Sean Johnson, making a save when he was with the Chicago Fire, is in contention for the starting goalkeeper job. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

By Michael Lewis

Front Row Soccer Editor

A surprise runner-up in the Eastern Conference last season, New York City FC head coach Patrick Vieira says this year’s team could even be better than the 2016 version.

Last season the Blues finished second to the rival Red Bulls in the 10-team conference with an impressive 15-10-9 record and 54 points. They were eliminated in the conference semifinals by eventual MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC (they were only one of two teams that finished with .500 marks on the road).

“I believe that this year the team is much stronger than last year,” he said during a Thursday afternoon conference call with the media. “The roster is much better than it was.”

Vieira said that he has a much more versatile roster from which to choose.

“As a coach I have players who can play in different positions and I think we have better players overall,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t have so many choices with the players that we had. This year we will have more competitiveness between the players and that will help to get the best out of every single one of them.

“I think that’s why I like about this group. It’s young and we have two or three really good players in each position. That means if you’re going to play, you have to play really well.”

For example, the starting goalkeeper has not been decided yet. It is between Eirik Johansen, who played the final three matches, including both playoff games last season, newcomer Sean Johnson, who was acquired in a trade, and reserve keeper Andre Rawls, who has played well in the preseason.

“We have three good players,” Vieira said. “And that is what I want. I want the players to fight for the spot; I don’t want them to feel comfortable and thinking they’re going to play every week. No, it’s not like that. You have to work hard to earn your spot.”

Needless to say, Vieira liked the competition for positions in training.

“I don’t want players to feel comfortable and to feel they’re going to play every week,” he said. No, you have to work hard for your spot.”

City will play its final preseason game against Sporting Kansas City at the Desert Diamond Cup Saturday.

The Blue will open their third MLS season at Orlando City SC Sunday, March 5.