24 Thoughts: NYCFC's key switch, MLSers on U.S. U-20 roster, Gedion Zelalem and Erik Palmer-Brown

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After a rough start, New York City FC is on a roll thanks in part to a formation change and Brazilian striker Haber (right), who has two goals and two assists during NYCFC current 3W-0L-1T run. (Ira L. Black/Getty)
After a rough start, New York City FC is on a roll thanks in part to a formation change and Brazilian striker Haber (right), who has two goals and two assists during NYCFC current 3W-0L-1T run. (Ira L. Black/Getty)

Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

During the early part of the season we’ve looked at a number of teams that have, under new coaches, made tweaks to or completely revamped the way they play. There’s Atlanta United. The Columbus Crew. The LA Galaxy.

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Then there’s New York City FC. The Pigeons got a new boss halfway through last season, when Dome Torrent stepped in upon Patrick Vieira’s departure to French club Nice. Torrent made adjustments to Vieira’s system but they didn’t work; after winning his first three games, Torrent’s NYCFC managed just three dubs over their final 16 matches including playoffs, and were bounced by eventual champ Atlanta in the conference semifinals.

With a full preseason to implement his tactics this season, improvement was expected even after club legend David Villa departed for Japan. But when NYCFC stumbled out of the gates by going winless through its first five, Torrent, to his credit, ripped up his plans and started over. It was a ballsy move but it worked. The Bronx club has now won three of its last four.

24 Thoughts

1. “It says a lot about his quality as a coach to be able to, not swallow his pride, but to throw out what he had planned beforehand and find a system that works for us,” team captain Alex Ring told Yahoo Sports.

3. “Having a new coach arrive midseason is really hard,” Ring said of 2018. “Then we had some injuries, some key players that were out, and things didn’t go our way. And of course the fans and the media feast on it. But I always thought that you have to give him a preseason, you have to give him a chance to build his team the way he wants to, the way Patrick was allowed to.”

2. Torrent made the switch to a 3-4-3 formation before the draw at Minnesota United on April 13. “Tactically, defensively we’re more solid now than we were at the start of the season, which cost us points,” Ring said. NYCFC has six ties on the season, by far the most in MLS. “With a little bit more luck we’d be standing here maybe on top of the table, because we drew some games that we could’ve won.”

3. Using wingbacks who can drop in and help the defenders “always gives us a little bit of cover” veteran keeper Sean Johnson said. “And then going forward if we quickly transition, getting guys in the right places enables us to really use guys and let them really showcase their talents and lets our wingers get in aggressive spots.”

4. Learning on the fly wasn’t easy, though, as that first match in Minnesota showed. But since then, the team has gotten more and more comfortable with the new scheme. According to Johnson, there was an added bonus, too: “It’s forced us to talk a little bit more, which I think we needed,” he said.

5. With two wins away from Yankee Stadium, NYCFC already has half as many road victories as they did all of last season. “My feeling is they are happy to play in this system,” Torrent said after last week’s 2-1 victory in Montreal. “Sometimes soccer is about the feeling. The feeling is much better. That doesn’t mean we’ll win the next game, but the feeling when we play away is much better.”

6. Time will tell if the good vibes last. The trip to Montreal marked the first of four straight away matches for the the club. Saturday’s nationally-televised visit to the LA Galaxy figures to present a sterner test, especially with Zlatan Ibrahimovic et al looking to rebound after a 3-1 midweek loss in Columbus.

7. NYCFC’s hot streak has coincided with the arrival of Brazilian striker Heber Araujo dos Santos. Heber has two goals and two assists in four starts so far. Before his arrival, “We didn’t have a real number nine,” Ring said. The return of pint-sized Argentine midfielder Maxi Moralez — who scored the winner last weekend — from a knee injury has also helped.

8. Torrent insisted that even after failing to win any of its first six games, his team never wavered. “I say to them many times, don’t worry, the pressure is for me, for the head coach, not for them.” I had to ask. Was he ever nervous?

Second-year New York City FC manager Domenec Torrent. (Ira L. Black/Getty)
Second-year New York City FC manager Domenec Torrent. (Ira L. Black/Getty)

9. “I’m old, man,” Torrent laughed. “I have experience. Soccer is like that: when you lose the game, the head coach loses the game. And when we win, the players win.

“When you win the game, the head coach and the staff has more time to convince the club, our fans, our players. You get time. When you win a game, the head coach gets time.”

10. Time ran out for two more MLS coaches this week. On the heels of Anthony Hudson’s dismissal in Colorado earlier this month, Alan Koch (FC Cincinnati) and Brad Friedel (New England Revolution) were given their walking papers in recent days. Little-known fact: Before U.S. Soccer hired Bruce Arena to replace Jurgen Klinsmann as national team coach in late 2016, Friedel was under serious consideration to be the USMNT’s top assistant under Tab Ramos for the remainder of the 2018 World Cup cycle.

11. Could Ramos, the longtime U.S. under-20 boss, be in contention for the Revs gig after the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, which kicks off later this month in Poland? Here’s a better question: with four other teams (including expansion Miami and Nashville) looking for managers right now and other jobs potentially opening up later on, why would he want it? And if Dallas wasn’t willing to meet Ramos’ salary demands, would the Revs, who still have to pay Friedel?

12. Ramos named his 21-man roster for the U-20 USMN and ten current MLS players made the cut, and all but three members of the squad at least some spent time in an MLS academy before turning professional.

13. FC Dallas will be hit the hardest by the call-ups. Ramos selected three FCD players including starters Edwin Cerrillo and Paxton Pomykal. The other, midfielder Brandon Servania, made his first team debut last month.

14. The Philadelphia Union will send two players to Poland in Matt Real and Mark McKenzie. But there was no room for Brenden Aaronson, who has started nine strait games for Jim Curtin’s side. Other notable MLS omissions include NYCFC’s James Sands and 17-year-old LA Galaxy fullback Julian Araujo. Injury may have impacted the decision on the latter; Araujo has not appeared for the Galaxy since limping out of its match against the Loons on April 24.

15. It wouldn’t shock me to see Aaronson called in by senior team coach Gregg Berhalter when an extended U.S. camp opens outside Washington D.C. on May 27. The 18-year-old is a short drive away, and with CONCACAF’s Gold Cup roster deadline not until June 3 (a provisional squad must be submitted next week), I’m told Berhalter will look at several young players who aren’t necessarily in contention for the regional championship. One potential conflict: Philly hosts Colorado May 29.

16. You can be sure that some MLS teams are going to be eager to hold onto their players until they’re named to the final squad. That means a number of European-based guys who just finished their seasons could help make up the numbers. If he’s healthy, I’m curious if Bobby Wood, who has not played for Hannover in two months and was passed over by Berhalter for a pair of March games, gets a look. Feels like a long shot, though.

17. Before Portland landed Argentine striker Brian Fernandez as a designated player from Liga MX side Necaxa, the Timbers kicked the tires on Wood. My understanding is that the Hawaiian was one of many targets (Tigres forwards Eduardo Vargas and Julian Quinones were among the others) and things never progressed to the negotiation stage. Fernandez is a better fit anyway. Wood has knee issues so if and when he ends up in MLS, going to a team that plays on artificial turf —even the new and improved version at the revamped Providence Park — probably isn’t ideal.

Former Arsenal prospect <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/374487/" data-ylk="slk:Gedion Zelalem">Gedion Zelalem</a> is in his first season with Sporting Kansas City. (John Minchillo/AP)
Former Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem is in his first season with Sporting Kansas City. (John Minchillo/AP)

18. Caught up with former Arsenal prospect and current Sporting Kansas City midfielder Gedion Zelalem on Thursday. Zelalem has made just one start so far for SKC but played the final 25 minutes of its last match. Despite the recent reacquisition of veteran playmaker Benny Feilhaber, Zelalem is confident that he’ll get more playing time as his fitness improves. “I know what I have to do,” Zelalem said.

19. What exactly is coach Peter Vermes looking for? “Just more intensity in my play, really,” the 22-year-old said. “But that will come with more games — I think overall the coaching staff is quite happy with me.”

20. I also spoke to a former Sporting player this week: defender Erik Palmer-Brown. The 22-year-old has spent most of this season in a relegation battle with Dutch club NAC Breda on loan from Manchester City, which he joined on a free transfer last year.

21. “It’s been a great learning experience,” he said of his club’s rough 2018-19, which included a midseason coaching change. “I like the league and the country. I think I need to prove myself more in the Eredivisie; teams here all like to play out of the back — you saw what Ajax did in the Champions League — so it’s been a challenge but that’s the kind of player I want to be.”

22. Returning to the national team fold after winning two senior caps last year remains a goal for Palmer-Brown. He has yet to speak to Berhalter but has been in contact with USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart, a former player and executive at Breda. “I’m out of the pool right now,” said Palmer-Brown, who figures to play a key role for the U.S. U-23s in Olympic qualifying in early 2020. “That’s been on my mind.”

23. Haven’t been able to confirm this yet, but I’m told that the Rapids had interest in hiring USMNT assistant coach Josh Wolff to replace Hudson but that the sides were too far apart financially. If accurate, it sure sounds like it’s going to be more of the same in Commerce City.

Adorned in its original kit, D.C. United won three of the first four MLS Cups. (Al Bello/Allsport)
Adorned in its original kit, D.C. United won three of the first four MLS Cups. (Al Bello/Allsport)

24. It will be a crime if D.C. United, in celebration of its (and the league’s) 25th anniversary next season, don’t wear some sort of throwback to its signature inaugural kit — the one with the three large stripes across the chest and on the shorts — in which they won three MLS Cups in the league’s first four years.

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