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New York City FC analysts judge the final stages of regular season

Can New York City FC captain David Villa help his team regain its form in the last five games of regular season. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

After a two-week layoff, New York City FC can clinch a third consecutive MLS postseason bid with a win at Montreal this Saturday — and maybe regain a bit of missing mojo in the process.

With five regular-season matches remaining and a playoff berth pending, three notable NYCFC commentators shared their thoughts on the team with Pro Soccer USA.

Ian Joy interprets games on the YES Network. He played in 179 professional matches, including stints with Real Salt Lake (2008-09) and the Portland Timbers (2010).

Janusz Michallik, also a YES Network pundit, played in the first two seasons of MLS with the Columbus Crew and made 44 appearances for the United States men’s national team.

And Matt Lawrence is the former Crystal Palace and Millwall central defender who marked Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy in an FA Cup Final. He reviews NYCFC games for WNYE radio.

“First and foremost, I can’t believe we’re in this situation right now,” Joy said of a team that was battling for the Supporters Shield in the first half of the season. “Everyone was flying high and I was telling all my colleagues to watch out, that this is a team that can go all the way.”

After a marvelous 2-2 draw at Atlanta United April 15, NYCFC remained unbeaten in its first seven matches (5-0-2) under former coach Patrick Vieira.

Shortly thereafter, the reports forecasting Vieira’s departure began to circulate and he ultimately accepted the managerial position with OGC Nice of Ligue 1 on June 11.

“The Patrick rumors were a distraction,” Joy said.

Dome Torrent, Pep Guardiola’s lieutenant for 11 years, was subsequently named the club’s third head coach in its fourth season of existence.

“We always knew this day was coming, but that it was also not ideal,” Michallik said of Vieira leaving. “You hope it’s not going to happen, and to some degree, the emphasis and the philosophy has been changing a little bit. Some guys that were used to bringing it out of the back with confidence, now, not as much.”

The Torrent era began with five wins in six matches including four consecutive clean sheets. However, a precipitous drop in form has resulted in just one victory over the last eight contests for a current mark of 14-8-7 and 49 points. NYCFC is sitting at third in the Eastern Conference table – a distant 11 points behind top ranked Atlanta United with five matches to play.

“When Dome first came in, they were fantastic,” Lawrence said. “It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s certainly safe to say that they are either not buying in or not understanding what Torrent wants. The results are showing that.”

Torrent has suggested on multiple occasions that his team has failed to respond to his halftime messages.

“The fact that the head coach is saying they are not adhering to his coaching points – there’s a communication breakdown,” Lawrence said. “Something has gone wrong and he hasn’t been able to turn it around. They haven’t done as well as they did under Vieira.”

“Its difficult for Dome,” Joy said. “He obviously has a big reputation following him being Pep’s assistant. He’s the type of guy who is looking for his own opportunity to have success. He can have success here, but the biggest problem is that he is still learning the league and the crazy, ridiculous schedule. He’s frustrated all around.

“It’s difficult for any coach, let alone a coach from the highest level. You’re not treated the same in MLS, and he has to get used to that.”

There was evidence of an upward trend before the recent international break, although only one point was gleaned from a pair of home matches – a 1-0 defeat to New England and a 1-1 draw with D.C. United – despite NYCFC outshooting its Eastern Conference foes 59-12 overall.

“For me, its about taking your chances,” Joy said.  “We created so many, then get sucker-punched an hour into the game (versus New England). We’re guilty of missing our opportunities to put teams away. We didn’t struggle with that early in the season.”

Michallik said constancy is the essence of gaining an edge leading into the postseason.

“I think this team, more than anything, needs stability,” said Michallik, who experienced a coaching change in the middle of his first MLS campaign. “They were missing so many players internationally with injury and suspension. Now is the time. They are going to have everybody back. Dome’s got to pick 13, 14, 15 players max. And I’m not 100 percent sure he knows his best XI.”

Michallik had an opinion on who should be positioned close to captain David Villa – the Norwegian Jo Inge Berget.

“I know he’s not as graceful and technical,” Michallik said. “Nobody works and covers space like he does. Villa needs him. Without him, Villa doesn’t see the ball. The other guys can’t cover the same ground. With Berget, the other teams have their hands full. Somebody’s got to be aware of him. I know that Berget has to be there.”

Lawrence said teams will always look to their proven players at this stage in the season, “the proven goal scorers, like Villa and Moralez, and the spine of the team with (Alex) Ring, (Alexander) Callens and (Maxime) Chanot.”

“Big players stand up in big games, and every game ’til the end of the season is a cup final for this club,” Lawrence said.

Said Michallik: “Organize the core with a good spine that balances creativity and physical strengths – in other words, keep it simple and stick with one system. And Sean Johnson needs to get his confidence back. He was the one player we never had to worry about, and I’m still not worried, but I think he’s dropped off a bit like the rest of the team.”

Johnson accepted responsibility when he misjudged a Wayne Rooney free kick, which led to D.C. United’s only shot on frame in the Sept. 8 match.

New York City has conceded 14 goals in the previous eight matches, but Lawrence said supporters should be wary of pinning the frequent leaks on the New York City keeper.

“At times, people make too much of keeper errors when it’s more about not taking chances at the other end,” the former defender said. “You tend to notice the individual errors on the defensive side.”

The three commentators agreed that Torrent has the pedigree, experience and personnel to send New York City into the playoffs with precision, poise and confidence – but Joy indicated that the final story of this season may begin with the opening line, “What could have been.”

“Dome, I feel sorry for,” Joy said. “He was handed this halfway through the season. It was inevitable that Patrick was moving on, but we would have been in a better situation heading into the playoffs if he was still the coach, I think.”

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