The first installment of my expansion team series looks at a team I dislike on principle, if only because they play in the teeny-tiny confines of Yankee Stadium: NYCFC.
Off the pitch, they were a roaring success, with tremendous season ticket and jersey sales. But on the pitch, they were god-awful.
Even though they were launching a team from scratch in a league in which they'd never done business, the City Football Group owners in Abu Dhabi put expectations sky high, setting a goal of making the playoffs in their inaugural season. (Never mind that out of the 11 expansion teams launched since 2005, only the Seattle Sounders have accomplished this. And they had the advantage of being the offshoot of a successful USL franchise.)
Shocker...NYCFC failed spectacularly, earning just 37 points with a 10-17-7 regular season record. They finished 8th in the Easter Conference, a full 12 points out of the playoff contention behind Toronto FC. They sat 7 points behind fellow expansion franchise Orlando City SC at season's end, and tied for most goals allowed in MLS, despite goalkeeper Josh Saunders putting in an Ochoa-in-the-World-Cup type effort to lead the league in saves. (It's never a good sign when your keeper is named the Player of the Month not once, not twice, but three times.)
Oh, and they flamed out despite having the 3rd highest payroll in MLS. Head coach Jason Kreis was made the scapegoat and fired after just one season at the helm.
So how did things go so epically wrong for a team with such high hopes?
DP Stands for Didn't Produce
NYCFC invested $17.3 million on player base salaries in 2015. For comparison's sake, MLS Cup winners Portland Timbers spent just $5.1 million.
But 80% of NYCFC's compensation went to their three designated players: David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard. If you include Mix Disekrud's $750K a year salary, the franchise spent 84% of their money on four guys.
Villa, the club's very first signing, performed very well and finished 4th in the league in scoring with 18 goals, four behind MVP Sebastian Giovinco. The other two, however, played exactly how you'd expect a couple of past-their-prime old guys struggling to find their former greatness to play...not well.
Pirlo showed flashes of his trademark creative brilliance, yet defended like he was in a Sunday morning rec league game still drunk from the night before. Lampard didn't even join the team until mid-summer, thanks to a loan stint at Man City and a calf injury, and even when he finally arrived it took a few weeks for him to mesh with the team.
Faced with having to give all these high-priced assets playing time, Kreis had to deploy a 4-5-1 system. Villa was alone up top, with Pirlo and Lampard in central midfield alongside Andrew Jacobson who provided defensive cover for his old-as-dirt teammates. Left alone up top, Villa scored goals galore, but no one else scored more than 6. And NYCFC's D was putrid, allowing the most shots in MLS.
LESSON LEARNED: Sure, the ancient DP trio helped sell a lot of jerseys, but all that money could have been spent more wisely to produce on-field success. I'll leave it to others to figure out which DP's Atlanta United FC should recruit.
A Great Head Coach...Set Up To Fail
Jason Kreis was an inspired choice to lead NYCFC. He played for 12 seasons in MLS for FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, scoring 115 goals in all competitions. Following retirement, Kreis immediately became RSL's head coach, assembling an impressive 102-77-60 record, seven straight trips to the playoffs, and a victory in the 2009 MLS Cup at the tender age of 36 year-old. (I don't' know about you, but as a 30-something this makes me feel pretty inadequate...) His 2013 team lost the MLS Cup final on penalties to Sporting Kansas City. And best of all, he accomplished all this with a modest budget.
You'd think the higher ups would give an experienced coach like Kreis with a long history of success a little leeway. But after one bad year, Kreis became the "fall guy" for an abysmal year. The City higher ups unceremoniously dumped him for Patrick Vieira, a legendary Arsenal player, yes, but someone with no first team head coaching experience and no playing or coaching experience in MLS.
LESSON LEARNED: We can only hope Blank, Eales, and Bocanegra bring in someone as experienced and successful as Kreis, yet have the patience to give the new guy more than a season to mold the team.
Part of the difficulty of being an expansion team is that you don't have the academy infrastructure in place to produce homegrown players, and it can be difficult to pluck the best domestic talent out of the draft and transfer market. So new teams often look to the international market to strengthen their first-year rosters.
I've already mentioned the three high-priced internationals NYCFC brought in. As for the rest, only a few panned out. Defenders Jefferson Mena from Colombia and Andoni Iraola only played 7 and 9 games respectively. Shay Facey of England played 23 games, but was a member of the league's leakiest backline. Morrocco's Mehdi Ballouchy put in a decent amount of games in midfield, scoring 3 goals and 2 assists.
One of the few non-DP internationals to really impress was Kwadwo Poku, formerly of YOUR Atlanta Silverbacks. The young Ghanaian excelled in his first season in MLS, notching 4 goals and 7 assists in just 6 starts. Poku twice made the MLS Team of the Week, and was named the NYCFC Player of the Month in August 2015.
LESSON LEARNED: Overall, NYCFC's crop of international players didn't produce. Atlanta United FC will have to do a better job of scouting and signing top-tier players if they want to contend immediately.
"Meh" Draft Picks
There's been talk of MLS eliminating the expansion draft before AUFC starts up and possibly increasing allocation money and international roster slots. Looking at the players NYCFC picked up through the 2014 Expansion Draft, it's clear this might not be the worst thing for our club. Of NYCFC's 10 picks, midfielder Tommy McNamara was the only one that stood out, earning a Team of the Week selection and an NYCFC Player of the Month award. Mehdi Ballouchy contributed and was the May POTM. The rest either had a so-so impact on the field (Patrick Mullins, Jason Hernandez), were immediately traded (Daniel Lovitz, Sal Zizzo), rarely or never played due to injury (Tony Taylor, George John), or were moved out after one season (Ned Grabavoy, Chris Wingert).
As for the 2015 SuperDraft, the team's four picks yielded just one player who performed consistentlyâforward Khiry Shelton. Midfielder Connor Brandt and GK Andre Rawls are both on the 2016 roster though.
LESSON LEARNED: Clearly picking through the MLS scrap heap doesn't yield much, so AUFC can't depend on the Expansion Draft. And while it's important to grab the best college players you can out of the SuperDraft, don't count on them to make an instant impact.
AUFC's takeaways from the NYCFC experience are pretty clear:
- Don't spend lavishly on Designated Players unless they a) can show up to work on time and b) still handle all the requirements of their primary position.
- Hire an experience head coach, ideally someone who knows MLS. Also, don't cut out their knees before giving them a fair shot at success.
- Scout, scout, scout for solid international players with decent price tags who you can plug in, at least for one season.
- Pray that MLS gets rid of the Expansion Draft.