There is one question on every NYCFC fan’s mind right now. Who should be starting out of the dozen or so new players that head coach Patrick Vieira brought in during the offseason? Here’s our NYCFC 2017 lineup preview. But first we have to announce, one position is already locked in and that’s Mix Diskerud. He will be in the poet laureate position this year.

Let’s start with the easy one, Sean Johnson will clearly be the starting goalie. He’s 6’3″, started for Chicago since 2010 and was one of the only good things going on there. This is a big upgrade for NYCFC. There’s no debating it. So let’s just move on to the field players.

Vieira typically likes to play a 4-3-3. This means that there are:

  • 4 defenders (two central defenders and a wing defender on each side of them)
  • 3 midfielders (usually two midfielders attacking or creating opportunities for forwards and one “holding” slash defensive midfielder)
  • 3 forwards (a central focal point of the attack and two wingers).

Let’s start with the Defense and work our way up the field.

Defenders:

Coach Vieira plays a very particular style of football where the offensive attack is slowly built up from the back line time after time throughout the match. The goal of this style of play is to control the ball more than the opponent and to not rely on long balls to forwards to break the defensive press. The ball is played with quick passes in triangles with players constantly moving to space (hopefully). Wing defenders overlap the midfielders on runs to create overloads on their side of the field leaving someone open to get a cross in to the central forward.

In order to do this, you need central defenders that don’t have a panic attack with the ball at their feet. You also need wing defenders who can make runs up the field and execute a great cross or seam pass and then sprint back into defensive position when the attack ends.

For Center Back, Vieira could go with his last year staple of Frederic Brillant and Maxim Chanot. As much as I am a fan of Freddy Brillant, who is clearly beloved by the squad despite some large hiccups last year, I have a feeling he is going to be benched early in the year in favor of new guy Alex Callens. Callens is 7 years younger with a lot to prove. For years he was on Real Sociedad, a La Liga top level squad, but never broke into the first team. He was also on the Peruvian national team making the preliminary roster for the Copa America but not making the final 23 man roster. Vieira expects him to push for a spot and be hungry for it. I fully expect Brillant to start early on though. No matter what happens, the central defense has to be significantly better this year than they were last year if they want to seriously contend for the Supporters Shield or MLS Cup. Can’t be having the likes of Jozy Altidore, Giovinco, or BWP just doing whatever they want to the central back line again. NYCFC likes to score a lot of goals, scoring the most last year, but they also gave up the fourth most, hopefully they can widen that gap a bit this year.

On the wings the choice is fairly clear as there’s not too much competition out there just yet. RJ Allen will likely start on the right side and Ronald Matarrita on the left. Matarrita is exciting because he’s only 22, starts internationally for Costa Rica (scored a goal in the WCQ pre-hexagonal rounds against Trinidad and Tobago) and won NYCFC defender of the year for 2016. He tends to get a bit a head of himself, literally, getting caught upfield when he should be tracking defenders back towards our own net, but he’s young and very promising. RJ Allen on the other side is a local guy and a hard worker, and he’s actually quite dangerous on the attack which I think is why Vieira likes him so much. His defending left a bit to be desired last year, but honestly NYCFC doesn’t care as much about that as his ability to make runs up field, pick out key passes, and make quality crosses. Ethan White will probably compete for some time at both the center and wing positions but likely won’t be a starter very often.

Midfield:

Now this is where it gets really interesting. NYCFC had two midfield starters retire at the end of last season, Frank “Lampyard” Lampard and Andoni Iraola. Frank Lampard, NYCFC’s second leading scorer last year, left a British-legend-sized hole in the midfield. His main role was to facilitate the transition between the build up from the back line and the offensive attacking front while also getting himself in position to score scrappy goals. He perfected the #OopsieBumble, and for that I’m forever grateful. Iraola was an unsung hero as the defensive midfielder, guarding the back line and backstopping Pirlo. So now that both of those guys are gone, what does NYCFC do? They sign about twenty five new players, that’s what they do.

Alexander Ring, who famously said he can’t wait to play at Yankee Stadium (here’s a tip, Alex, practice on an indoor bocce court) is now the new Iraola. His job is to protect whoever is playing central defense, get the ball back when we lose it, and just generally be an outlet (along with Pirlo) for the defenders. He’ll mainly be prowling the midfield just a head of the two central defenders and just behind Pirlo. He’s got some serious competition though for that starting spot with Yangel Herrara on loan from Manchester City. This kid is 19 and is a very hot prospect. I’d expect to see a decent amount of him this year slotting in either for Ring or even alongside him as a sub for Pirlo.

Replacing Lampard is a bit trickier. The guy played a very special part in building up the attack, but always seemed to be at the end of it too. They have a creative player in Pirlo already in midfield but he’s also a defensive liability and he’s not going to be making any runs into the box. So they need someone who can create goal scoring opportunities, adding a few goals here and there on runs into the box, but who also can get back and help out the defense/cover for Pirlo…There’s a few options for Vieira here.

He just signed Maxi Moralez, who is a diminutive figure at 5’3″ but is great on the ball and a creative force. He’s like a mix of Sebastian Giovinco, Pirlo, and a shetland pony. The guy was a baller in Italy for years at Atalanta and then played in LigaMX for Leon last year before getting signed to NYCFC. The other option is Tommy McNamara, who we are huge fans of for many reasons (namely his great haircut, willingness to shoot from anywhere, chillness, and being from West Nyack, NY). He’s great on the ball as well, very steady contributor who is a great passer and scorer. The thing with T-Mac though is that if you don’t play him on the left midfield, where do you play him? He’s not really fast enough to be a forward winger in the system Vieira plays, and besides NYC has plenty of speedy talent there already. I think we see a few different midfield combos with Tommy and Maxi splitting that forward-looking midfielder role. I imagine since Maxi was a ‘Designated Player’ signing that he will be getting the majority of the starts.

So who gets that third midfield position? Andrea Pirlo. No questions asked. Just let the man do his thing. Granted he’s 38 or so and is a huge defensive liability, but the guy can pass/control the ball like no one else and is so dangerous on free kicks. It’s worth having him out there as the midfielder positioned in between the defensive guy and the more attacking guy. Worst case scenario too is that he gets tired and you sub in a guy like Maxi or T-Mac if you need offense or a defensive midfielder like Herrera if you need to protect a lead.

Forwards:

Without a doubt David Villa will be the focal point of the attack, starting every game at center forward. The league MVP last year scored a billion goals and will likely do so this year as well, plus he’s an absolute maniac on the pitch. He’s already got a red card this year for slapping AJ DeLaGaraza and last year he scissor kicked a dude from behind. High comedy. But he’s worth it because he’s a Barcelona/Spain legend, scores goals, and gets you FIRED UP. What’s even more exciting is that NYCFC signed Sean Okoli in the offseason to back up Villa and potentially partner alongside him if they opt for a two-forward set-up. Okoli was the USL (league just below MLS) golden boot winner and MVP last year with 16 goals for FC Cincinnati. He’s only 24 and he’s a VERY good second option up top.

The real question though is who plays alongside Villa? Vieira wants players who can feed Villa the ball from the outside but also create their own opportunities to shoot. Luckily Vieira’s got a ton of options. On the right side will likely be Jack Harrison. Jack was almost league rookie of the year last year. He’s fast, has great ball skills, and is a hardworking player who happened to also score the runner up for MLS goal of the year.

The left side will probably be Ronald Wallace early in the season. He’s an accomplished winger with the Portland Timbers who took last year off from the MLS to check out Portugal and Brazil. I think him and Khiry Shelton, the massive speedy winger, should split some time there while Vieira figures out what to do with new golden-boy Jonathan Lewis. Lewis, NYCFC’s top pick in the draft (3rd overall) is blazing fast, is playing well with the U-20 USMNT, and has everyone at the club very psyched. I’d be surprised if he’s not getting starts by midway through the season.

If Vieira slots Maxi Moralez in as the third midfielder alongside Pirlo and Ring, I can also see Tommy McNamara getting some playing time out wide in a forward position from the left side. I really think he’s better served in midfield though. They’ve all got some competition from new guy Miguel Camargo as well, a 23 year old Panama international player.

Hoff’s team prediction for this year? NYCFC wins the Supporters shield, makes a run in the playoffs but falls short of the MLS Cup (losing to Seattle). BOLD PREDICTIONS. What do you think of the lineup for NYCFC this year or their shot at the league trophies?