New York City FC will return to the field Thursday morning after 119 days without a match.
The club wasn’t in great shape on the field back then, failing to earn a point in its two MLS matches before the league’s March shutdown and falling to Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League the night before the sports world went dark.
But with the MLS is Back Tournament beginning this week, NYCFC can get its season back on track and potentially make a run at the club’s first trophy in the process.
Here are a few things to watch when NYCFC meets the Philadelphia Union in its opening match at 9 a.m. Thursday in Orlando, airing on ESPN:
1. What is the team’s fitness level?
It’s the biggest question for every club entering the tournament after four months without live action, which means it won’t be an excuse for a poor performance. First-year head coach Ronny Deila believes his team used the time as best as possible and is as game-ready as can be given the situation. He also reported no current injuries entering the tournament. Fitness wasn’t a major issue for a deep City squad a year ago, but a congested schedule early this season may have worn the club down and contributed to its rough start. After 90 minutes in the Orlando heat, we should find out if the time off truly was well spent.
2. Will Philly keep up the pressure?
The Union have one of Major League Soccer’s most established identities. They like to press, they do it high up the pitch, and they don’t stop. That works just fine on a spring afternoon in Philadelphia, but how will it work in the steamy middle-of-the-summer weather in Orlando potentially over a full month? Deila said Tuesday he expects the Union to adjust their play given the forecast, which calls for a high of 90 degrees with plenty of humidity. If the Union back off a bit, a team strong in possession such as NYCFC could take advantage.
3. Is Jesus Medina still in the first 11?
NYCFC’s youngest designated player fell out of favor by the end of 2019 under former head coach Domènec Torrent, failing to even make the bench for City’s MLS Cup Playoff loss to Toronto FC last October. But under Deila, Medina appeared to have new life, making the starting lineup in four of five matches played across all competitions before the shutdown. He showed bits of promise in those starts but never the full package expected of a designated player. Deila said he’s used the time since to watch back each NYCFC game from a year ago. Will Medina’s poor performances a year ago cost him time now? Or has Medina done enough in 2020 to get a few more chances?
4. How will Deila rotate and utilize extra subs?
Thanks to an IFAB ruling in wake of the pandemic, clubs will have five substitutions at their disposal each time out. Those extra subs will be useful to all given the Orlando heat, but will be especially valuable to Deila given the deep roster NYCFC boasts. Look for wingers Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Valentín Castellanos to contribute if not in the starting 11. Both saw limited action early this season with Medina typically starting alongside Héber and Alexandru Mitrita, and both are athletic enough to a change a game by coming on late with fresh legs. Expect some rotation in midfield as well with 21-year-old Nicolás Acevedo joining the club from Uruguay. The already crowded midfield is anchored by captain Alex Ring and playmaker Maxi Moralez.
5. How will the team cope mentally?
During a media call Tuesday, Deila was asked about how he’s handling players’ mental health ahead of the tournament given the uniqueness of the situation. After answering the question, however, he took the opportunity to address his team’s mentality and professionalism on the field, especially when faced with a challenging situation. “That's something we have to improve in the team, I think we are a very emotional team and when I see the games last year, it's very, very emotional all the time,” the coach said. Deila cited early goals, poor officiating decisions and injuries as events that could send the team down a wrong path. That doesn’t seem like something that can be corrected overnight, but Thursday could provide a glimpse into some sort of progress on this front, especially against a Philly side that always gives City a tough test.