New York City FC poised to improve in second season

New York City FC’s inaugural MLS season didn’t get off to a great start.

That’s an understatement.

After going unbeaten over their first three matches, NYCFC failed to pick up another win for more than two months. By then, the team was mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with a 1-7-5 record. Reaching the playoffs was all but a pipe dream.

But NYCFC did find its way out of the conference cellar thanks to improved, if uneven, play the rest of the season. They finished eighth out of 10 in the East with a 10-17-7 record (37 points), seven points behind fellow 2015 expansion franchise Orlando City SC and 12 points out of the postseason.

But 2016 promises, at least on paper, to be a more successful campaign, starting with the regular season opener on Sunday on the road against the Chicago Fire. Here are three reasons to be optimistic NYCFC will be in the MLS playoff hunt all the way into October.

Big Three continuity

Two of NYCFC’s heavily-hyped designated players, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, spent only a limited time on the pitch with the team.

Lampard’s debut was delayed both by obligations to Manchester City and an injury. The midfielder appeared in only 10 games, scoring three times.

Fellow midfielder Pirlo was not brought aboard from Juventus until late July, and he made just 13 appearances.

The two international stars started just seven matches all season alongside captain David Villa, the team’s other designated player and leading scorer with 18 goals in 29 games last season.

All three will be around for a full campaign this season, allowing the trio to jell with teammates. As long as age doesn’t catch up to them — Lampard is 37, Pirlo is 36, and Villa is 34 — they should make NYCFC better by default.

Improved defense

Despite scoring the sixth-most goals (49) in MLS last year, NYCFC often was doomed by a decidedly lackluster defense that tied for worst in goals allowed (58).

Goalkeeper Josh Saunders was under constant pressure, having faced a league-high 188 shots — 20 more than his closest competition and 41 more than the third-highest total.

To boost their defense, NYCFC added Diego Martinez from Argentine club River Plate and Ethan White from the Philadelphia Union, acquired in exchange for a fourth-round SuperDraft pick. Both arrive at Yankee Stadium young — Martinez is 23 and White is 25. Chris Wingert, who starter 26 games last season, was waived in January.

The two newcomers aren’t projected to start immediately, but figure to play a vital role as the season progresses and, perhaps, beyond this year.

More Poku

Kwadwo Poku provided moments of brilliance last season.

The 24-year-old midfielder started only six of 27 games, but made the most of his opportunities. Poku registered a goal or an assist in four of the six starts.

During a two-game stretch in August, Poku registered three goals and an assist as NYCFC went unbeaten.

There’s no guarantee Poku will receive more time on the pitch, but if new manager Patrick Viera gives him opportunities the young midfielder may continue to be a pleasant surprise.