To get everyone ready for Atlanta United’s match against New York City FC, we spoke with Hudson River Blue’s Jake Gofman to get his take on Sean Johnson, Andrea Pirlo, and their start to the campaign.
DSS: How has Atlanta United legend Sean Johnson done so far this season?
HRB: I actually had no idea Sean played for the Atlanta Blackhawks in the USL, the more you know. Anyway, Sean has been terrific in goal when called upon. He's a strong shot stopper, a good organizer at the back, and has strong instincts coming out to attack crosses and aerial passes in our box. Fans of NYC FC continue to marvel at a keeper capable of handling these threats, as Josh Saunders was really poor in that regard.
If there's an area Sean could improve in, I think it would be in his play out of the back. In Patrick Vieira's system, it's important for the keeper to be able to handle pressure and distribute the ball effectively. Like most MLS keepers, Sean has less than average foot skills and at times New York finds itself gifting possession away after a poor Johnson pass or a rushed long ball. I do appreciate that Johnson will not take risks, like Saunders sometimes would, and just boots it out if he feels more pressure, but his overall confidence and ability could improve and should improve as the season continues.
DSS: Was the benching of Andrea Pirlo last week a sign of things to come for the Italian maestro?
HRB: I hope so, but I imagine he'll likely be phased out more so than just excluded all together. You have to remember the major tenant of City Football Group (and this extends everywhere) is C.R.E.A.M., and because they operate with money on their mind, they can't just sit Pirlo even if it's good for the team. CFG made a huge investment to bring Pirlo over and are continuing to pay il Maestro millions of dollars to make an impact on the pitch, but also (somewhat more importantly) to sell tickets, merchandise and the #brand of NYC FC.
All that said, it is promising that Pirlo was sat this past weekend and it's no surprise the team looked much more capable defensively and more dynamic offensively. Pirlo's last remaining elite trait is still an important one, and that's ball distribution, but the rest of his game has deteriorated so much that he stands to be a liability whenever he plays now. I would expect Pirlo to continue getting runs in the starting team, but, as the season progresses, for those starting opportunities to dwindle if he continues to play the same way.
DSS: What are your main takeaways to the start of NYCFC's season?
HRB: The first major takeaway is that for the first time, NYC FC is a capable defensive team. It's taken a lot of time and various journeymen CBs to get to this point, but we're finally at a place where we can line up Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot and have some confidence that we won't concede 4 or 5 goals. For the record, I don't think our defense is top of the league or anything, it's just that New York has been so bad in its first two years conceding goals that finally having an above average defense is a revelation. So far it's making a big impact too, as we've eked out some close victories and earned all three points in games where we might have settled for a draw last season.
The other main takeaway through our first eight games is that Vieira and the talent evaluation at NYC FC got it right over the offseason in the midfield. The team signed new DP Maxi Moralez and CM Alexander Ring and both have been great in our three man midfield this season, playing in every game so far. Ring is a marauding no. 8, running box to box, providing cover for the defense and starting the attack from the back. He has solid vision and ball skills, but his real value comes in his defensive work and his never-ending work-rate. Moralez, meanwhile, pulls the string in the midfield and creates loads of chances by delivering important balls or taking chances himself. "Frasquito" is still learning the ins and outs of MLS, but he has adapted well, and I expect his already solid counting stats to continue to rise as the season rolls on and his comfort level increases.