. He fed Ring with the dazzling pass to double the lead, which earned him his first MLS assist. He provided good service from corner kicks including one where Chanot had an unmarked header, but unfortunately steered it wide of goal. Mitriță was also the main free kick taker off of fouls, some of which were good but there was one he took from distance that sailed over the net, and it’s unclear whether it has landed or not yet days later. In the second half, he sent Moralez in on net with a wonderful long ball that successfully switched the play and if not for a key save by Orlando goalie Brian Rowe, could’ve given City the 3rd goal they desperately needed. All things considered, Mitriță had a very solid debut for City and showed why City paid what they did for him. He changes the game massively and adds a unique dimension of this offense that they haven’t had before. Mitriță primarily played in the left wing position with Moralez playing up the field as a center forward and although, neither scored, they both were key focal points in the attack and it will be interesting to see if Domenec Torrent continues that strategy going forward. But one thing is certain, the goals will come from Mitriță, in different areas all over the pitch.
City last season struggled significantly away from Yankee Stadium, with a dismal 4-9-4 record in 2018. It is especially frustrating dropping points when City jumped out to a two goal lead in the first half and given that NYCFC has a much more talented roster than Orlando, blowing that lead and then almost losing it, if not for a controversial no call by Toledo is not a positive development. Christopher Mueller scored the first goal for Orlando in the 59th minute when he took a free kick in a dangerous area and it went through a litany of City defenders and right past goalie Sean Johnson to cut the lead in half. Set piece defending has been an Achilles heal for City in the past, and that fault reared its ugly head again last weekend in Orlando. Johnson had made a bevy of timely saves for City in the first and second half, but on this particular instance he was sub par. There was obvious miscommunication between Johnson and the back line of defenders, but the ball was just out there for the taking and assuming that someone would clear it, he watched the ball sail into the net. Normally, you’d like to see the goalkeeper be aggressive and go out and get that ball, but to be fair to Johnson, there were three City defenders all close to the ball that just watched it as well. Communication needs to be better as the season goes along so goals like that don’t happen again, because in this case, the goal was easily preventable.
The game tying goal was scored by Tesho Akindele in the 75th minute and was just frankly a result of a defensive breakdown all over the place by City. Orlando were attacking on the counter and tore City apart with a string of great passes which lead to Nani and Dom Dwyer feeding Akindele a tap in in front of an empty net. This is concerning as well for the boys in blue, although these things happen to every team at points, it happened to Orlando earlier in the game as a matter of fact. This just happened at a poor time and upon film review of this match, hopefully they will learn from this mistake to limit lapses like these as the season marches on against much better competition, where they will make you pay for mistakes like that.
The bigger concern coming out of this game was the possession or lack thereof by NYCFC. City have been known for controlling possession and building from the back for the past few years since Patrick Vieira was named head coach in 2016. Last week in Orlando, City had possession of the ball 42% of the time, while Orlando had the ball for 58% of the match.
These numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but when you have the ball more, it leads to more passes, more chances, and ultimately more goals most of the time. Soccer is an inexact science for sure, but possession stats are useful and you can even tell who the better team is that day simply because they have the ball more and are controlling the pace and play of the match, it’s very simple. It seemed however that the game plan for City was to sit back, absorb pressure and possession from Orlando, and then try to kill them on the counter attack. That raises more questions, why make a plan like that, when your team’s strength has always been playing from the back and controlling the play methodically and so on. It seems that at times Torrent can over complicate things when it just might be better to keep things simple, do what you’re good at. That is another interesting development that should play out over the course of the season. Now, this is the first game of the season, there are 33 more games to be played, and over reactions based of one game aren’t usually the most rational thing both on the positive and negative side of things.
The possession stats are concerning though for sure, especially if that trend continues, and also the lack of success on the road. To go anywhere in this league you need to be able to get results away from home, no matter how well you play at home. Playing at Yankee Stadium is a very unique home field advantage due to the smaller dimensions, but if NYCFC want to go far in the playoffs or the Supporter’s Shield, they have to be better on the road, simple as that.
City’s next match is their home opener in the Bronx on Sunday, March 10th, against the Wayne Rooney led DC United, who in their first match conquered the defending MLS Champions Atlanta United FC 2-0 at Audi Field. An impressive performance to say the least, DC will be not be the slouch they’ve been the past couple of seasons. The attacking trio of English legend Wayne Rooney, young Argentine attacking mid Luciano Acosta, who has interest from teams in Europe such as French powerhouse Paris St Germain, and American international Paul Arriola will be a difficult test for the City defense. But they should gain a boost from a raucous home crowd although the weather calls for rain all day Sunday, which can lead to a very sloppy match. One thing is certain, this match is a great litmus test for City, as DC United are a clear contender in the eastern conference this season.
Are City in that conversation? An impressive victory will go a long way for City and might place them back in that conversation they’ve been left out of over the past few weeks. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for City after that, as their next match is a home game against western conference favorites LAFC, led by Carlos Vela and former U.S. coach Bob Bradley.
These next two matches will most definitely set the tone for the advent of the season for NYCFC, and they will have to improve on their play in Orlando to win against both of these contenders. But there are things to look forward to and be excited about, and these situations might culminate this Sunday in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium.
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