Andrea Pirlo always has presented a paradox. Even at the height of his powers, the Italian legend offered influence that belied his work ethic. Sure, it felt like he barely moved. But for a player with his control and vision, it mattered not.
It's why many thought Pirlo still had plenty to give when he came to MLS in July 2015 at 36 years old, fresh off a resurgent campaign as Juventus advanced to the Champions League final. The World Cup winner never relied on mobility to begin with, so who would even notice if he lost a step?
As NYCFC finished second in the Eastern Conference in 2016, Pirlo proved key. Filling the connecting role between holding midfielder Andoni Iraola and playmaker Frank Lampard, Pirlo racked up an impressive 11 assists and topped all players at that position with 180 recoveries. Although there were games when Pirlo's casual defensive approach cost NYCFC, coach Patrick Vieira mostly got a world-class circulator of possession with a surprising knack for finding loose balls.
The early stages of 2017 have been a different matter. With Pirlo set to turn 38 years old later this month, perhaps age is at last catching up with him. Those moments of defensive apathy are becoming more frequent. He's creating fewer chances per game, making fewer recoveries and winning fewer tackles.
As the vulnerabilities in Pirlo's game have grown, his minutes have declined. In fact, Pirlo has gotten the hook before the 80th minute in five of his seven matches this season — something that only happened four times in 32 appearances last year.
Passing charts for Andrea Pirlo in a 2-1 loss to Orlando on April 23 and Yangel Herrera in a 3-2 win over Columbus on Saturday.
So it didn't come as a major surprise when Vieira planted Pirlo to the bench for Saturday's trip to face the Columbus Crew, adding on-loan Manchester City midfielder Yangel Herrera to the mix. While Pirlo hardly crosses midfield at this point, Herrera's range proved decisive in NYCFC's 3-2 victory.
After making a run into the box to nod home Ben Sweat's 64th-minute cross, Herrera set up Jack Harrison's winner 12 minutes later by forcing a turnover with vigorous high pressure. To boot, the 19-year-old tied for the lead among all players this week with 13 duels won. (Pirlo has won just 24 in his seven appearances combined.)
Speaking to reporters postgame, Vieira said he chose Herrera alongside Alexander Ring and Maximiliano Moralez in midfield because of the Venezuela international's defensive prowess. The French coach then indicated Pirlo could return to the fold when circumstances call for a more possession-oriented approach.
It was a diplomatic take that surely has some truth to it, but the writing is on the wall: NYCFC is beginning to phase out Pirlo. If Herrera turns in more performances like that, the decision won't even be a tough one.
Galaxy missing the final touch
The LA Galaxy's average formation in Sunday's 0-0 draw with Philadelphia. Note the position of forward Giovani dos Santos (10).
There's no doubting the LA Galaxy controlled their meeting with the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. Boasting 63 percent of the possession and a 13-8 edge on shots, Curt Onalfo's side walked away from StubHub Center feeling that the 0-0 draw was an unjust result.
But as the Galaxy sit with a 2-5-1 record, having failed to triumph at home against the league's only winless team, the lack of a finished product is feeling more like a trend than bad luck. Only the Colorado Rapids have scored fewer goals than the Galaxy's eight, despite the fact that LA is fourth in MLS with 85 scoring chances created.
It's not a particularly tricky problem to identify. After the offseason departures of strikers Robbie Keane and Alan Gordon, the Galaxy were left with Gyasi Zardes as the only proven option up top. With Zardes limited to four appearances this year by injury and illness, stopgaps like Jack McBean and Jose Villarreal just haven't produced.
The lack of a target forward was particularly evident Saturday, when Onalfo deployed Giovani dos Santos as a false 9 and Jermaine Jones in the playmaker role. With Dos Santos reluctant to stay high, the Galaxy were able to carve out lots of danger but lacked options in the box to provide the final touch.
One player who could help change the Galaxy's fortunes? Newly acquired striker Jack McInerney. Still only 24 years old, the poacher has averaged a goal every 213 minutes over seven MLS seasons with Philadelphia, Montreal, Columbus and Portland. Although Zardes should get going sooner than later, this team certainly could benefit from having another established goal-scorer in the mix.
D.C. United playmaker Luciano Acosta left his mark in a 3-1 win at Atlanta United. The Argentine only attempted 19 passes on a day D.C. had 26 percent of the possession, but he still recorded a goal and an assist, completed a week-high seven dribbles, and tied for fourth with 12 duels won. Although consistency remains an issue, there's no denying Acosta is a special talent. ...
Is there a better left back in MLS than Joevin Jones? The Trinidad and Tobago international delivered another standout performance in the Seattle Sounders' 3-3 draw with New England on Saturday, playing no small part in his side's epic comeback over the final 15 minutes. In addition to notching two assists, Jones connected on 90 of 93 passes and was second this week with five dribbles completed. ...
Raheem Edwards teed up Jozy Altidore's opener and also played a part in the striker's second goal as Toronto FC earned a 2-0 win over Houston. The 21-year-old homegrown player has offered pace, confidence and intelligence at left wing back, creating a lineup dilemma for coach Greg Vanney as defender Drew Moor nears his return from an irregular heartbeat.