In Birk Risa, New York City FC have something the team was sorely missing the first 24 games this season: A player who wears a headband.
Even better, the headband is thin and worn high in the style of Jack Grealish, Antoine Griezmann, and Luka Modric. Not only does the left-footed central defender bring balance to an NYCFC backline dominated by right-footed players, his choice in headwear brings a Continental flair to the team. Finally, this NYCFC are looking like a complete squad.
Another facet of Risa’s game grabbed our attention after watching his MLS debut on Sunday: He’s an elite passer. His ability to send the ball deep into the attacking third through long diagonal passes that land deliciously at the feet of the right winger was exhilarating. One moment, the ball was at the top of NYCFC’s box on the left; the next, it was landing softly in the attacking third on the right.
In that game, Risa played nine accurate long balls out of eleven attempts. He not only led all players in accurate long balls on at Citi Field that Sunday night, he notched the most of any defender in MLS that matchday.
To put those nine accurate long balls in context, most defenders sent two or three long balls on Sunday. Many had zero. A few sent four, although a handful managed seven. Only DC United goalkeeper Tyler Miller had more long balls than Risa, but that came at a high price: Miller’s 13 passes out of 38 attempts works out to a desperate 34% completion rate.
Incredibly, Risa’s nine accurate long balls in that game was a poor showing for the 26-year-old defender. Risa completes 11.5 long passes per 90 minutes, according to FBref. That puts him in the 99th percentile of central defenders.
Kevin Nelson wrote about Risa’s passing skills for The Outfield last week, and how he “could enhance NYCFC’s vertical play.” According to Nelson, the “NYCFC center backs are one of the least progressive groups in the league, ranking second to last in vertical passes.” That lack of progression has allowed other teams to press the defense without fear of being punished by a long ball that might spring a counterattack.
We saw that play out in the Leagues Cup Round of 32 loss to the New Jersey Red Bulls. The Red Bulls pressed the NYCFC defense, content to let them pass the ball around the defensive third. NYCFC tried to progress the ball, but couldn’t, and were held scoreless. The Red Bulls tried to force turnovers and mistakes, which they did, and converted a penalty to win the game.
Risa’s performance against Minnesota was transformative. His long passes to the right wing forced the Loons to be more cautious when pressing, and more conservative in defense. That in turn opened the midfield, which allowed Maxi Moralez to dictate the pace of play like it was 2021 all over again.
True, NYCFC once again suffered a loss, but that was due entirely to poor finishing: The team didn’t manage to score despite taking 19 shots and ended with an xG of 2.2.
Will New York City’s forwards start scoring goals? That remains to be seen. But one thing for certain is that in Risa, NYCFC found a central defender who is also an elite passer whose ability to send the ball upfield already transformed the team’s attack. They also found a player whose headband game is among the best in the league.