It was an odd thing to witness. New York City FC’s players were celebrating after a defeat.
The context, as is often the case, was vital. NYCFC may have suffered a 2-0 defeat at New England, but results elsewhere had conspired so that the blue half of the Big Apple would finish top of the Eastern Conference.
As the players all embraced each other in the dressing room it was a far cry from how the season had begun. The departure of David Villa during the winter months left a noticeable space for the club to fill. They opted to splash big money on Romanian attacker Alexander Mitrita, a diminutive, direct, player that was part Sebastian Giovinco, part Arjen Robben.
Dome Torrent, now blessed with a pre-season campaign behind him could start to implement his ideas fully. Torrent holds a long-standing association with Pep Guardiola, “He’s like my brother,” Torrent told Sports Illustrated last month.
His decision to venture out alone was bold. The season began somewhat meekly with a string of draws and a defeat.
Torrent’s willingness to experiment was both a function and a flaw of his style early on. It left NYCFC with a somewhat ambiguous identity. What was apparent to those watching was the need for a forward to spearhead the attack. The club once again leant on City Football Group’s extensive scouting reach to unearth Héber Araujo dos Santos from Croatian side Rijeka.
His first goal for the club would spark a ten-game unbeaten run (he would be absent for the last two games of that streak), and in the wider context, it would cement the idea that they had found their ideal number 9. The Brazilian’s willingness to both run in behind and draw centre backs away from the middle opened up space for teammates such as Mitrita to cause havoc.
Torrent has preferred a 3-4-3 formation this season but was not afraid to change to a back four when he felt the situation required it. It is that flexibility that has been so key to success this season. Torrent values tactical principles over set systems, and that has allowed NYCFC to accommodate absences easier than some of their rivals.
One aspect that has understandably drawn both Torrent and his players praise is their ability on the ball. NYCFC has consistently shown a willingness to play through opponents as far back as July when Anton Tinnerholm added the finishing touch to a 12 pass move during a 3-1 victory against Sporting KC.
“The first goal was fantastic,” Torrent remarked afterwards. “That is the New York City Football Club style now. It’s a style we want to create here,” Torrent said. “At the end, the best option for you is when you see your players play with one clear style.”
Patience has been critical for NYCFC this season. The mechanisms of MLS do not facilitate a total overhaul without conditions. Torrent has had to develop traits in players. Sean Johnson has been asked to play out from the back. Taty Castellanos, a player that managed one goal in just under 450 league minutes last season has eleven goals and five assists this campaign.
Castellanos is one of three players to break double figures for NYCFC this season (the next highest scorer Maxi Moralez is on 7), and it is that shared responsibility that represents the most significant shift for this team. When the club launched with big names such as David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, it felt more talismanic; now things feel decidedly more team-centric.
The hope now is that shared responsibility can help the team navigate the playoffs with some degree of success. NYCFC has suffered a trio of disappointing conference semi-final defeats in recent years, but there is a quiet optimism that this season can be different.
The confirmation they are the best team in the Eastern Conference is a notable achievement and their first bit of success. As for Torrent, he will hope that Sunday’s celebrations in New England were just the first of many his team will enjoy before the year is out.
“I want to go back to Barcelona — my home — and be very happy if I was able to create a style here when the people talk about New York City,” He said.