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April 21, 2016

No Pirlo, no party: Five reasons why the Union's next opponent is maddeningly frustrating

Soccer Union
042116_poku_ Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

Kwadwo Poku, left, spends most of his time sitting on the New York bench.

New York City FC could very well beat the snot out of the Philadelphia Union on Saturday.

After all, this is a team with World Cup and Champion's League winners, international-caliber players, and exciting young prospects up and down the roster.

It's also a team that has the worst home-field and worst stadium in Major League Soccer. It's a team with no defensive spine, no tactical fluidity, and no real identity. Manager Patrick Vieira was tough as nails when he bossed the Arsenal midfield, but you don't really see any of those famous traits passed down to his NYC team, at least not yet.

Here are a couple of reasons why New York is the most baffling team in MLS.

1. Design flaws

NYC was poorly constructed from the beginning. This team hired a blue collar American coach (Jason Kreis), trained him overseas for a year, then fired him after one season in charge.

Year No. 1 was full of American ideas clashing with foreign money and design. You had Chris Wingert at center back. Mehdi Ballouchy was, at one point, your leading goal scorer. You signed Andrea Pirlo when you already had Frank Lampard trying to get back on the field. Andrew Jacobson was shoved into the number six role and the defense looked like a colander with holes big enough to leak both pasta and water.

Year number two doesn't appear to have changed all that much. New York replaced a good left back (Angelino) with another good left back. The center back and right back positions are still questionable. The midfield is still crowded and David Villa is still trying to do everything by himself.

The obvious truth is that NYC never needed Pirlo to begin with, and they probably don't need Frank Lampard at all. The franchise is absolutely stunting its growth by committing to a pair of aging veterans who won't even be here next season.

2. Pirlo style

You know what you get with Pirlo on the field.

He's a brilliant deep-lying playmaker with no defensive traits.

Vieira, for whatever reason, came out in the preseason and said that he had no problem playing Pirlo in the #6 role without any help whatsoever. It's incredibly ballsy and/or naive to think that a 36-year-old Regista can also shield a backline that isn't exactly comprised of world beaters.

This is what the NYC formation looked like on the road in Columbus last week. Pirlo basically plays the deepest role in an inverted triangle that includes Mix Diskerud and Tommy McNamara.

Here's an example from that game that shows just how risky it is to play Pirlo in this spot.

There's a 50/50 ball that drops into the center of the field, and Pirlo turns it over while trying to pick out Villa. Columbus springs a counter and scores off a late run into the box with Pirlo slow to recover and Mix Diskerud marking no one in particular.

So how did Pirlo play when he was with Juventus and AC Milan?

He had help.

His coaches built their shape around the playmaker and put excellent two-way midfielders and rock-solid defenders close to him. At Milan, he was flanked by Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso. At Juventus, he had a line of three center backs (Bonucci, Barzagli, and Chiellini) to cover for him.

No, you can't replicate Serie A talent in MLS, but you can change your tactics.

In this clip, watch how the NYC defense shifts into a five-man look. The extra body clogs the middle, alleviates pressure on Pirlo, and allows him to start a counterattack with Stiven Mendoza bombing the left flank.

The 3-5-2 is the best way to maximize the talents of a deep-lying playmaker while also giving him defensive help.

3. Free Poku! (plus Mullins, Shelton, and Bravo)

Four of the more interesting players on this team don't even see much of the field.

Kwadwo Poku – 110/540 minutes
Patrick Mullins – 111/540 minutes
Khiry Shelton – 244/540 minutes
Federico Bravo – 263/540 minutes

Combined, these guys have played 728 of 3,240 available minutes. That's 22 percent.

Last year, Poku, Mullins, and Shelton combined for 11 goals and 12 assists. This season, Shelton is the only one of the three to see the score sheet (1g/1a).

For whatever reason, Vieira prefers Mendoza, Diskerud, and Tony Taylor, but I'd take my chances with the other three.

As for Bravo, he might be the only true #6 on the team, and he's certainly helped solidify the defense when he's been on the field. But is there really room for him if Vieira is hell bent on playing Pirlo in that deep role?

4. David Villa becomes stranded

Whenever you watch a game at Yankee Stadium, you'll see Villa constantly pulling to the left side of the field.

He does it because the pitch gets too clogged in the middle and he can't find space. He doesn't have a strike partner in this formation and usually gets squished between the center backs when he tries to stay in front of the goal.

Check out the heatmap from the 0-0 draw against Chicago at Yankee Stadium. Villa consistently tracks left to find the ball when he isn't getting any kind of service through the middle.

The other thing you'll see Villa do is pull deeper centrally to look for the ball. This happens more on the road when the field is a bit bigger and the spacing between the lines provides for little seams to sit in. Theoretically, you can drag a center back out of position and give your wingers a crease to attack diagonally.

5. Josh Saunders

Josh Saunders won a MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy because he generally kept things simple and was reliable when called upon.

One of the flaws in his game is his distribution, which you can see for yourself here:

Yea, it's easy to cherry pick one play from one game, but what happens if that ball doesn't go out of play? You've got a 3v2 going the other direction with Pirlo scrambling to recover.

Saunders' save percentage of 53.8 is the worst among MLS starters. Is he getting any real help from a backline that includes an aging veteran (Jason Hernandez) and an unconvincing new signing (Frederic Brillant)?

No, he's not getting much help from his backline, but he's going to have to come up with some game-changing saves if NYC continues to stick with this formation and gameplan.

Of course, after I publish this write-up, New York will probably throttle Philly 4-0 on Saturday.