By Michael Lewis
Given that he took over the team in the middle of the season, Domenec Torrent essentially was given a pass with New York City FC’s underachieving results down the stretch in 2018.
He inherited a finely tuned side that was guided by head coach Patrick Vieira, who was given an offer by Nice in his native country that was too good to refuse.
Torrent, the first lieutenant to Manchester City head coach Pep Guardiola, was called in to take over.
There was one slight problem, the 2018 NYCFC team was built and trained by Vieira to bring the ball up slowly. Torrent, however, likes to be more direct. It isn’t easy for teams — especially successful ones — to change its playing style midway through the season.
Now, with a full preseason under his belt and bringing players who can play under his system, Torrent will have no excuses. He will be under the gun from the start — City kicks off its fifth season at Orlando City SC Saturday — especially if the team stumbles from the gate.
It remains to be seen whether NYCFC has gotten stronger or weaker, though it could be the later.
Sean Johnson can be an enigma in the nets. He could look like a world-class keeper in the first half of a match, making several key saves, then allow a questionable goal every once in a while.
As long as the backline stays away from the injury list, it should do fine. When healthy Maxime Chanot and Alex Callens are the best center back duo in the club’s young history. Costa Rican international Ronald Matarrita is too injury prone, though Anton Tinnerholm has proven to be a reliable overlapping outside back.
Maxi Moralez again will be the man to pull the strings in the midfield, with captain Alex Ring, a physical defensive midfielder who is among the best in the league, and attack-minded Jesus Medina helping out.
If you’re wondering where the Americans are, well, so do I. Try finding anyone to play regularly under Torrent. Jonathan Lewis turned heads during the two U.S. international matches, but seems destined to be a sub or super-sub. Perhaps teenagers James Sands (18), a midfielder, and Joe Scally (16), a defender, will find a way to get some playing time.
NYCFC’s biggest challenge — outside of playing in a baseball stadium for the fifth consecutive season — is whether Romanian international Alexandru Mitriță will prove to be the proper successor to to the great David Villa.
Villa brought in a reputation, which included a World Cup title and a UEFA Champions League crown, and gravitas. He lived up to those expectations as team captain.
Whether Mitriță can duplicate that success, I guess will be find out soon enough, starting Saturday.
A week from Sunday — on March 10 — NYCFC will kick off its fifth MLS season at Yankee Stadium. While it might be a great place to watch a baseball game, it is a horrible venue to watch a soccer game, no matter what the team’s apologists might say. Except for those seated behind each goal, fans are a pretty decent distance from their heroes.
I keep hearing that NYCFC is close to naming a new stadium site somewhere in the five boroughs. I’ll believe it when I see it.
As for the team this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if it slips from the last two seasons. The club’s maiden season was an absolute disaster. Vieira did a fabulous job of righting the ship during his 2 1/2 year tenure. With Torrent given some time to build the team in his image, on paper, City should do at least as well as last year. He should know the league better, but will it be enough.
Teams below NYCFC have improved. It won’t be easy. Finishing third in the Eastern Conference again should be considered an accomplishment.