2016 MLS season preview: New York City FC

After a testing expansion season, NYCFC's prospects for 2016 depend on whether new boss Patrick Vieira can manage to fit star men Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa into a balanced line-up.

2015 regular season: 8th Eastern Conference (17th overall)

MLS Cup odds: 25/1

Players in: Ethan White (Philadelphia Union, trade), Jack Harrison (SuperDraft), Ronald Matarrita (Alajuelense, undisclosed), Diego Martinez (River Plate, free), Mikey Lopez (free), Frederic Brillant (Oostende, undisclosed), Federico Bravo (Boca Juniors, loan), Shannon Gomez (W Connection, loan), Andre Rawls (free)

Players out: Ryan Meara (New York Red Bulls, loan return), Ned Grabavoy (option declined), Kwame Watson-Siriboe (option declined), Jeb Brovsky (option declined), Pablo Alvarez (option declined), Angelino (Manchester City, loan return), Shay Facey (Manchester City, loan return), Javier Calle (Independiente Medellin, loan return), Sebastian Velasquez (out of contract), Chris Wingert (waived)

New York City FC went into their inaugural season ambitiously aiming for the playoffs, only to fall spectacularly short. An 11-game winless run early in the campaign left them constantly playing catch-up, and after hitting several more patches of poor form over the following months, they ultimately finished 12 points below the red line. That wasn’t good enough for City Football Group, who promptly showed head coach Jason Kreis his marching orders.

Former Manchester City Elite Development Squad manager Patrick Vieira is the new man at the helm, but there is serious scepticism about whether he can succeed where one of the most respected coaches in MLS failed.

Reasons to be positive

While David Villa was as good as advertised in 2015, netting 18 goals in 30 games, NYCFC’s other two Designated Players were nothing short of a disaster. Frank Lampard, whose move was delayed until the summer by the Man City “loan” fiasco, struggled for form and fitness over the rest of the campaign, while fellow mid-season arrival Andrea Pirlo looked painfully off the pace and proved an enormous liability defensively.

The veteran duo’s lack of impact ultimately proved a major factor in Kreis’ departure, but thankfully for new boss Vieira, they can only really improve in 2016. Both will benefit from getting a full preseason under their belts, although if the line-up isn't more balanced, their ageing legs will still prove a significant problem.

Meanwhile, while NYCFC will be leaning on their superstars this season, several squad players also stepped up to establish themselves as important contributors in 2015. Right-back R.J. Allen, midfielder Andrew Jacobson, playmaker Tommy McNamara and striker Patrick Mullins all showed that they can play big roles in Vieira’s side going forward, while Kwadwo Poku became a cult hero with fans for his dynamic performances in the centre of the park, recording four goals and six assists in 27 appearances – just six as a starter. However, after a disappointing preseason, the Ghanaian looks like like he'll begin the new campaign on the bench again.

Goalkeeper Josh Saunders was also the team’s unsung hero, making an MLS-leading 123 saves behind a porous backline, but whether his job will be any easier in 2016 remains to be seen.

Trouble on the horizon?

NYCFC’s defence was truly horrific at times last season and two of their brighter performers, Man City loanees Shay Facey and Angelino, have since returned to England. The club have brought in a whole host of reinforcements in recent months, signing Ethan White, Frederic Brillant, Diego Martinez, Ronald Matarrita and holding midfielder Federico Bravo, but there's no guarantee that they’ll make things any better in 2016.

Part of that is down to how unbalanced the team's DPs make the side. Coach Kreis found it near impossible to fit Lampard and Pirlo into the same line-up without their ageing legs proving a huge hindrance on the backline, and Vieira is likely going to have just as tough a time trying to solve the puzzle unless he can clone a younger version of himself to play alongside them.

Then there’s the issue of Vieira himself. The Arsenal legend is obviously highly-regarded back in Europe, but he’s now beginning his first senior coaching role in a league where foreign managers have traditionally struggled to get to grips with the arduous travel schedule and unique roster rules and player acquisition methods. He’ll have director of football Claudio Reyna to lean on for help, but there could certainly be some major teething problems to begin with.

Key man: David Villa

The club’s first signing and captain, things would have been a lot worse for NYCFC in 2015 without Villa, as the former Spain striker managed to finish fourth in the Golden Boot race despite a stark lack of service. As well as his 18 goals, he also provided eight assists in his 30 appearances and earned rave reviews for his work rate, often tracking deep into midfield to win back the ball. He did all that while mostly playing as a lone forward as well – a role in which he’s never been particularly well suited.

One to watch: Khiry Shelton

The second overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft, Shelton made a promising start to his rookie season, featuring in all but one of the club’s first 13 games, before a knee injury subsequently kept him out of action until the final month of the campaign. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old striker certainly showed plenty of promise when fully fit and was even called-up to the US national team’s January training camp along with several of his Under-23 teammates. He’s only managed one goal in his seven starts and 10 substitute appearances for NYCFC so far, but with his breath-taking pace and impressive skill, the 6ft 3in front man is sure to get plenty of chances to improve his numbers this term under Vieira.

Predicted regular season finish: 9th Eastern Conference

As opening day approaches, how Vieira will solve the issues which plagued NYCFC throughout their expansion season is still anyone’s guess. The club obviously can’t play a 4-4-2 formation with their two ageing DPs in central midfield, but the 4-3-3 used during preseason still has Pirlo as the main defensive midfielder and Villa as a lone forward. With their still being serious questions about how the backline will hold up, too, it looks like it’s going to be another difficult campaign for the Emirati-backed outfit.

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