NEW YORK — New York City FC fans saw a very different looking team take the field at Yankee Stadium on Sunday than the last time the club played at home. Five players who weren't on the team last season were in the starting lineup to take on D.C. United, and all five turned in impressive performances in the 4-0 thrashing.
"It was important for us to improve our team, and this is why we (brought) those players," NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira said. "We knew about their talent, and when the team performs like we did today it's more easy for them to express their talent."
David Villa grabbed the headlines with his two-goal effort, but Rodney Wallace and Maximiliano Moralez were instrumental in sparking the impressive first half that put the match out of reach before halftime. Wallace and Moralez each scored one goal and teed up another in their first home match for NYCFC, showing the characteristics that could help give the club the most dangerous attack in the league.
"I've said from the beginning that they're going to help us a lot, and they've showed that in the preseason and in the games we've played," Villa said of NYCFC's new faces. "They're playing at a good level like the rest of the team. We have a better roster this year."
Villa's assessment of the 2017 squad shows just how good an offseason the team had because NYCFC had a lot of work to do after 2016. The retirements of Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola left two significant holes in the squad, and the team's desire to improve the goalkeeper position and defense added even more to the shopping list. Though it is still early, the team's new crop of talent looks to have not only replaced what was lost but upgraded the overall group.
Take Wallace, for example. An MLS Cup winner with Portland in 2015, he showed speed and work rate on the left wing Sunday, traits that should offer a perfect complement to Jack Harrison on the opposite flank. He put away a rebounded Harrison shot for the game's opening goal in the eighth minute, then set up Villa's first strike with an excellent pass in the 28th minute.
They were the first goals of 2017 for NYCFC, which dropped a 1-0 result at Orlando City last weekend to open the year.
"The game plan was to come out from the start and force them to make mistakes, and I thought we did that," Wallace told Goal. "We needed to be more ruthless against Orlando and you saw the difference today, both in the attack and defensively."
"We looked really strong defensively, we looked really strong because Rodney, David and Jack worked really hard," Vieira said. "And when the front three works that hard it makes it easier for the back four to defend."
Wallace's display Sunday was made more impressive by the fact he is still working his way back to full fitness after signing with NYCFC late in preseason. The Costa Rica international didn't show much rust Sunday, with his tenacity and two-way work helping stifle United, the team he made his professional debut with in 2009.
"I had a short preseason and I believe that I'm still getting to my top shape," Wallace said. "I'm taking it obviously week by week and game by game, but today was personally a good game for me. I think I have a long way to go, but right now I'm just focusing on getting better and getting fitter."
Moralez also enjoyed a very good home debut, showing the attacking skills that made NYCFC sign him as the team's latest designated player. The diminutive Argentine worked well in midfield, and used his vision and quickness to put himself into dangerous positions. Moralez also showed a good understanding with his teammates — an impressive connection in just his second match with the team.
"We have a very strong team, and we were better today, at home, in front of our fans," Moralez told Goal. "It was difficult against Orlando because we couldn't find that goal, but today we finished our chances and it made all the difference."
Vieira had reason to be happy with all five of the newcomers who started Sunday. The attack's four-goal output drew the biggest cheers, but Sean Johnson's contributions in goal showed the fans at Yankee Stadium why they acquired him from Atlanta United this winter. Johnson's distribution was effective, and he made some tough saves to preserve the shutout, adding support to the belief his arrival has provided a considerable upgrade to NYCFC's goalkeeper position.
"Sean is really calm, really composed, he made a really important save at the right time," Vieira said. "Today, every single decision that he made was a good one, and that helped the team of course."
Finland international Alexander Ring was rock solid in central midfield, tying for the team high in tackles. Expected to battle Yangel Herrera for the defensive midfield vacated by the retirement of Iraola, Ring has started the first two matches of the season and offered the qualities that had Vieira raving about him in preseason.
Peru international Alexander Callens did his part in central defense, showing off his excellent passing out of the back along with a steady defensive presence. Callens led NYCFC in passing percentage for the second straight match, and topped the team in total passes Sunday.
The positive start by the team's newcomers has created a serious competition for playing time on an NYCFC side that suddenly boasts one of the stronger benches in MLS. Consider the fact that Thomas McNamara, a standout in 2016, has yet to start this season, and Khiry Shelton didn't even make the match-day roster Sunday.
"This is a good team, with many good players, including some who didn't play today," Moralez said. "That is going to be important for us during the year, and if we keep playing like we played today, it will raise the level for the entire group."
Nobody who watched NYCFC would argue that Moralez and the rest of the team's new arrivals have done just that, and it should help boost the team's chances of being a legitimate title contender this season.