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What is to Blame for Lack of Fluidity Against NYCFC?

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The Chicago Fire earned their third straight shutout against New York City FC this weekend and it was not the most eye-pleasing game to watch.  Tactics and player performance certainly contributed to the lack of flow, but the field is just as much to blame.

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Major League Soccer has a long history of playing games in venues not designed to host the relatively unpopular, supposedly un-American sport of soccer.  Some teams still play in stadiums built for NFL football.  Other teams called baseball stadiums or college campuses home for periods of time.  Playing games in these venues may have been considered acceptable in the late 1990’s as the league tried to limit costs and gain support.  However, forcing World Cup veteran players and top young talent to play on a temporarily sodded baseball field that may or may not meet FIFA size standards is unacceptable.

NYCFC are only a few games into their second season and have only played a total of 21 games at their temporary home, Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.  For a league entering its 21st season, its leadership should be more concerned with the level of play and developing its players than making splashy signings and trying to market its brand to the world.  By allowing NYCFC to start play in 2015 without a proper soccer home, MLS and Don Garber made their priorities clear.  Knowing full well that this franchise would capture the attention of much of the soccer playing world, NYCFC and its opposition were destined to put on a poor display because they were allowed to play on the temporary field of Yankee Stadium.

How the Numbers Portray Yankee Stadium as a Soccer Venue

Watching the game on Sunday likely made fans of Chicago and NYCFC think, "man, why can’t we string more than three passes together?"  Perhaps it is because both teams are that poor, and that very well may be the case.  One also has to wonder if the field size is the reason, as it looked like three players from each side needed to be removed to make it a reasonable game.

To test the theory that the small field was making the game choppy and preventing fluid play, I looked at passing completion for all NYCFC games in the team’s history, both at Yankee Stadium and at the opponent's’ field to see how they differed.  Initially, I wanted to look at the league more broadly, but I figured that I had to isolate the NYCFC games because the style of play would be heavily influential on the rate at which both teams complete passes.  Would I like to have had years of NYCFC games to analyze?  Sure, but the sample of 39 games the team has played in MLS does give some indication of the field’s effect on play.

chart

I looked at four sets of averages to determine how the field size might be affecting the teams’ pass completion rate.  Two of these focus on all of the games NYCFC have played and the other two focus specifically on the four games they have played against Chicago Fire (this is too small a sample size from which we can draw any real conclusions, but I thought it would be interesting to this audience).

The first set is NYCFC’s pass completion rate at Yankee Stadium (77.7%) compared to the team’s rate on the road (79.0%).  The second set is the opposing team’s rate at Yankee Stadium (73.9%) and their rate when they play NYCFC at their home stadium (77.5%).  The last two sets are for Chicago Fire games only (it does lead to the same conclusion).

The takeaway from these averages is that, in every case, pass completion for each team is lower at Yankee Stadium than at other venues.  I believe that the small size of NYCFC’s home pitch negatively affects pass completion rate and, therefore, hurts the quality of the game the team is hosting (and one that national audiences are often seeing on TV).

One thought is that team tactics might be somewhat responsible for the opponents having a better rate at their home field than at Yankee Stadium.  It is perfectly plausible that a home team would control the game more effectively and be more successful with their passing.  However, this would likely be true of NYCFC as well, and it is not.  They have a better passing percentage when they go on the road.

The numbers do not present an open and shut case against the play at Yankee Stadium, but I feel it presents a case that is strong enough to indict it for being a poor representation of MLS’s play and for shortchanging the fans who attend games in New York.

How the NYCFC Stadium Mess Tarnishes MLS and Garber

If you do not already have your tin foil hats on, I’ll wait for you to get back from the kitchen cupboard.  Done?  Great, let's get started on the conspiracy theories about the way the league office and Don Garber operate.

It is appalling and offensive the way Garber awarded NYCFC a franchise and allowed them to begin play in 2015 without having a viable stadium plan in place.  Aside from the fact he made an exception for them after proclaiming that every new MLS franchise would be required to have plans in place for a soccer specific stadium before being granted entrance to the league, he has the gaul to continue to block David Beckham’s Miami franchise because they are struggling to finalize their plans.  Just this past December, Garber said of Beckham’s Miami franchise, "if they can’t finalize their deal for a stadium, they’re not going to have an MLS team."

Alright, so Garber broke his own rule because the City Football Group had $100 Million burning a hole in their pocket, they had to buy into the league immediately, and Garber was so desperate to advance the marketability of the league that he did not care what he promised in the past.  Why did he allow them to play indefinitely in a baseball stadium where a proper field could not be configured?  NYCFC and MLS claim the field is within FIFA standards at a dimension of 70 yards x 110 yards (the minimum allowed for an International match).  Team representatives originally said they had devised a plan to remove and rebuild the pitcher’s mound as it would interfere with a soccer field.  Based on what I saw on Sunday, this plan was scrapped because it was clear the mound was under a protective tarp just a few feet from the touchline.

Did you take off your hat because people were giving you funny looks?  I need you to put it back on for just a bit longer.  Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City contended last March that the field did not even meet the minimum dimensions required by MLS.  Vermes said, "It’s 68 [yards] by 106 [yards].  We knew the field was small and wanted to take advantage."  The team insisted it was the proper size and the team’s coach, Jason Kreis, refused to discuss the field size.  As of last year, no media members had been allowed to measure the field to verify, and, presumably, this is still the case.  It seems that either the plans to remove the mound for each home game had changed and nobody was told or the dimensions were promised knowing they could not be achieved and the league lied to accommodate the deep pocketed City Football Group.  Neither of these scenarios are acceptable for a league which wants to be a top soccer league in the next few years.

It was wrong for Garber to award NYCFC a franchise in MLS in 2015 and it continues to be a mistake for the team to be allowed to play home games in Yankee Stadium on a poor facsimile of a soccer field.  That much was evident on Sunday when NYCFC hosted Chicago Fire and it will continue to be evident until the City Football Group is able to find the team a permanent home with a proper field.