New York City FC coach Patrick Vieira has seemed to want to move on from veteran goalkeeper Josh Saunders for quite a while. But when he opted to finally move on from him just as playoffs were starting, it was something of a surprise and a calculated risk.
It was the sort of decision that had the potential to either make Vieira look like a genius or a fool. In the end, starting 24-year-old Eirik Johansen was maybe not the biggest thing Vieira got wrong on Sunday in the conference semifinals, but it didn't work out as NYCFC lost 2-0 to Toronto and it may raise questions about whether Vieira is too willing to change things up.
Johansen made two huge saves early on and looked poised for a clean sheet – until 84th minute, when NYCFC lost control of the match. Johansen allowed two goals, starting with this:
Article continues below ...
It was a bit of a scramble in the box and a few seconds of chaos, but Johansen came out to get a ball he was never going to get. Toronto FC would return ten minutes later to strike once more:
Johansen did well to block the initial attempt, but he couldn't clear it out of danger and the rebound was left at Tosaint Ricketts' feet.
There's no guarantee Saunders would've done any better – he can be mistake prone and Johansen looks more comfortable when he has the ball at his feet. As NYCFC pressed and tried to force Johansen to dish out the ball quickly on Sunday, the young goalkeeper looked composed. His defenders didn't hesitate to play the ball back to him when they were pushed deep under pressure and overall Johansen's distribution was fine.
But to start the 24-year-old in the club's first-ever playoff match was a strange time for Vieira to pull the trigger on what may be a permanent switch. NYCFC had gone 33 weeks with Saunders as their starting goalkeeper and just as playoffs were about to begin, he turned to Johansen.
Vieira, for his part, wasn't exactly illuminating in explaining his choice, telling a media scrum beforehand: “I picked the players I believe can play the way I see the game and that’s why tonight I went with Eirik. Maybe if we had a different opponent I’d choose Josh. I have two good goalkeepers and it’s up to me to make a decision.”
It's hard to know what he means by that since coaches generally don't swap goalkeepers in and out based on opponents. The goalkeepers' main duties are pretty straight-forward, no matter the opponent: Stop the other team from scoring goals.
Vieira's bet on Johansen did look like it might pay off early, particularly when the young goalkeeper made a huge 1v1 save on Sebastian Giovinco in the 12th minute:
Johansen had gotten his first-ever minutes last week in a start against the Columbus Crew, but it came in a game that didn't matter – NYCFC had already clinched a bye for the play-in round of the playoffs and the Crew aren't very good. The 4-1 result was a cozy one for NYCFC to finish the regular season.
Sunday was a very different scenario for both NYCFC and the young goalkeeper, and that's exactly how it played out. Toronto pressed and shredded the NYCFC midfield, which Columbus did not do, and late in the game they put a ton of pressure on NYCFC's back line.
Vieira is a coach who has been more than willing to change his style based on the opponent and constantly reevaluate what is best for NYCFC. On Sunday, he had NYCFC come out in a 3-4-3 against Toronto that tended to transition into a 5-4-1 to protect the midfield. The name of the game was to sit deep, defend, foul Toronto constantly and disrupt their rhythm. It worked well enough early – although Toronto got off plenty shots, only very few of them were close-range or dangerous.
But as Toronto pressed late against a worn-down NYCFC side, the quality of chances got better and Johansen's test got that much tougher. In the end, he couldn't stand up to Toronto FC's relentless attack and the game plan of absorbing pressure with the young goalkeeper backfired.
For Vieira, Sunday's match was perhaps a harsh reminder of just how different the playoffs are. He's had a successful regular season by any measure – he took over a NYCFC that missed the playoffs and made the right moves to turn them into one of the best teams in the league. Incredulous fans who wondered if ex-coach Jason Kries deserved more of a shot were won over by Vieira's methods, and NYCFC were into their first playoffs. But none of that may end up meaning much if NYCFC are knocked out of the playoffs immediately.
That's what makes the playoffs so unique compared to the European soccer Vieira is used to – every decision is high-stakes and in times of failure, taking risks is an invitation for criticism when it comes to the postseason. As well as Vieira has done all season long, he will likely have to face some questions about his decision to dispatch Saunders so quickly before playoffs. And he may especially invite criticism for also having NYCFC change its style of play to absorb so much pressure with a new goalkeeper when NYCFC were the rested team in the match-up and have the best road record in MLS.
What Vieira does next week may say something about how intense that scrutiny becomes. If Vieira reverts back to Saunders, it wouldn't be a surprise but then again, Johansen is a legitimately decent option for NYCFC, even if just before playoffs was a peculiar time to start using him. Either way, Vieira can't afford not to get it right after going down 2-0 in the first leg of the conference semifinals. Elimination for NYCFC, if they don't defend well next week, may be just one leg away.