DENVER, CO – Patrick Vieira regressed to his old ways Saturday night as New York City FC drew the Colorado Rapids 1-1.
When NYCFC announced their starting eleven Saturday night, it was easy to groan. After their first trip to the mountains this season saw a heavily-rotated squad lose 2-1 to Real Salt Lake, to see a similar team take the field against Colorado could understandably leave one feeling skeptical.
With Andrea Pirlo returning for a third consecutive start, and Jack Harrison making his debut as a striker, it was difficult to know exactly what to expect. Despite earlier reports of his imminent return, David Villa remained on the bench, and Khiry Shelton started in what had become Jonathan Lewis’ position.
NYCFC started the match off conservatively. Short, probing passes made their way between the centerbacks, up the touchline via RJ Allen & Ben Sweat. The club only landed in the Mile High City the day before, so conservation of energy would be paramount.
Through the first twenty minutes, the game went predictably. City played it safe with possession and the Rapids got their opportunities on the counter. The most dangerous chance came on a run from Dominique Badji ended in a shot parried by Sean Johnson, who once again had a good showing.
And then, McNamara reminded Pigeon fans just why he has a cult-like following among them. The interim-captain dropped his marker with a turn, dribbled into his favorite spot – the left side of the box from about twenty yards – and let loose a shot that Tim Howard had no chance to stop.
The remainder of the half saw each side taking their chances. Pirlo – who had a good shift despite the travel and altitude – rattled a free kick off the woodwork. While McNamara did get the goal, one of the more impressive performances came from Khiry Shelton. Returning to the state where he grew up, Shelton played with aggression and desire for the first time in a very long time. He was decisive, imposed his strength on his markers, and just made an effort. That’s the Khiry we should see every time.
Frustration mounted for the Rapids as the game wore on. Josh Gatt – unquestionably Colorado’s best player in this match – could be seen shouting at his teammates to “do something” when he would make dangerous runs with the ball into the box. Gatt would constantly find himself stranded alone with no outlet, and the City defense would easily clean up.
The second half also saw the MLS debut of James Sands, who came on for Pirlo in the 67th minute. Sands played the role of holding midfielder, and as we saw in the preseason, he didn’t look one bit out of place. He was confident and decisive on the ball with a good work rate.
David Villa also made his return from injury, coming on for Shelton in the 72nd minute. He paired with Maxi Moralez in attack, but neither was particularly effective in the last minutes of the match. Villa completed the shift without incident and looks ready to return to his starting spot next week.
The 84th minute saw Colorado nearly level things on a shot by substitute Alan Gordon. Gordon was one-on-one with Johnson, but the goalkeeper just got a foot on it and spoiled the shot wide.
Then everything went sideways. The 87th minute saw another MLS debut – that of new defender Andraz Struna – who came on for a clearly-gassed Harrison. He played right back, and immediately Badji scored from the right side of the pitch. The goal wasn’t entirely his fault, but the timing just couldn’t have been worse.
Once again, Vieira hasn’t learned that putting his club on the back foot with defensive substitutions takes them away from what they’re good at. Not once this season has NYCFC shown that they can withstand prolonged, sustained attack for more than a couple of shots. Conceding possession and just waiting out the clock simply isn’t a viable strategy with this team.
This loss – and that’s what it is, a loss – is solidly on the shoulders of Patrick Vieira.