PORTLAND, Ore. – You can feel the admiration Giovanni Savarese has for his Sunday counterpart in every word he says about New York City FC.
He’s always complementary of his fellow coaches, be they Oscar Pareja, Jesse Marsch, or the other successful bosses he’s faced since taking over the Portland Timbers. But in Patrick Vieira, Savarese’s facing a playing legend who, as the duo inhabited the same city over the last two years, began his coaching career in Savarese’s backyard.
“They’ve been working for three years to build this team,” Savarese explained, about Vieira’s time at NYCFC, “and now I think they feel the closest to what they’re looking for. They’re very strong.”
Their record says as much. Come Sunday at Providence Park (3pm PT, FS1), New York City will arrive with Major League Soccer’s best record, going 5-0-2 with a plus-10 goal difference over their first seven games. In four road games this season – games that span three time zones -- NYCFC has collected six points, come from behind three times, and projected itself as a group capable of working through a myriad problems.
That is the three-year arc Savarese’s talking about. When Vieira inherited his team before the 2016 season, New York was a second-year team who’d failed to establish an identity. Now, barely over two years later, NYCFC’s identity is as established as any in the league, with the poise and confidence Vieira’ has instilled leading the fourth-year club to the top of MLS’ charts.
Here is our weekly KeyBank Scouting Report – three things to know as the Portland Timbers welcome New York:
1. It’s still all about progress
In last week’s KBSR, the number one item was “Time for more than just progress.” To their credit, the Timbers delivered, but as the second half showed, there’s more work to be done. Portland may have won 3-2, but playing at home, that “2” looms large.
It’s the obvious blemish in the Timbers’ recent arc, one that’s shown measured improvement across the field, including the first third. Whereas the team gave up six goals in its first two games, it’s “only” allowed eight since, and while two goals per game still is too much to concede, there has been improvement.
Bottom line, though, is that the defense has to start getting better. Through this first month-plus of the 2018 season, the Timbers are 22nd in the league in goals allowed per game, 14th in shots allowed on target, 20th in overall shots conceded and, according to American Soccer Analysis, 21st in expected goals allowed.
|Goals allowed/game||Shots on target allowed/game||Shots allowed/game||xG allowed/game|
|MLS Rank||22nd (tie)||14th (tie)||20th||21st|
Any time a new coach comes in, there’s going to be a period of adjustment, and in some areas, that adjustment can extend beyond a single season. It’s only in a coach’s first full offseason that they can assess lessons from year one and fully determine whether the squad’s talent fits its approach.
In some places, though, the Timbers are more behind than others, and right now, the goals allowed column says there needs to be improvement. NYCFC have one of the league’s best records, but to maintain progress, new games much show new results.
2. David Villa really should have been number one
David Villa may be the most accomplished player to ever play in MLS, a high bar, now, considering the likes of Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Beckham and Frank Lampard have appeared in this league. But in Villa, New York City has a player who, for a large swath of time, was considered La Liga’s best striker, and when the iconic Spanish national team that won three-straight major titles was at its peak, Villa was among its most influential stars.
That he came to the league as a 33-year-old makes his high standards more remarkable, with Villa scoring 65 goals in 98 games in conditions that have made other veterans wilt. Travel, tight schedules, temperature changes and physicality that are fodder for cliched excuses have never bothered Villa, whose greater years have still seen him perform at the same level as Sebastian Giovinco.
“They have a tremendous player like Villa,” Savarese said, when asked about NYCFC, “who’s recovering, who’s getting ready, who is showing he doesn’t age.”
Villa missed three games this season with an injury, but over the last week, he has managed to get back on the field, recording a goal and an assist as NYCFC came back to earn a draw in Atlanta this weekend. It was an impressive comeback, producing one of the most impressive results of the season, but it was also a reminder of how difficult it is to stop even a diminished Villa.
If he’s at full strength, it will take an all-around effort – from goalkeeping to defense, to pressure from the midfield and forwards – to silence MLS’ best goal-scorer.
3. Patience as a virtue
Beyond the presence of Villa, New York City’s most-defining trait may be their poise on the ball, a confidence born of two years’ trial and error, producing a team that can work through almost any problem.
When Vieira took over, that poise had yet to be instilled, leaving New York susceptible to being pressed high and forced into costly mistakes. Particularly at home, on Yankee Stadium’s postage stamp of a field, Vieira’s insistence on developing his team’s poise led to embarrassing goals, ones which argued against enduring with the approach.
Fast forward two years, add a number of lessons hard-earned, and New York’s patience has become a virtue. We saw it in week one, when NYCFC enticed Sporting KC to run itself in knots en route to a 2-0 win on the road. It was present again against New England, where their ability to play through a relentless press produced two comeback goals. In San Jose and Atlanta, too, Vieira’s approach allowed the team to offset early setbacks, discover its own solutions and, eventually, claim valuable points on the road.
“We have seen matches where, in some moments, they have a difficult time, depending on the teams they played against,” Savarese said, before describing Sunday’s challenge. “They have their identity, and they’ve invested into that identity. They are a position-based team, mobile, dynamic, with quick ball movement … so we need to be smart about how we’re going to pressure, how we want them to play, what areas we’re going to leave them and what spaces we’re going to take a little more advantage of.”
Pursue New York unendingly, and you’re going to be picked apart. Players like Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot in defense, Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera in midfield are too good to be frazzled that often. Case and fail, then players like Maxi Morales and Jesus Medina can break your lines, allowing Villa and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi to rack up goals.
This will be the Timbers’ most difficult test of the season, and given the team’s arc of improvement, it’s tempting to think what this matchup would be if it’d came two weeks from now. But in Sunday’s challenge, Portland has an opportunity to jumpstart its progress, because given a team of New York’s caliber, three points could provide be a huge confidence boost.