By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (May 18, 2018) US Soccer Players - Here’s what we know about NYCFC midway through May of the 2018 season, the club’s fourth MLS campaign:
- The team is good, perhaps even good enough to win an MLS Cup this season.
- The organization is willing to spend money to put a quality product on the field.
- Head coach Patrick Vieira has a philosophy that makes his side unique in MLS.
- While David Villa remains excellent, NYCFC has proven capable of winning games without him in 2018.
Here’s what we don’t know about NYCFC at this point:
- Whether Patrick Vieira will finish the season as the club’s head coach
There are many other things we don’t know about NYCFC right now. They're mundane things like whether injuries and absences will have a big impact on results and if lessons learned from playoff exits the last two seasons will mean anything come October. However, it's the status of Vieira that is now the chief uncertainty heading into the summer.
First, it's worth saying that no one had delusions of Vieira staying on as NYCFC head coach for very long. The former midfield great start his coaching career with the youth teams of Manchester City with an eye on reaching the top levels of the game. The opportunity afforded him by the connection between Manchester City and NYCFC via City Football Group made sense as a stepping stone. MLS was always just an incubator for Vieira’s eventual European coaching career.
Just because everyone knew the day would come when Vieira headed back to Europe doesn’t mean the currently unfolding drama that might send him back across the Atlantic isn’t painful. NYCFC entered the 2018 season on a shortlist for trophies, firmly established as one of the elite clubs in the very stacked Eastern Conference. NYCFC sat comfortably in a group that included the defending champion Toronto FC, Atlanta United, and for some the Columbus Crew. With those expectations, the possibility of Vieira leaving is a big deal.
The whispers started with Arsenal when the London club announced that Arsene Wenger would leave the club at the end of the Premier League season. After 22 years with the same man in charge, Arsenal figured to struggle with a managerial search in the modern soccer landscape. At the heart of the matter is whether Arsenal intends to engage in the mercenary market of “elite” managers, or turn to someone who understands the character of the club.
Vieira played under Wenger and starred as a member of the “Invincibles” team that won the 2001-02 Premier League title with an unbeaten record. He earned his place among the legends of Arsenal. A return “home” for the Frenchman would certainly make sense if the Gunners came calling. It’s reasonable to think Vieira would have a hard time turning such an offer down.
For his part, Vieira maintains that he wants to see out the season in New York and that his commitment is to his current club. Based on what we know about his character as a player and coach, there’s no reason to question that. NYCFC’s coach put a lot of work into his club and fell at playoffs hurdles in each of his first two seasons on the job. He wouldn’t be an up-and-coming manager in the wider world of soccer if he didn’t have trophy aspirations. The job remains incomplete in New York.
Whether the Arsenal discussion begat them or not, a host of new rumors are now swirling around Vieira. That includes reports of at least two clubs in France interested in his coaching services for next season. Vieira’s standing in France is almost equal to his standing at Arsenal because of his exploits in a France shirt. He figures to be in demand there whenever jobs are open.
Where does this leave NYCFC? The club likely has a contingency plan in place if Vieira decides to leave, though it’s probably not more involved than “promote an assistant”. Vieira’s staff is strong, but none of Christian Lattanzio, Javier Perez, and Rob Vartughian have head coaching experience at the senior level. A drop-off, in part due to shock, will be difficult to guard against. It’s not a certainty that NYCFC drops out of contention if Vieira leaves midseason. It's a safe assumption that their chances won’t be good.
Just the possibility that Vieira could leave for Europe is enough to synthesize the weird condition of NYCFC as an MLS entity. That the club can lure an important soccer figure like Patrick Vieira through the City Football Group connection is a strength. That Vieira is using the club as a stepping stone and could leave at any moment undermines that strength’s value.
The nature of City Football Group’s global interests makes it tough to know how to think about NYCFC. If CFG’s focus in any given year is pushing Manchester City to a Premier League title and Champions League glory, then the fortunes of its American outpost are necessarily secondary.
NYCFC fans would certainly rather have Vieira than not. He turned the club into one of the most entertaining in MLS while at the same time establishing an identity through a specific playing style. Whatever shortcomings the club has, its status as a top-level team in an increasingly stratified league is a credit to the coach.
For MLS itself, Vieira jumping back across the ocean to Europe might be a good thing. MLS serving as a destination for young coaching talent would complement its burgeoning reputation for young playing talent well.
For NYCFC, big questions loom. There might not be another Patrick Vieira waiting in the wings at Man City or anywhere else. Turning to a well-known European name with big aspiration and connections to big clubs sounds like a good idea until that situation changes.
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(Photo by Mike Lawrence - ISIPhotos.com)