The atmosphere in New York City FC’s locker room at RFK Stadium following the 2-1 loss to D.C. United was akin to that of a funeral parlor. As the door opened for media access all of the players who traveled with the team but weren’t in the starting eleven left for the field to do some running. The players who remained hung their heads and talked in hushed tones, there were no smiles and no music.
Patrick Vieira emerged shortly afterwards as he briskly walked past Claudio Reyna and his players on his way to his post-game press conference. These grown men who have reached the highest levels of their profession seemed to be acting like a child whose parent had just admonished them for doing something foolish. Slowly but surely the players went back to their post-game routines, some just trying to absorb what happened, others grabbing a meal and the rest changing for the long bus ride home.
The performance that preceded these moments was the reason behind their seemingly melancholy mood. NYCFC had finished the game firing, pushing for an equalizer but weren’t able to find the back of the net. If you looked solely at the last half hour, you could be forgiven for thinking this team played well and had no reason to feel dejected, however if you look at the first hour of the match you can understand why Patrick Vieira and the players were disappointed in their performance.
While Vieira only made one personnel change to the starting lineup, he shifted several players to different positions. Rodney Wallace was moved from the left wing role where he’s found success all season so far to a central role, with Ronald Matarrita occupying the left wing role and the team deploying three center backs defensively. Jack Harrison who typically pushes up the right wing and harasses opposition defenders had his runs on the attacking side of the field limited as a result, he had most of his touches in New York’s defensive half of the field.
The lack of urgency from Vieira’s typically hard pressing side that was noticeable. While controlling most of the possession not just in the first half, but throughout the game, New York City was unable to put a shot on target until the 44th minute; a header from 5’2” Maxi Moralez was the clearest threat they could muster the entire first half.
Vieira called the team’s first half performance passive.
“I’m a little disappointed because…we were a little passive, especially in the first half. The way we went into the game wasn’t the right way and at the end we get punished.”
The second half started off just as poorly as Lloyd Sam capitalized on a miscommunication between Maxime Chanot and Frederic Brillant and slot one past Sean Johnson in the 53rd minute. Things turned around beginning at the 60th minute when Tommy McNamara entered the game for Rodney Wallace.
When asked what the reasoning behind him playing centrally was Wallace said the decision was Vieira’s. “I feel comfortable being on the field, so whatever is instructed of me I’m going to go out there and do it.” He said when asked about whether or not he feels comfortable in that central role. “We tried to follow our game plan and some things didn’t go our way, there’s somethings that we’ve got to change. Our performance wasn’t bad, but at the end of the day we have to come away with points.”
Lloyd Sam once again threatened in the 73rd with Sean Johnson making a save but Acosta was there to put away the rebound and NYCFC found themselves down 2-0. Vieira had seen enough of his team holding onto the ball but doing nothing with it and pulled Andrea Pirlo in favor of Khiry Shelton and Ronald Matarrita in favor of Miguel Camargo within the next 7 minutes as the team shifted to a 3-4-4 in search of goals.
The man who entered the game for Rodney Wallace earlier, Tommy McNamara, for the second game in a row found himself changing the game as his assist to David Villa in the 84th minute was the only goal for NYCFC. The team pressed on in those final minutes as fans caught a glimpse of the team they had come to expect but by then it was too late.
“We’re not happy with how the game went” said team captain David Villa to reporters after the match. “Really it was difficult for both teams: the field was very bad, the wind was difficult to play in for both teams, it’s not an excuse because it was the same for the both teams and well, it was down to seeing who could get a goal. We committed two errors, we gifted them the two goals.”
Villa agreed with coach Vieira’s assessment that the team started off slow but finished the game strong. “I think we had a good final half hour, we pressed, we had a goal, we had chances to get another and draw but the result was bad for us obviously.” The lone goal of the game was Villa’s 7th goal in 7 games against D.C. United but he took no consolation from that statistic saying that when the team doesn’t win things like that don’t matter.
Following the previous match fans and reporters alike questioned why McNamara hadn’t earned a start by that point in the season, instead being relegated to coming off the bench late in games. Those questions were swirling once again following this game.
“That’s kind of what my role is right now and when I get opportunities to get on the field I want to help the team” said McNamara about coming off the bench. “Last week we were tied up and we needed a goal, this week were down a goal when I came on and it is what it is. Obviously I want to be playing from the get go so whenever I have opportunities I want to do well for the team and I want to state my case: I deserve to be starting as well.”
His difference making performances have left many asking what else he needs to do in order to earn a start. “I feel like I’ve been training well, I feel like every game I’ve come in I’ve done well for the team and helped the team. I’m just keeping my head down, I’m working hard, I’m staying focused, I’m trying to get better and when I get opportunities I’m trying to take them.”
Frederic Brillant was one of the first players to head to the team bus following the match, surely he was aware that many would blame the first goal on him. Sean Johnson however, was not one of those people casting the blame.
“Look it happens, but at the end of the day it’s not down to one person on the team. We’re a collective group so at the end of the day all goals we score, everyone will be proud and we’ll celebrate together, every goal that we give up we have to do better as a unit regardless of how it happened so it’s not something you dwell on. It happens.” The entire season, Johnson has been adamant that the defensive unit is cohesive and that there are no individual successes and failures. It’s that attitude that will help them learn from their mistakes and move on to their next opponent.
Despite the two goals allowed, Johnson said D.C. wasn’t more successful at executing their game plan in the second half than they were in the first. “They weren’t really more successful; I don’t think there’s really much in it. I can’t really say that they were threatening our goal for a sustained amount of time so hats off to them for converting the opportunities, but I don’t think there was much difference in the second half. We should have been better as a collective unit.”
In any sport it’s clear that when players start placing blame on each other for mistakes that the locker room can turn toxic. Johnson won’t even let a thought like that be uttered by a reporter without correcting them. Since his arrival at the club Sean Johnson has been the embodiment of the attitude that Vieira and Reyna want from their players.
That’s not to say Johnson has been blind to his team’s errors, he quickly realizes flaws and works with his teammates to address them. “All around we started a bit slow, we didn’t start the way we wanted to. We started on our back foot and that’s something you never want to do. We scored a goal late, energized a bit at the end there but it wasn’t enough. It was too little too late.”