By: Chris Olszewski
Hype and expectations are perhaps nothing new to anybody surrounding NYCFC. Even putting aside the pedigree and deep pockets of their owners City Football Group and Yankee Global Enterprises, NYCFC themselves turned on the hype machine in the two years before beginning play in 2015. The club picked up a host of recognizable names, both from the international game and from the United States; Frank Lampard, David Villa, and Mix Diskerud all signed with the team before the first match, with Andrea Pirlo signing from Juventus in July 2015. Jason Kreis was appointed head coach. All this led to 14,000 season tickets being sold for the first season of play, and an average attendance of over 29,000 people.
The 2015 season, though, did not come without controversy. In January 2015 the BBC revealed that Frank Lampard had in fact signed with Manchester City instead of NYCFC as was originally believed (Lampard would join NYCFC upon the end of the Premier League’s season). The team also struggled on the pitch, only garnering 37 points from 34 matches with a goal differential of –9. The team only scored 49 goals in league play, with David Villa contributing the most at 18.
The team failed to make the playoffs, ending in 8th place, 12 points out of the sixth and final playoff spot. Although that failure might be expected of an expansion team in its first season (fellow expansion mates Orlando City SC finished in seventh), that was not good enough for the powers that be. Kreis was fired on November 2 and on New Years Day two months later, former France midfielder Patrick Vieira was announced NYCFC’s second coach in as many seasons.
And yet here we sit with a little under two months left in the MLS regular season, and NYCFC are atop the Eastern Conference. With seven matches left, the Blues are all but a lock to make the playoffs; only the question of their seeding remains. The Red Line Report estimates that NYCFC should have 50 points at season’s end, putting them at the second seed, with the weakest strength of schedule in the Eastern Conference.
So what happened? How did a team that finished eighth last year vault to the pole position? The easy answer is that the forced parity of MLS worked its magic. But the easy answer is also an unsatisfactory one. If it was the parity, what of the Fire, or Orlando City for that matter? Both are languishing below the playoff spots and have done so for some time.
NYCFC’s success can instead be attributed to a multitude of factors outside the MLS’s parity. The most obvious factor one can point to is NYCFC’s success away from Yankee Stadium. Until July 24, the Blues only dropped 11 of a possible 30 points away from home. It was only at that time that NYCFC started to falter on the road, dropping the Hudson River Derby on July 24 and the August 28 match in Orlando as well as drawing with San Jose and Columbus in their home stadiums.
That’s not to sell short NYCFC’s record at their home ground, though. NYCFC have done even better at home than on the road, losing two fewer games for a current tally of six wins, three losses and five draws. Of course, it makes sense that if a team picks up points, they’d be nearer to the top of the standings.
Simply put, the team is much improved over last season on both ends of the pitch. On offense, the team has 48 goals, one off its total from last season and good enough for the most goals in MLS; David Villa has 15 goals, three away from matching his personal tally from last season, and despite the controversy Frank Lampard has put up 11 goals in the MLS regular season.
The defense has also improved; NYCFC has only given up 47 goals, giving NYCFC a +1 goal differential, a huge jump from the –9 NYCFC had last season. Other teams have better defenses, but NYCFC has had such a good offense and been so consistent that it isn’t quite that much of an issue, even with teams with better goal differentials nipping at their heels.
There is cause for concern however. NYCFC’s form has faltered as of late, only garnering seven points from a possible 15 in their last five matches. The team lacked passion and goal-scoring ability where they should have taken more points. Another potential problem for the Blues is one of their greatest strengths: the offense. David Villa and Frank Lampard count for 26 of NYCFC’s 48 goals, and no other players have reached double digits. If one of those players runs into problems, NYCFC could go down as well. As of now though, the Blues are looking at a deep playoff run in only their second year of existence.