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Athletic vision drives Kreis, NYCFC

New York City FC plans to win over The Big Apple come 2015.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK

That New York City FC will be doing things differently is apparent in everything. From the number of men in suits who trudged through a cold, snowy winter morning to assemble in a chic Midtown conference room. From the superiority of those suits. From the magnitude of their ambitions as a Major League Soccer expansion team starting in 2015. From the record $100 million expansion fee paid by Premier League powerhouse Manchester City and the New York Yankees, the co-owners. From the stadium they hope to build adjacent to Yankee Stadium. And from the things those men in suits said, their expansive ideas of overarching playing philosophies and a uniformity of thought.

They had come to present their first manager, Jason Kreis, America’s hottest young coach. But they had come, too, to elaborate further on their beliefs and their "Vision" with a capital V. And while it is customary to speak more of style than substance at a coach’s introduction, the oratory lengths to which the men in suits went to drive home their persuasions was striking.

“We want in all of our teams to play a certain kind of football,” said the lead suit, Ferran Soriano, former Barcelona vice-president and current CEO of both Manchester City and NYCFC. “And the order of things is: first, the philosophy, how we want to play. Then we choose a manager that likes the philosophy and is able to execute it. Then we play good football. And then we win. We can’t jump ahead of that. We don’t want to win without playing good football. We don’t want to win without playing the kind of football that we want to play.”

If this all sounds trite and rehearsed, it isn’t. In fact, it’s fairly novel. No team has ever really come into MLS before and set forth its ideology ahead of time. Some have tried to affix themselves with an identity after the fact. Kreis’s Real Salt Lake, which he led to two MLS Cup finals in five years, did this rather well as he instilled a swishing Latin style. But mostly, teams have tried to figure it out as they went along, meandering between disparate approaches. Chivas USA, the only other stateside franchise to be born as the spawn of an existing club, had vague notions of looking and feeling Mexican, like Chivas Guadalajara. But there it ended.

NYCFC, however, are entirely lucid on what their presently non-existent team will look like. And how it will succeed. Call it confidence or call it arrogance -- that’s up to you.

“You need a plan that gives you the security that you will do it in the right way,” said Txiki Begiristain, Barca playing legend and sporting director of Manchester City. “It’s easy to say to play well but you need the right manager and then you need to sign the right players for that philosophy. You have no plan? You need to respect a plan and you have to keep it always like a religion. And then you will get successful.”

“We know the kind of soccer that we want to play,” added Soriano, his fellow soccer ideologue. “This is not about imposing anything on our coaches. It’s about having some basic soccer concepts that are the pillars of the soccer we want to play. And those pillars are not negotiable.”

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That style, plain and simple, is the Barcelona model. Keep the ball. Win it back high when lost. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Easy to explain; incredibly hard to deploy. Still, there seem to exist no doubts about the superiority of their convictions.

“We know that we’re expected to win and frankly, we will win,” said Kreis, who will spend six months in Manchester getting immersed – or indoctrinated – in the deep basin of soccer knowledge available to him there. That utterance boils down to its essence the many things said by many men over the course of many minutes of press conference and interviews.

A sense of hubris is pervasive around NYCFC. We’ve seen Europeans make their way over and proclaim that they have all the answers to running an American soccer club. Few proved the real deal. City is at least avoiding the mistake of freezing out the locals by bringing in Kreis and sporting director Claudio Reyna as its technical team.

But you wonder if their fanciful marketing strategy is naïve. “What will do is we will develop a very good product, very good soccer,” said Soriano. “There’s no secret; there’s no marketing trick here. It’s just playing good soccer. If we can do that in New York, that will attract fans.” This theory may hold water in Barcelona and Manchester, but there are a dozen other big-time sports teams in New York.

Still, the belief in doing the right things and playing the right way -- those loaded but inescapable terms -- is admirable. And to hear NYCFC’s brain trust explain it, it’s a compelling one.

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“You need a vision,” said Reyna, who drew up US Soccer’s coaching curriculum in his last job as the federation’s youth soccer technical director. “When a coach and players know what they’re asked to do, what they’re supposed to do, what we’re trying to get to, it’s sometimes a windy road to get there but you know where you’re going. And that’s the most important thing. I don’t think it’s anything necessarily bold; I think it makes it easier when you communicate what you want to do.”

Now that they have the philosophy in place, NYCFC believes in finding the right players -- 36 City scouts are already scouring the globe for the right players, primarily in South America, according to Begiristain -- with the right set of tools and the right mindset.

Once they are found, they believe, their success will be assured for the long run. In MLS, however, no evidence yet exists to support their hypothesis.

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