Can striker David Villa, at 35, continue his scoring prowess? (Photo by Keith Furman)
By Michael Lewis
Front Row Soccer Editor
New York City FC kicks off its third Major League Soccer season at fellow 2015 expansion side Orlando City SC to help christen the latter’s new soccer-specific stadium at 5 p.m. Sunday.
While making great strides in 2016 under new head coach Patrick Vieira and becoming one of the pleasant-surprise teams of the league, City faces several questions as to whether it can continue and improve on its second-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season.
Who will emerge as the dominant defensive player because defense — team and backline — were the team’s Achilles Heel last season?
After Luxembourg international defender Maxime Chanot joined the club last season, City’s defense improved but it still needs to step up its game. Offseason additions Alexander Callens (Peru) and Yangel Herrera (Venezuela) are expected to help the back up. Panama international Miguel Camargo and Finland’s Alexander Ring and Argentine DP Maxi Moralez should fortify a midfield that has lack consistency on defense.
Can David Villa continue to be a scoring terror despite his age?
A World Cup champion, Villa has been nothing short of magnificent during his first two seasons, connecting for 17 goals in 2015 and adding 23 and league MVP honors last year. The Spanish superstar is 35 and while he has kept himself in tip-top shape, strikers have a history of falling off when they get into their 30s.
Of course, Villa could prove to be the aberration with another stellar season.
Ditto for Andrea Pirlo.
Another world champion, Pirlo is no spring chicken either; he turns 38 on May 19. He lets the ball do the work for him. Does he have the legs to taken in another 34-game, particularly during the summer months? Or does Vieira have some plans to rest the Italian international’s legs.
Who will be the goalkeeper — Sean Johnson or Eirik Johansen?
With Josh Saunders winding up in Vieira’s doghouse for the playoffs, despite logging the majority of games and minutes in the team’s first two seasons, he was allowed to sign with another team (he has been reunited with former NYC FC head coach Jason Kreis at Orlando City).
Johansen, who stepped in to take Saunders place in that disastrous conference semifinal series against Toronto FC, is one candidate to backstop the team.
Sean Johnson, who has fallen off his one-time national team form and obtained in a trade through the Chicago Fire and Atlanta United, is the other contenders.
Whoever has won the first-string job should be allowed to remain in goal for a good chunk of the season, barring a howler or two of a performance.
Of course, that will be up to the man between the pipes to give consistent performances. The last thing any team needs, including City, is a goalkeeping controversy.
Can Jack Harrison turn into a legitimate impact player on the wing?
After sitting out the first two months of the season recovering from an injury, the Englishman enjoyed a fabulous debut year as one of the team’s promising young attacking players before tailing off towards the end of the season.
Can he put in more consistent performances to complement and supplement Villa up front and perhaps turn the head of U.S. national team head coach Bruce Arena or whoever will direct the national side after World Cup qualifying and/or the World Cup.
Who can or will replace Frank Lampard as a productive goal-scorer?
As good as he his, Villa’s success certainly wasn’t hurt by the presence of Lampard when he was healthy. Lampard scored 12 goals last season and some were considered lucky ones (off his knee, face, etc. etc.). But he had a knack of forcing the opposing goalkeeper to take the ball out of his own net.
Now, do the Blues have someone who can take over that scoring load? Tommy McNamara, Khiry Shelton can create and occasionally score goals, but probably are not double-digit goal-scorers. For teams to be successful, and to take some of the scoring load off of Villa, City needs some else to put the ball away consistently.
Can the team refine what it learned and implemented under Vieira and become an even more dominant team?
Vieira implemented a new system — deploying three forwards — and new philosophy as the team responded well falling just short while it made the Red Bulls sweat until the final week of the regular season.
The Blues must prove last season wasn’t a fluke and demonstrate that they have put their problems of playing on the smallest field in the league at Yankee Stadium behind them. They got off to an awful start last season, leaving home points on the table. If City can combine a much better home record with an impressive 7-7-3 mark on the road (one of only two teams that finished at .500 away), this could be one memorable season).