No Place Like Home? New York City FC’s Home Field Disadvantage

It’s now three weeks after NYCFC’s home opener against Toronto FC, and what looked like a promising start has now given way to frustration and overall confusion on the state of the club and how they perform at home.

Week 1 saw a barn-burner of a game versus Chicago, where the club won 4-3, and what looked to be a high powered attack has devolved into more of a toothless attack at home. Only 3 goals scored across three matches, with two of them coming in the first half of the home opener. Not only were these the first 3 games the club played at home, it was also 3 games where we saw a very different formation than we did in Chicago and for much of the preseason.

Starting from the Toronto FC match, Patrick Vieira decided to unleash a secret weapon he had up his sleeve in the form of a 3-4-3 formation notably titled the “WM” formation. It’s not a standard 3-4-3 formation, as this has two holding or defensive midfielders who sit back with two attacking midfielders in front. This requires the forward wingers (Taylor, Shelton, and now Mendoza) to take responsibility for large amounts of their respective touchlines, with the back 3 also stretching out wide to quell attacks. This was done, in theory, to give Pirlo some extra defensive cover in midfield, as he was paired with Federico Bravo – the young defensive midfielder on loan from Bocas Junior. And 40 minutes and two goals into that home opener, it looked like this formation had the makings of being a real boon for the team. Then Sebastian Giovinco happened, and TFC made adjustments in the second half to counter the WM formation. The result was a 2-2 draw. Not a terrible result, but definitely disappointing after holding a two goal lead.

Fast forward to the following Friday, as NYCFC took on Orlando City SC. After an early gift of a goal put away by Cyle Larin, Orlando City was able to use that early to bunker down and frustrate NYCFC as Joe Bendik and the Lions walked away with a clean sheet. While there was a lot of physical play, perhaps even more than the ref should’ve allowed, NYCFC still had their chances but failed to put any of them in the back of the net. Mix Diskerud came the closest, as Bendik absolutely robbed him of a goal, and the latter opportunity handled well enough by Bendik, but perhaps needed a better effort from Mix to begin with. On the whole, NYCFC took a staggering 47% of their shots outside of the box, according to WhoScored.com.

Shots Outside the Box

NYCFC Shot Zone vs. OCSC (courtesy of WhoScored.com)

Part of this was because Orlando went with a bunker and counter strategy after scoring that early goal, but it sheds some light on what’s become an unsettling pattern for the team over this current home stand: lots of shots taken but very few of them on target.

Game Shots Shots on Target Goals Scored Possession %
vs. Toronto FC 15 7 2 57%
vs. Orlando City SC 15 5 0 66%
vs. New England Revolution 18 4 1 63%

 

In all three of these games, NYCFC out-shot their opponents by an average of 5.7 shots per match, with an average of 62% of the possession over that same span. However, while they’re total number of shots has remained strong, the amount of shots they’ve put on target has steadily decreased. This fact was culminated in last Saturday’s match versus the New England Revolution. NYCFC out-shot the Revs by a total of 18 to 11 respectively, but the Revs were able to put 5 shots on target, compared to NYCFC’s 4 on target on Saturday. To make matters worse, NYCFC had the numbers advantage for most of the second half, with Gershon Koffie receiving a red card at the 50th minute. This fact still didn’t stop NYCFC from taking 39% of their shots outside of the box.

It’s a well known fact you will face better defenses than Chicago for most of this season. So this isn’t a cry for more 4 goal games. However, it does appear that the novelty of the WM formation is starting to wear off, and teams are becoming more and more comfortable employing their own tactics to overcome it. Many of the better teams in this league operate out of a 4-2-3-1 formation or some variation of it. It allows for two holding midfielders, but also 3 attacking midfielders, 2 wide and 1 central, to press forward while the holding midfielders protect the backline. Defensively, though it can can create a numbers advantage. If the NYCFC wingers try to remain pushed forward in attack, the 4-2-3-1 formation can give the opposition a 5 to 4 man advantage in the middle of the park.

It’s no secret for any team in MLS that NYCFC want to dominate possession. They did so with Kreis last year, and they are doing the same with Vieira, although using different tactics and formations to do so. Yankee Stadium is also notoriously known for its lack of width. This is seemingly why Vieira has preferred the WM formation to the 4-3-3 he used in the preseason and for the road game against Chicago. But by trying to play to the dimensions of Yankee Stadium he may be in effect making life easier on opposing defenses. How so?

Well let’s take a look again the formation that’s being employed:

As you can see with this formation, the team is looking to control the middle of the pitch. What happens with this formation as a side effect, though, is it puts all the responsibility of adding pressure on the touchlines to the two wingers, or wide forwards, in this formation. Shelton, Taylor, and now Mendoza are now the only threats pushing up the field on either touchline. What this in turn does is make life a little less complicated for opposing fullbacks. There’s no fear of overlap and they can give their full attention and energy to the two wingers who are looking to stretch the defense. It also doesn’t allow either player much room to cut in as they have to stay out wide to provide space for the attacking midfielders. Iraola and Matarrita in this formation have to play a role that is more like a center back than it is a fullback. Another reason why this may be playing to the opposition’s strengths is that while these two have been more than solid in defense, the advantage of having these players is that they are attacking fullbacks capable of proving dangerous crosses and pushing the ball forward.

Another hiccup for this formation takes us to the goalkeeper position. During the preseason, whenever Bravo would come into matches, the team would almost alternate fluidly between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 with Bravo at times dropping back as a third center back and the two fullbacks pushing up like wide midfielders. What made this work well for them was also who they had in goal: Eirik Johansen. As mentioned in an earlier article on HRB, while Saunders has proven himself a prolific shot blocker, and one that was sorely needed with a porous back line last season, Johansen offers his own strengths to this club – namely his ability to distribute the ball and his comfortability with the ball at his feet. In these preseason matches, we would see Johansen come way off his line and act as a passing “release valve” for the deep lying players and was deft at switching the play on the field from left to right. For all of Saunders’ strengths, he is the total opposite when it comes to having the ball at his feet. He’s much more uncomfortable playing that way, itching to pick the ball up and throw it down field. What this difference in play effects, is how far up the pitch NYCFC can dictate the run of play. With Saunders in goal, the back line has to stay deeper and closer to him which limits the amount of attacking pressure the team can impose on the opposition. Every one has to drop a bit deeper, leaving the front three at times unable to combine with anyone for a fluid attack.

So instead of the back line having to worry if the winger is going to stay wide or cut in, while also then having to worry about an opposing fullback bombing forward on the overlap, you instead have a back line that can tell it’s fullbacks to just stay out wide with these wingers, while the holding midfielders help the central defenders clog up the middle. This could be what’s causing NYCFC to take so many shots on goal outside of the box. A high number of shots outside of the box also could correlate to why despite taking so many shots every game, only very few of these shots are actually on target, in particularly over the last two games as well.

It’s a puzzle Vieira will need to solve if he’s truly committed to sticking with this formation in Yankee Stadium. Next up for NYCFC is the same Chicago Fire team they faced in the season opener. NYCFC was able to score 4 goals against the Fire last time they met, with the club employing a 4-3-3 formation. The club has scored 3 goals total in the 3 matches since then. It’ll be interesting to see if Vieira will go back to the 4-3-3 knowing the offensive success they had with it last time, or will he stick with the “home game” formation of the WM.The answer could be very telling as what we can expect this team to look like for most, if not all, of the home games played this season.

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