New York City Football Club has gone from the euphoria of making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history to sudden despair, as their season is on the brink of elimination.
It seems like just yesterday when City earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and won homefield advantage in the conference semis. But with reality settling in and the real possibility of an early extinction, it’s time for NYCFC to rally.
City’s late-game 2-0 collapse to Toronto FC in the first leg was disheartening because of all the hard work they put in during a splendid late regular season run to get themselves into position to host a playoff series. But it was the final nine minutes of what was then a scoreless tie that should be a reminder to head coach Patrick Vieira to never tinker with what’s working.
Vieira’s somewhat shocking replacement of regular goalkeeper Josh Saunders right before the playoffs began will be taken one of two ways, depending on the series outcome – genius or panic. Because now that they’ve lost the first match, New York’s only true city franchise will be facing a save-the-season home match, Sunday, at Yankee Stadium.
Starting 6-foot-6, 24-year-old Eirik Johansen over 6-foot-4, 30-year old Saunders could still be a calculated risk, should City bounce back and take this series. But the fact that Vieira waited this long to replace Saunders – a move many in the Yankee Stadium bleachers have been clamoring for all season – will be much debated, especially if City doesn’t rebound in this series. NYCFC had gone 33 matches with Saunders as their starting goalkeeper and just as the playoffs were about to begin, he turned to Johansen. Vieira needs to make this lineup change work, or it’ll be a long offseason of what-ifs and second guessing.
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Vieira’s bet on Johansen initially looked good, particularly when the young goalkeeper made a huge one-on-one save on the crafty and spectacular Italian scorer Sebastian Giovinco in the 12th minute. And the neophyte looked right at home in net until Jozy Altidore’s goal in the 84th minute that unraveled City.
What also puts matters for NYCFC in peril is the way they lost the opener to Toronto. Not only could aggregate scoring cost City, but there are also five players who received yellow cards in the loss. That leaves each one in jeopardy of being ejected if they get another.
And to complicate matters further, the fact that City didn’t register a goal on the road could hurt their chances of winning this series if it comes to tiebreakers. Away goals are weighted more heavily than home goals in the playoffs and serve as a tiebreaker, which means if Sunday’s match ends in a 2-2 tie, or even a 1-1 tie, it could put NYCFC’s chances in danger. An outright win for City would be the way to go.
But before that can be sorted, Vieira needs his lineup change to go his way, because messing with defensive chemistry in such a big game is typically a catalyst for doom. TFC, though, won’t let it come easy, especially since the two squads were only separated by one point (54-53) in the regular season. Look for a desperate – and hopefully poised – City to come out firing on Sunday, or there could be a lot of firing going around the day after a crushing playoff defeat.
-Johansen’s first-ever minutes came in a start, last week, in a meaningless match against the Columbus Crew.
-The first leg was only the third playoff game in Toronto’s history. But even that minuscule number is sizeable compared to NYCFC, as not a single City starter had ever appeared in an MLS postseason match.
-In addition to those aforementioned yellow cards, City also committed 19 fouls in the opener. They’ll need to clean that up by Sunday.