We ask, they answer
HT: Will David Villa be fit for tomorrow's match? If not, how does that change NYCFC's approach, if at all?
HRB: It doesn't look as though David Villa will be fit to play. Surprise! In all seriousness, the Spanish striker suffers from a nagging hamstring injury that's really hampered him in the last few games. He's been training on his own, but seeing as how he didn't train with the team this past week, I'd be highly surprised if Villa was available tomorrow night. Jason Kreis said as much:
"I'll have to check again after this work he's doing, but obviously he's been doing work on his own," Kreis said after training Wednesday. "He hasn't been introduced into full training, so it doesn't look good for this weekend."
In the last couple of games, New York City's experimented with a 4-3-3, instead of the empty bucket 4-4-2 they've used for most of the season. You'd suspect that Kreis will stick with the 4-3-3, because New York City looked more dynamic with it. But the question remains: who would be playing up front for the Blues? You'd expect Khiry Shelton to start, but the open question is who plays on the right. Tony Taylor was injured on Sunday, and he's now out for the season. With Villa and Taylor out, New York City have just three strikers: Adam Nemec, Shelton, and Patrick Mullins.
New York City could employ a variation of the 4-3-3: the 4-5-1. Setting up like that could take advantage of the team's glut of midfielders. Here's what that lineup could look like:
For a variety of reasons, Kreis is enamored of Ballouchy, despite the fact that the Moroccan midfielder has been the Invisible Man for the vast majority of the games he's played in. Jacobson remains as the number 6, Grabavoy and Mix are your right and left midfielders. Ballouchy acts as, essentially, a winger, and I'd expect him and Mix to switch up regularly. Meanwhile, starlet Khiry Shelton takes up residence in the left wing. That leaves either Nemec or Patrick Mullins as your target men up top. My preference is for Mullins, but I expect Nemec to get the nod.
HT: One of the Fire's bugaboos during last year's Bataan Death March of a campaign was surrendering late goals. It's an ailment that seems to have spread to the Hudson River gang. What gives?
HRB: This is an expansion team. That means they don't have experience reading off each others rhythms. It's most apparent on offense, obviously, but it also shows up on defense. And this backline is especially makeshift. Chris Wingert played on the left for RSL; he's now a center back. Jason Hernandez had been partnering up with him, but he's now injured; Kwame Watson-Siriboe's stepped in capably, but he's a journeyman, at best. And on the left and right, you've got Jeb Brovsky (who started out on the left, but has now moved to the right) and Josh Williams (started on the right, but he's been injured, so Brovsky took his place).
None of that helps. That they haven't surrendered more goals is mostly down to Josh Saunders, who's been in all-MLS mode the first two months.
That said, I'd expect that to change sooner rather than later. Whether it's a change in personnel or a return to health for key players, I don't expect that Kreis will be letting this slide too much further.
HT: Now that the tumult has died down, how's everyone feeling about Lampard joining the team? Will he be crucial, or would that money be better spent elsewhere on the field?
HRB: It's mostly died down. But I'd say feelings remain complicated.
Here's the bigger issue: New York City's midfield is horribly unbalanced. It's sort of a "known" thing that Kreis prefers to run a diamond 4-4-2, though he's not really done that thus far. When employing a 4-4-2, it's been either a flat 4-4-2, or an "empty bucket" 4-4-2, like this:
Even so, look at that lineup. Neither Andrew Jacobson nor Mix Diskerud are true holding/defensive midfielders; Jacobson is more of a box-to-box mid, whilst Mix is a weird right-mid/winger/wannabe number 10 combo. Grabavoy and Ballouchy are shuttlers, but neither is especially effective as a winger. And if you look at the rest of the midfield roster, it's more of the same. The only holding mids he's got are Connor Brandt and Matt Dunn, neither of which have seen playing time, and both are raw. Pablo Alvarez is there mostly as a morale booster for David Villa, and is a right midfielder. Kwadwo Poku could slot in at holding mid, but he's also raw.
What ends up happening is that New York City bosses possession, but it's spectacularly empty possession: lots of side-to-side passing, lots of back-passing, nothing really incisive. There's no one on the roster right now who can build from the back, and it shows.
Someone like Lampard could be crucial. He's particularly noted for his vision on the field, and the team could really use that.
Here's the catch: he's 37, and he's going to be joining the team after spending the season with Manchester City in futile pursuit of one last European trophy. MLS is legendarily unforgiving to European players who join mid-way through the season, like Lampard is. Even assuming that he adapts seamlessly to the rigors of playing in MLS, which I highly doubt, there's still the issue of melding in with teammates who would've been playing together for four months by that point. That's 17 games — literally, half the season.
The tumult wasn't just about how everyone involved lied repeatedly about his contract situation. It was also about how New York City's owners were effectively hamstringing the team by depriving them of a vital player, all so that player could serve as relief for Manchester City's squad as they pursued various trophies. That Lampard hasn't played much recently is even more damning.
All that combined — and frankly, still does — to leave a sour taste in the mouths of New York City supporters. Let's just hope that this is a one-off episode, because if it's not, it's going to make it difficult for the team to really function effectively.
They ask, we answer
HRB: One of the things I've noticed in watching long-time Chicago Fire fans is their simmering sense of betrayal and rage. I'm more familiar with the New York Red Bulls version of that, especially this past off-season. Besides hashtags and other online fora, how is this anger manifesting itself physically, if at all?
HT: I wrote a piece a couple of years ago talking about what happens when fans get too frustrated - in short, they find something else to do. Most of the anger towards the organization is manifesting as people finding other things to do with their time, and shows up in the stadium as empty seats. Tonight's sell-out is an outlier; the front office has spent most of its energy trying to sell Chicagoans on the quality of the opposing team's roster.
HRB: How hopeful are you (and other Fire fans) of seeing Mike Magee return to his imperious 2013 form? Especially since this year's team has had trouble scoring, and it looks like your designated players aren't quite clicking?
HT: It's early days yet on the designated players - at this point, only Kennedy Igboananike looks a bust - but there is no doubt that a healthy Mike Magee improves this team quite a bit. It's hard to imagine that Magee comes back at anything like his MVP form, though; by the time he hits the field, it will have been almost a year since he's played, and he's 30. That said, Magee's primary attributes are not related to athleticism, so it's not unreasonable to expect that he'll be very good - just probably not 'carry the team to the brink of the playoffs by scoring every game' good. Adding Magee's elite anticipation and movement off the ball to the already-potent Shipp-Maloney-Accam attacking axis should be nothing but a good thing.
HRB: Speaking of which: underlying that dissatisfaction is the fact that Fire owner Andrew Hauptmann doesn't seem particularly interested in really investing in the team. Given that, do you think that Frank Yallop can make something out of the pieces he's already got? And if not, then what?
HT: The signs of underinvestment are all around the Fire for those who care to notice, but winning is the best distraction imaginable. I was dubious about the chances for the Men in Red to be dramatically better in 2015, given the amount of roster turnover and the fact that Frank Yallop's one big roster move in '14 (dumping young centerbacks in favor of Bakary Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado) was an unmitigated failure. But Yallop and Brian Bliss seem to have threaded the needle this offseason, revamping the defense and adding midfielders who can actually keep the ball. It's too early to tell if it'll work, but there's at least reason to believe it might, which is better than I'd've believed four months ago.
If the team doesn't win, they'll keep tinkering at the margins while Chicago focuses on the Cubs, and street fairs, and being the best damned city in the universe. Toyota Park will grow ever lonelier and more remote, coming unmoored from the city, sliding south and west until it bumps up against southern Iowa, then following the big river south to the sea, never to be seen again.