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Signal Intel: Villa still the lynchpin for NYCFC

Lauded Fire begin second half of season with matinee against Pigeons

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC
“He's a number 9 who can play and see the field as a number 10 who also contributes on defense” really kinda sums it up - David Villa is in the conversation for most successful DP signing in league history, and with good reason.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Huge thanks to Rafael Noboa y Rivera of Hudson River Blue, who was our cut-out this weekend ...

Hot Time: If David Villa weren't on the roster, how good would this team be?

Hudson River Blue: Not top 3 in the East, that's for sure. Right now, the way the East breaks down -- and we'll know more after tomorrow's game -- is Toronto up at #1, then Chicago and New York City battling for 2/3, then your teams battling for the playoffs: Atlanta, New York, Orlando, maybe Columbus. Then everyone else.

Take David Villa away, and Atlanta is in that fight with Chicago instead of New York City. Would they be battling for a playoff spot? I think so, because 2017 New York City is way more balanced across the line than the first two seasons. But it would definitely be a dogfight, and not at all a sure thing. Villa does a ton for this team, and it all boils down that he's a number 9 who can play and see the field as a number 10 who also contributes on defense. Villa knits the whole team together.

Without El Guaje, the Pigeons become flightless. He provides the lion's share of the scoring even now. Without Villa, New York City essentially become a more aesthetically pleasing D.C. United. It's still a good team, but it's not a dangerous playoff contender, let alone vying for silverware.

HT: Of all the Fire's offseason moves, perhaps the least understandable was their determination to see the back of Sean Johnson. How has our former keeper fared between the pipes in the Bronx?

HRB: Johnson's been a fantastic addition to the team. I'd rank him as one of the two biggest upgrades the team made over the off-season. The other was the addition of Alexander Ring to the midfield. Saunders wasn't a bad goalkeeper for New York City, but the problem with him was that he depended on his athleticism to play the position. Once that left him, he was a shadow of himself, and we definitely saw that in the tail end of 2016.

Johnson is by no means a goalkeeper who can naturally play with the ball at his feet. Very few American goalkeepers are, at least right now. But he's an exponential improvement over Saunders, because he doesn't solely depend on his athletic skills. Johnson reads the game well from his position, and because of that, he conducts his backline well in terms of defensive positioning, which was Saunders' undoing when his athleticism deserted him. Instead of reacting to the offense, Johnson and his backline are proactive on defense.

HT: Foreign managers often struggle with MLS very idiosyncratic rhythms and traditions - what's made the difference for Patrick Viera in the USA? Is his success down to some suite of personal abilities, or superior support from City Football Group, or what?

HRB: It helps that Patrick Vieira has the full support of City Football Group. He's thoroughly a City man (relax, Arsenal fans, I'm sure he still loves the Gunners), unlike former manager Jason Kreis. You can't discount that; CFG is invested in his success in a way they wouldn't be with another manager. He managed the Elite Development Squad, and he'll probably manage Manchester City in the near future.

But Vieira is successful because he's an ideologically committed coach. What I mean is that Vieira believes in setting up his teams to play in a certain way, and he's not going to deviate from that in any significant way. New York City is going to possess the ball, they're going to play in an organized, flowing manner from the back, and they're going to play that way regardless of how their opponents set up. That's not something you see a lot of in MLS, where pragmatism reigns supreme.

Playing that way was initially rough for New York City, and opponents -- the Red Bulls, particularly -- took advantage of that. But that ideological commitment helps because it narrows down what kinds of players you're looking for. New York City initially had a very haphazard player acquisition strategy. That's how you end up with Andrea Pirlo, Mix Diskerud, and Frank Lampard all playing at the same time. That's no longer the case. With the exception of right back, there's no real glaring weaknesses on this roster -- and that'll probably get fixed this offseason. All the key players on this team are set.


And here’s my answers to Raf’s queries, which already ran over on HRB -

HRB: Everyone knows about Dax, Bastian, and Nikolic. But whom would you say are the unsung heroes of this astonishing turnaround for the Fire?

HT: Ok, here comes some fanboyish squealing, but sooooooooo many guys. I mean, it's possible to argue that David freakin' Accam is relatively unsung on this team, which is straight-up crazy. The work-rate twins, Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac; each brings quality on the ball and palpable desire. Matt Polster discovering he could become an elite right back. Joao Meira staying back and connecting passes.

But none of those happen if Andrew Hauptman (or whoever) isn't writing the checks, and a significantly smaller portion happen if Nelson Rodriguez isn't making canny decisions about the construction of the roster. As much as I hate that this is the reality of things, the Fire's beautiful football doesn't happen without those dolla dolla bills, y'all.

HRB: Schweinsteiger’s acquisition was shocking from a team that hadn’t really distinguished itself with its key player additions recently. Do you think this was a one-off by Chicago’s maligned ownership, or are the Fire ready to become players in the East again, in the same way that the Blackhawks went from being a laughingstock to a juggernaut?

HT: Reply hazy - try again later.

But seriously, it's hard to tell whether this is a one-off or a longer commitment - we'll know more after the transfer window closes, and the one after that.

Football tends to shred quick-buck artists, because of the unfortunate fact (for those who seek to make a quick buck off of football) that the challenge is a long-term one: Grow the economy around this luxury thing sufficiently to compete with other people growing the economy around this luxury thing. MLS' opacity and structure make such judgements difficult in the extreme.

tl/dr: Insufficient data; inquiries continue.

HRB: As a Fire fan, what does this season feel like for you guys?

HT: I should stipulate from the outset that I could be a very very far outlier from others' experience of CF97 fandom - but for me, it's been hallucinatory, like one of my Football Manager saves come to life. It seemed weird enough before Schweinsteiger - Dax McCarty and Juninho as the 6 and 8 behind a hungry striker? That's a playoff team.

Then we added Basti, and he's wrapped the team around himself like he understands that a star has a certain responsibility its own gravity well, and the central figure poured its energy outward, making Dax better, Matt Polster, really all the defenders, the shuttlers better, made the coaches better ... if one has ever found oneself unaccountably dosed with nitrous oxide, the sense of positive expectation, that each glorious moment will lead inevitably to some further glory, rather than regressing to some balancing tragedy would seem familiar. And yet here we are.

Is this real? Am I on Earth-1? Goddamnit, I've played too much Football Manager to figure out what's real.