David Villa

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Villa: Seeing Pirlo retire showed me that I have to train harder

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New York City FC has quickly become one of Major League Soccer’s most exciting clubs in three short seasons, and a lot of its success can be attributed to be David Villa.

[ MORE: Miguel Almiron named MLS Newcomer of the Year ]

The Spanish international has been with the club since completing a move to MLS in 2014, and has easily been NYCFC’s most important signing since the team’s inception.

Despite boasting an impressive 22 goals in 2017 for Patrick Vieira’s side, Villa knows that his days in MLS are starting to count down after one of the legends of the international game recently announced his retirement.

“[Seeing Andrea Pirlo retire showed me] that I have to train harder every day if I want to continue extending my career. Someday I will leave, as will everyone, it’s a fact of life. But I’m going to fight to make it as late as possible,” Villa told Marca.

Villa, 35, received a one-year extension to his contract in 2017, leaving his future with NYCFC up in the air beyond next season.

Additionally, the forward says that he constantly receives positive feedback about MLS and he knows that there is a lot of interest from players outside the United States in the developing league.

“Really, quite a few [have reached out],” he said. “The MLS is growing a lot and is having more and more global impact. Many have called me and are interested in what’s going on here.”

NYCFC’s comeback falls just short; Crew SC through to East finals

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The game in 100 words (or less more): New York City FC, trailing 4-1, had the steepest of hills to climb during Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinals second leg against Columbus Crew SC. Thanks to another star performance from David Villa, Patrick Vieira’s side so nearly did the unthinkable, but ultimately fell a goal short, winning 2-0 on the day, but falling 4-3 on aggregate. It wasn’t for a lack of chances either, as NYCFC peppered Zack Steffen’s goal to the tune of 16 shots (6 target, plus another that smashed the post late in the second half). Villa gave the home side a real belief when he converted from the penalty spot in the 16th minute, but Columbus held firm another 37 minutes before conceding again, to Andraz Struna. Crew SC will host Toronto FC, the 2017 Supporters’ Shield winners, in the first leg of the East finals on Nov. 21. Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium is expected to be the final appearance of Andrea Pirlo’s illustrious career after the Italian legend announced last month that he’ll retire at season’s end.

[ MORE: 3 keys to Sunday’s 2nd legs ]

Three moments that mattered

16′ — Villa converts from the spot to make it 4-2 — Josh Williams tripped Rodney Wallace in a largely inconsequential part of the penalty area, and Villa converted the spot kick to pull NYCFC to within two goals on aggregate.

53′ — Struna’s shot deflected past Steffen for 4-3 — Eerily similar to Daniel Royer’s goal for the New York Red Bulls earlier on Sunday, Struna did little more than hit this one into a sea of bodies and come up lucky.

70′ — Wallace does everything right… except hitting the post — From three goals down, to within an inch or two of making it 4-4 and advancing to the conference finals on away goals — it’s the thinnest of margins.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Yangel Herrera

Goalscorers: Villa (16′ – PK), Struna (53′)

Vieira: NYCFC “paid the price” for lackluster finishing in the final third

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Tuesday night’s defeat at MAPFRE Stadium brought up a lot of the same issues that New York City FC has faced for the better part of its first three seasons in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Crew blast NYCFC in first leg of East semifinals ]

Manager Patrick Vieira and his side conceded four goals in Columbus against the surging Crew in NYCFC’s 4-1 loss, which now puts the Eastern Conference regular season runners’ up at a distinct disadvantage heading into leg 2 on Sunday.

It’s not only a similar situation to that of a season ago — when NYCFC trailed Toronto FC by a scoreline of 2-0 heading into the home leg in the East semifinals — but actually worse considering the number of chances the Crew garnered in front of their home fans.

[ MORE: Zack Steffen spoke to PST ahead of Columbus’ first leg vs. NYCFC ]

Meanwhile, Vieira’s side simply wasn’t clinical enough when it came down to the critical moments of the match.

“We paid the price heavily tonight,” Vieira said following Tuesday’s defeat. “When you concede four goals away from home, you make things very difficult for yourselves.

“Of course, it is going to be a tough challenge, but it is a challenge that we are going to try to prepare ourselves for, and get ready for it.

“We’re gonna try. It will be really important to internalize the game tonight and come away with a plan of how to create chances and try not to concede.

“We’re going to give ourselves a good chance. Every time that we play them, we have the opportunity to score goals — not just one, but a few goals.”

NYCFC boasted one of the top attacks at times during the MLS regular season — led by captain David Villa and his 22 goals. However, the Spanish international has had little support in the attacking third for much of the second half of 2017, leaving Vieira’s squad vulnerable when they don’t cash in on goalscoring chances.

The team’s second-leading scorer, Jack Harrison, has scored just twice since the end of June, while the trio of Rodney Wallace, Maxi Moralez and Tommy McNamara have combined for four goals since May 21.

Over the last 10 games, including Tuesday’s loss, the Bronx side has scored just 10 goals — which by their standards is quite low. In comparison, Villa and Co. registered 47 finishes through their first 25 MLS matches this season.

With attacking players not named Villa struggling to find finishing opportunities as of late, NYCFC’s uphill climb just became that much more difficult when the club travels back home to host the Crew.

“In the last seven or eight games, when we were struggling to win games a little bit, the content of our game was there,” Vieira explained.

“It’s just, we don’t score goals. When you look at the number of chances we created in the first half, we didn’t take our chances.

“They took their chances and we didn’t take them. When you create so many chances and you only score once, it’s not good enough.”

Defensively, NYCFC didn’t make things easier for themselves after Alexander Callens was sent off seven minutes into the second half after raising an elbow to Crew attacker Justin Meram’s face prior to a corner kick.

Without Callens — who has previously started every match this season for NYCFC — Vieira’s group is left with a thin set of options at the back. First-choice center back Maxime Chanot remains sidelined with an injury, potentially leaving Fredrick Brillant, Ethan White and 16-year-old James Sands up for selection on Sunday.

FOLLOW LIVE – Columbus, NYCFC meet in MLS Playoff leg 1

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“When you play well and you take your chances you always have more chances to win games than the opposition team.”

Patrick Viera is sticking to the simple and obvious as NYCFC gets set to defend its 2-seed in the East against 5-seeded Columbus in the first round of the MLS playoffs with an 8:00 pm E.T. kick.

[ FOLLOW: MLS first round scores, play-by-play ]

NYCFC has been led by David Villa, who finished second in the Golden Boot standings, but Viera has been impressed not by one Crew member, but all of them. “What I love about Columbus is the collective game,” Vieira said. “When the collective is good that allows the individual to show how good they are.

With the game set to take place at Mapfre Stadium, the crowd should be fired up by the recent rumors of Columbus relocation. The atmosphere is expected to be incredibly hostile to the opposition, and supportive of its hometown team. Recent rumblings have energized the Columbus fanbase, and that should keep the place bumping all night.

New York’s collective is pretty strong too. With Villa the star, players like Yangel Herrera and Rodney Wallace are just as important to the unit. Herrera especially is the anchor of a midfield that often decides NYCFC’s fate in matches.

Who will get the advantage in the first leg? Follow along with the link above.

Filling out an MLS Best XI is harder than ever

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Fewer fun things have been as agonizing as filling out a ballot for the 2017 Major League Soccer Best XI.

This goes beyond the travails of deciding whether you need your lineup to be one that can actually play functionally in a match, whether that be by using a standard formation or players out of position. Even long believers in that process — this post-writer fell in that group until, spoiler alert, this season — would be challenged by this season’s options.

[ MORE: PST’s Best XI | Award winners ]

Part of that is due to super teams — Who contributed the most? — while plenty more comes down to some absolutely bonkers performances from players on wildly disappointing teams (Ignacio Piatti and Romain Alessandrini, we’re looking at you. Andre Blake, you, too).

Admittedly, my Best XI looks a lot like the one compiled by our PST staff, seven of 11, but I’ll give you my decision later. Here are some of your challenges.

1) Super teams — Toronto FC was the best single season club in MLS history and, given the parity and strength of the league relative to previous seasons, it’s easy to argue it isn’t even close. Sebastian Giovinco is its best player but missed significant playing time. Victor Vazquez became the straw that stirred the drink. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were fantastic but missed time with international commitments. Left-sided man Justin Morrow is, spoiler alert, my defender of the year.

How many can you take from that squad, and how about the shiny new toy that is Atlanta United, which had injury absences of its own but excited on so many levels. Beyond ex-River Plate defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, the Five Stripes boasted four star attackers in Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, and Yamil Asad. Consider that this was September’s Best XI according to the advanced stats people at WhoScored.com:

2) Midfield and attack problems: This is rarely easy given the magnification of star turns from players who score goals, but choosing even seven players this season was troubling given the remarkable amount of new boys and regular stars who got the job done this season.

In the midfield, there was the no doubt inclusion of Diego Valeri, who’s 21 goals and 11 assists demanded MVP attention, and the dominant seasons of Seattle’s Cristian Roldan and Montreal’s Piatti. Then there’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, Vazquez, Alessandrini, and RSL’s Albert Rusnak.

Difficult stuff, and we’re not even talking out-and-out attack. Martinez and Giovinco posted gaudy numbers despite missing significant portions of the schedule with injury. Is that enough to discount them? What absence counts for this? Miguel Almiron missed time late, while David Villa, too, had an MVP caliber season and Nemanja Nikolic only went and led his third-straight league in goals.

All that without a mention of Alex Ring, Justin Meram, Lee Nguyen, and Ola Kamara. Fortunately for the league’s voters, Blerim Dzemaili’s 22 matches mean he wasn’t around long enough to warrant a vote despite 7 goals and 10 assists in limited time.

3) Formation: So, given this and the amazing season of Morrow, how do you rightly go about picking three at the back? It’s enough to move stringent XI voters to a team that would get in trouble on a real pitch by using a 3-4-3 to maximize mids and forwards.

4) Goalkeeper: The usual suspects — Luis Robles, Bill Hamid — were good, with several others included in the MLS MVP shortlist: Bobby Shuttleworth, Tim Howard, Joe Bendik, and Stefan Frei (Robles was not included in RBNY’s bunch). However, it’s hard to imagine voters weren’t deciding between former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake of Philadelphia and the near-impeccable season of Sporting KC’s Tim Melia.

Blake (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

5) So what was your ballot, writer dude?

The Best XI was the only category that took me longer to sort out that the MVP debate, and that’s because I had a very difficult time reconciling Valeri’s unbelievable full season with the fact that Giovinco was the best player despite missing five different stints with injury (More on that later).

Ultimately, I hedged on that “Could this team perform on the pitch?” question. As much as it would be easy to play a four at the back by including Graham Zusi, or to feel better about a back three by having Kendall Waston get a deserved spot, I’d rather have Justin Morrow slightly out of position than have to sacrifice a midfielder or attacker.

The trio of forwards was the most difficult choice. Martinez and Giovinco were Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of potent players in the league when healthy. Martinez’s 17 goals in 19 matches allowed me to slot him in the team, while Giovinco’s 16 goals and six assists in 25 matches feel similar. Including both, however, would mean dismissing Villa, the best player in league history and the prime reason NYCFC finished second in the East, or Nikolic.

Here’s one area I will hedge: While I felt confident in submitting my XI, I’ve since felt nagged by two exclusions: Villa (!!) and Waston. If the deadline was 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, I may have removed Martinez and Matt Besler.

Andre Blake (PHI)

L. Gonzalez Pirez (ATL) — Matt Besler (SKC) — Justin Morrow (TFC)

Bastian Schweinsteiger (CHI) — Cristian Roldan (SEA)

Diego Valeri (POR) — Ignacio Piatti (MTL)

Josef Martinez (ATL) — Nemanja Nikolic (CHI) — S. Giovinco (TFC)

Ultimately, I think we beat your team.

Follow @NicholasMendola