MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes – tactical analysis

MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tactics

New York City FC hosted the San Jose Earthquakes at Yankee Stadium and snatched a come-from-behind win against the visitors. After going down early to a Chris Wondolowski strike, Domènec Torrent’s men battled and found two goals via Alexandru Mitriță and Keaton Parks.

The win keeps NYCFC in first place five points ahead of the Philadelphia Union while the defeat puts the Earthquakes’ playoff hopes in doubt. This tactical analysis will highlight where the hosts were able to take advantage of Matias Almeyda’s men and claim the three points.


For this clash, Torrent swapped his preferred 3-4-3 with a 4-1-4-1 to mirror the Earthquakes’ setup. Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot got the start at the heart of defence, while Parks was tasked with shielding the back four. Captain Alexander Ring was given license to get forward and typically played in the hole behind Mitriță and Valentin Castellanos.

In many ways, this traditional 4-1-4-1 transformed into a 4-1-3-2 in possession with both wingers Gary Mackay-Steven and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi getting forward in support.

MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tacticsThe San Jose Earthquakes, by contrast, persevered with their tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1 with Magnus Eriksson getting the start behind Wondolowski. The Swede was flanked by Cristian Espinoza and Valeri Qazaishvili in the final third. Behind them, Judson and Jackson Yueill played in a double pivot.

Otherwise, defensive stalwarts Florian Jungwirth and Guram Kashia were the centre-back partnership tasked with keeping NYCFC’s dangerous front-line at bay.

San Jose’s man-to-man approach

Almeyda’s Earthquakes remain one of the most unique sides in MLS as they are the only team in the league that uses man-to-man marking across the entire pitch. At a narrow Yankee Stadium, their man-to-man press worked to great effect early on.

With the hosts trying to pass their way out of the back, the Earthquakes pressed them high up the pitch, trying to force the long ball into their dominating centre-backs. Whether it was their left-back Marcos López following his winger up into centre-midfield or Eriksson getting up the pitch with the opposing centre-back, Almeyda’s men were truly disciplined with their man-to-man approach.

As a result, the NYCFC goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, was often forced to resort to route one football and launch balls into Castellanos and Mitriță up top. Neither of whom is an out-and-out number nine. Of the goalkeeper’s 35 passes on the night, 27 were long balls and only 11 found their intended receiver. This goes against NYCFC’s desire to keep the ball along the ground and play their way out of trouble. Pictured below is the Earthquakes’ man-to-man system in action. MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tacticsAs you can see, Qazaishvili and Espinoza join Wondolowski in support wide while Eriksson closes in on Parks. Otherwise, San Jose’s double-pivot and back four followed suit and did not differ from their instructions one bit. With this in place, the hosts struggled to impose their football and did not test Mario Daniel Vega in goal.

For the first twenty minutes of play, San Jose dominated the ball and limited NYCFC to a mere 40% possession. Below you can see this pressing scheme in place again as the Earthquakes’ forwards had no fear getting up the pitch. Usually, NYCFC midfielder Parks drops between the centre-backs and is able to dictate play. However, with San Jose pressing aggressively this would not be possible and the hosts lost one of their main outlets in the first phase of buildup.

MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tacticsWith NYCFC struggling to get out of their own zone, the Earthquakes piled on the pressure and finally found the breakthrough they were looking for. Wondolowski would add to his historic tally beating Callens to a cutback squared wonderfully across the six-yard box by Qazaishvili. Make no mistake, this goal was deserved after their impressive start and relentless pressure.

NYCFC press higher 

Motivated to maintain their lead atop the Eastern Conference standings, NYCFC quickly altered their tactics and pressed the visitors up the pitch themselves. Rather than try and pass through the opposition, the hosts decided they had a better chance creating chances forcing turnovers high up the pitch. As San Jose’s intensity dropped, Torrent’s men began getting more opportunities and got back into the game. After all, implementing a man-to-man approach for an entire ninety minutes is a huge ask and naturally, San Jose’s press tailed off leaving gaps to exploit.

Below you can see NYCFC overload San Jose’s right-hand side pressing with Mitriță, Ring and Castellanos. With no alternatives, Kashia cleared long and Parks easily intercepted. This would be a trend for the remainder of the first half until Parks’ equalizer.

MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tacticsAs the half wore on, it was clear the Earthquakes began to tire and attempted to sit back. In the end, Torrent’s bold decision to commit men forward paid off and NYCFC found two quick-fire goals in the span of three minutes. The first came from the Benfica loanee, Parks, driving past his man in midfield creating a numerical advantage in the final third while the second was a total breakdown between San Jose’s centre-backs. Like that, NYCFC were up 2-1 and five points clear of the Philadelphia Union.

Home field advantage

While Yankee Stadium gets a lot of stick as a playing ground, NYCFC boss Torrent has made the most of it and has devised a tactical setup to take advantage of the field’s unique dimensions. What initially begins as a flat 4-1-4-1, inevitably turns into the 2-3-3-2 shape you see in the graphic below. Mitriță joins Castellanos in attack while Parks drops between Chanot and Callens. With the wide players on the same line as one another, NYCFC become one of the league’s toughest home sides to break down.

MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tacticsOffensively, NYCFC are a nightmare to defend against. With Mitriță joining the striker up top, Kashia and Jungwirth had their hands full throughout. Factor in NYCFC’s wingers pegging San Jose’s fullbacks deep and it left Ring the license to roam dangerously in the eighteen-yard box. With much of the Earthquakes side in their own zone defending against NYCFC’s overloads, San Jose barely threatened the hosts in the second half.

Despite this, Torrent took no risks and introduced Ebenezer Ofori in the mix in the 60th minute for Tajouri-Shradi. The Ghanaian’s introduction was clearly an attempt at further defensive solidity. Below you see Ofori slotting in alongside Parks in the middle of the park, forcing the opposition wide. With the half wearing on, San Jose often found themselves up against two banks of four.

MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tacticsOnce again, Torrent made the most of Yankee Stadium’s awkward dimensions and quickly introduced a second-defensive midfielder into the game to protect the lead. With the Earthquakes forced wide and away from the eighteen-yard box, NYCFC saw out the result comfortably and showed exactly what home field advantage is all about.

The Keaton Parks Role

It’s also important to highlight Parks’ importance in Torrent’s current setup. Since featuring the full ninety minutes against the Philadelphia Union in a top-of-the-table clash in late June, Parks has established himself as a key player in NYCFC’s eleven. Acting as the side’s deepest midfielder, the American international regularly drops between the centre-backs to pick up possession and dictate play.

When he is not breaking up attacks, the 22-year-old is often the player leading the offensive charge. Against the San Jose Earthquakes, this was no different. After picking up an errant throw-in, Parks drove up the pitch in possession past his direct marker with ease. As San Jose play man-to-man, the American’s drive created a numerical advantage in the final third. Inevitably, the ball would fall to Parks and he made no mistake, scoring his first goal in MLS action.

Pictured below is a position Parks regularly occupies. Like Fernandinho or Rodri do regularly under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Parks drags the opposition out of position and is his side’s deepest player. With the Benfica loanee dropping deep, Ring and Tajouri-Shradi often filter into his vacated post in midfield as options.

MLS 2019: New York City FC vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis - tactics

Since the 22-year-old assumed this role for NYCFC, Torrent’s men have played their best football climbing up the table at will. His goal against San Jose was simply the cherry atop the cake for Parks this season.


NYCFC’s win extends their lead at the top of the table by five points, confirming their MLS Cup aspirations. If they continue to demonstrate this fighting spirit, there’s no reason why Torrent’s men can’t go the distance in the playoffs.

This analysis demonstrated arguably two of the most unique sides in MLS going head-to-head with NYCFC eventually prevailing.

Considering Yankee Stadium has become a fortress of sorts – for its dimensions and not its fervent support – NYCFC could claim their first MLS Cup this season. San Jose, by contrast, now find themselves in a dog-fight for a playoff position in the congested Western Conference. In any case, their performance was encouraging and their unique man-to-man approach could just separate them from the rest.

Artwork by @chapulana.
Artwork by @chapulana.

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