NEW YORK — Maybe two games in four days was too much to ask of a 38-year-old midfielder who hadn't been a regular starter all season.
Just four days after turning in a commendable performance in New York City FC's 1-0 win against Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday, Andrea Pirlo suffered through a forgettable 67 minutes. A shift that included the turnover that led to Portland's winning goal in a 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.
Pirlo's costly miscue came just before halftime, in what had been an even match up to that point, but when Darren Mattocks pressed him into a turnover, then picked out Diego Valeri for the winning goal, all the veteran could do was raise his hand, hoping for a foul call that never came.
Portland came into Saturday's match with a clear game plan: neutralize Pirlo, who serves as the passing hub of NYCFC's possession-oriented system when he's in the starting lineup. Portland's attacking players, led by Valeri, did their best to try and smother the Italian whenever the World Cup winner was in possession.
"(Valeri) took away Pirlo, which was the job we gave him to do," Timbers coach Caleb Porter told Goal. "I would think it was a very quiet game for Pirlo."
It was much more quite than his showing on Wednesday. Against the Timbers, Pirlo managed just 30 completed passes out of 39 attempted, with just eight of those completed being received in the attacking half of the field. Conversely, against Sporting KC, Pirlo completed 52 of 62 passes, with a whopping 20 of them being delivered to the attacking half of the field.
Portland's concerted effort to neutralize Pirlo played a part in his quiet night, but fatigue surely also played a role. This was clear when viewing his defensive work on Saturday, which saw him manage just two recoveries, as opposed to the six he managed against Sporting KC.
NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira wasn't about to make Pirlo the scapegoat for his side's first loss in five matches, even though it was his turnover that ultimately led to Portland's winner.
“I think it happened that he lost the ball. It just so happened that this time it was Andrea," Vieira said after the match. "A lot of players have lost the ball in a really difficult area, but it happened that we conceded the goal. That’s part of the game. You make a mistake and you get punished right away. We have players who make mistakes and make the wrong decision, and sometimes we concede the goal and sometimes we don’t concede the goal, but that is not the reason why we lost the game.”
Pirlo was the easy scapegoat on a night when NYCFC clearly missed David Villa (injured) and Alexander Ring (rested), as well as Yangel Herrera (rested). All three were casualties of the recent international break, and without its two best midfield workhorses in Ring and Herrera, Vieira was forced to partner Pirlo with Tommy McNamara and Maxi Moralez, a central midfield trio that was destined to be outworked by the Timbers trio of Valeri, David Guzman and Diego Chara.
Though it certainly didn't seem so on Saturday, Pirlo showed last Wednesday against a tough Sporting Kansas City side that he can still be a serviceable starter on occasion, but given the makeup of the current NYCFC squad at full strength, he isn't a player who fits in club's best lineup. Moralez has arrived in 2017 and been an outstanding playmaker for NYCFC, while Ring and Herrera work very well in supporting roles behind him. Play Pirlo for either Herrera or Ring and you wind up with a midfield that can be outworked, and given how good both Ring and Herrera have looked, Vieira will be in a rush to get them back in the lineup next week.
Pirlo could work well playing in a midfield with Ring and Herrera serving as the workhorses necessary to do the heavy lifting that the likes of Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini did for Pirlo at AC Milan, and then Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba did for him at Juventus. Unfortunately for the aging star, he isn't about to unseat the impressive and dependable Moralez any time soon.
That leaves the World Cup winner to try to make the most of opportunities when they come, and he surely knew he hadn't done that on Saturday. You could see it on his face as he rushed out of Yankee Stadium after the match, one of the first players to leave the building.
Vieira has continued to stand by Pirlo, even in moments when it has seemed every bit like a player who has come to the end of his usefulness. The manager still sees a player who he believes can help NYCFC as it tries to make a run at an MLS Cup title, and based on Portland's approach Saturday, opponents also still believe he is a player who can make a difference.
"Pirlo’s a great player," Porter said. "In their system he works, but also if you can’t get him on the ball and into a rhythm then they’re not going to get going quite as well."
The Timbers made Pirlo look every bit like a fading 38-year-old on Saturday, and as much as fatigue from two games in four days may have played a part in that, it felt more like a harsh reminder that we are witnessing the final days of his amazing career. We'll keep watching, hoping for some more special moments from the Italian maestro, but we're also just as likely to see forgettable matches that will be painful to watch, and make us long for the days of seeing Pirlo at his magical best.