With New York City FC - and the big shiny stars of Lampard, Pirlo and Villa - coming to town on Sunday night, I got with Jake Gofman from our fellow SB Nation blog, Hudson River Blue, to discuss the match up.
Here are your Three Questions But Really Six:
We ask them...
1) The Blue Testament: NYCFC are top of the East with 30 points.... which is already just 7 points shy of their total last season. What kind of expectations did you have going into the season, and where are they at now? And a bonus question: What has been the biggest difference, or reason for the turnaround, in your opinion?
Jake Gofman: Coming into this season, supporters were proceeding with trepidation trying to predict how this team would do. On the one hand, NYC FC could finally benefit from having its full compliment of DPs in training camp which would allow its team to mesh prior to the season starting. The team tried to address its defensive issues with new signings, and brought in players they thought would improve the unit that was awful in 2015. On the other, Lampard picked up an early injury, and a group of incoming internationals would have to adapt quickly to life in MLS, all while bringing in a new coach with fresh ideas. These contrasting issues made it difficult to predict the team's future, but at the end of the day, our supporters looked at the talent on the team and, assuming the defense improved a little,expected it to make the Playoffs.
Today we are cautiously optimistic about our future success. Not very long ago we were down in the dumps following the Red Bull loss and yet another loss to the Cosmos, so the turnaround has been very quick for the team, but we have not forgotten about the lows. I see a lot to be excited about, especially in the midfield where we have successfully balanced two creative midfielders with enough defensive cover. I expect we finish towards the top of the East, within range of first, but I'm not trying to get ahead of myself.
I think your bonus question could be it's own feature article - It's hard to pinpoint one reason for our success, but if I had to choose one, it's the midfield. Vieira has found a way to get Lampard and Pirlo creating scoring opportunities, but also working hard to track back. He's paired the two of them in our three man midfield with Andoni Iraola, who is a left back by trade, and flanked either with attacking midfielders Jack Harrison and Tommy McNamara, who are no strangers to putting work in. The balance NYC FC has struck in the midfield is allowing us to control games and create opportunities.
2) TBT: Peter Vermes was recently asked how much credit Vieira deserves NYCFC's rise to the top this year. He responded by saying Jason Kreis also would have had the team doing much better had he stayed. What was the general opinion in NY about Kreis being let go? And I have to assume the fans are pleased with the Vieira Regime thus far?
JG: I think Vermes is right, but I don't think that's a hot take. Kreis is a good coach, and he had the team playing well last summer before he had to find ways to insert Pirlo and Lampard into the team. He would have benefited from a complete training camp and a better squad, and the team would have been more successful overall than it was in its lousy 2015 season.
We were fairly shocked as a fan base following his firing, and many of the supporters were disappointed with the direction City Football Group was taking the team. I personally was not a huge Kreis fan, mostly annoyed by his reluctance to solidify a back four by maintaining a centerback pairing, and generally not a fan of his personality when it came to media.
We are very pleased with Vieira so far. He came into the season trying as best he could to be transparent, and he has been good to media and fans in trying to keep everyone informed about his plans for the club. Tactically and with personnel Vieira struggled in the early part of the season, experimenting with three-at-the-back formations and with players in uncommon roles. Such are always the growing pains with a new manager however, and Vieira has displayed an excellent sense for understanding when things aren't working and trying to fix them. He has finally found the right formation and combination of players, and our toil through the early part of the season seems to be paying dividends.
3) TBT: I know fans in NYC loved Kwadwo Poku and often frustrated by his lack of playing time. They had to be bummed to see him traded to Miami FC recently. Why did the club seemingly not value the young talent as highly as people in the stands? Did they make the right move? Did they get enough for him in return?
JG: Definitely bummed. Kwadwo was a fan favorite and he was one of the only reasons we showed up to games at the end of last season. He will always hold a place in the hearts of fans who have been with the team since the beginning. That being said, Poku was an incredibly frustrating player if you took the time to analyze his whole game, and not just his more flashy moments. It's true that Poku was excellent on the ball, and you can't teach size and ball control in space. He did suffer from lapses of judgement; however, and was a poor defender and showed some laziness tracking back. One of my last memories of Poku will be in our 3-2 win against Union recently, in which he received the ball in stoppage time in a lot of space and, in lieu of dribbling into the corner to waste time, he tried to run at the defender and then delivered a poor pass to Villa that gave Union another shot at our goal. Did I mention we were down a CB in that game from a red card? Such was life with Poku this season.
I think it's always frustrating to only receive cash when you give up a player, especially a young one, but people seem to be okay with the compensation. I wish Kwadwo all the best, but I think this was the right move for a 24 year old who had a lot of growing to do.
They ask us...
1) Hudson River Blue: Sporting is on a nice run right now, unbeaten in it's past four games (two wins and two draws) and has jumped into 5th place in the Western Conference. What do you attribute to this nice run of form? Does it have more to do with tactics, or are players performing at a higher level?
Cody Bradley: I am not entirely convinced they are even playing that much better. The last match against Columbus crew was the first time all season SKC was able to score three goals and they really did look much better in that game. However, the other win you mentioned, they had no business getting. The 2-0 win very well could have been and should have been a 4-1 loss.
Finishing was the problem for the rough patch. On this upswing, they have just been a bit better in the final third. Feilhaber, who had been terrible, has started to look a little bit better. Dwyer has started to see the ball hit the back of the net again. And Graham Zusi has looked more confident and dangerous once again as well.
They do look better, but will need to continue this kind of play to show me that the Columbus match wasn't just a fluke. The talent is there to succeed and I am feeling good about the rest of the season as the guys are starting to play with some swag.
2) HRB: After being a consistent performer for many years, Graham Zusi had a tough 2015 in which he only managed two goals and four assists in 24 matches. While stats don't always paint the picture, by all accounts it was a down season for Graham. What do you think was the cause of Zusi's down year following World Cup 2014? Moreover, at 29 years old, Zusi should still be a major contributor, but so far in 2016 it appears his struggles continue as he has only a goal and assist to his name. That being said, he just scored a great goal in the game against Columbus and was named to the Team of the Week. What are you seeing from Zusi this year? Are his best years behind him or do you expect a bounce back in this campaign?
CB: The stats don't always paint the picture, but those stats do the job. He was simply not good last year. And that isn't compared to other DP's.. that is compared to anyone. At points this year it felt like he was doing more harm than good!
After the World Cup, everyone on the team was bad. But he and Besler were without a doubt fatigued. I will blame that season on that. Last year, he was dealing with nagging injuries all year. The club says he was never at 100% but that he was back in good form and ready to dominate this season again.
He has definitely not played up to par this season, but there were flashes where you could see the old Zusi. After playing really well with the USMNT he has returned with confidence. He looked fantastic in the Columbus match and was vintage Zues. I don't believe that he doesn't have the ability to return to his old form at this point. So no, I don't think his best years are behind him. He is still very quick and clever and if he is confident he can do some amazing things. I think he is fit for a strong finish to the season.
3) HRB: Aside from the more established and well know players, who is someone NYC FC should look out for this Sunday?
CB: JIMMY MEDRANDA. Thank you for asking this question and allowing me to talk about this dude! SKC got Jimmy on a loan in 2013 out of his native Columbia, then signed him in 2014. He is 22 years old and became a fan favorite with a few short appearances here and there. It took him a while to really figure out what is required of him in Vermes' demanding system because he can be overzealous and get caught out of position. But this year he has finally been able to find a spot in the starting lineup and keep it.
Medranda is a really, really clever player and has amazing skills on the ball. He's strong, he's fast, and he's probably capable of knocking over the goal posts with his powerful shot. The guy will literally shoot from anywhere on the field. ANYWHERE, I tell you. It may sound like I'm describing an attacking player, and you would be right. But he has been starting at left-back. Vermes loves his fullbacks to get forward and Jimmy is an extreme version of that. He's had a few terrible moments, but is actually turning in some amazing numbers on defense with interceptions, blocks and tackles.
He is one of the friendliest, nicest human beings on this planet and everyone is really rooting for him. He may actually have been SKC's best player since he broke into the lineup. Keep an eye on him and you'll see something crazy. Whether he juggles the ball through traffic, or makes an absurd sliding tackle in the box, or shoots from 50 yards out, you will not be disappointed. Plain and simple.. he is so much fun to watch.
The Blue Testament Predictions:
Lineup: (4-3-3) Tim Melia, Saad Abdul-Salaa, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Jimmy Medranda, Soni Mustivar, Roger Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber, Brad Davis, Diego Rubio, Graham Zusi
Score: Sporting Kansas City 1 - 0 New York City FC