NYCFC could yet challenge for East supremacy once in-flux midfield settles

New York City FC is still finding itself, and that should serve as a warning to every other contender of note in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference.

NYCFC sits in third place in the East with 20 points from 12 games. It boasts a goal-differential of plus-nine, tied for best in the league. The club is an even .500 on the road and also finally has figured out how to win on its narrow home field at Yankee Stadium -- an issue that had plagued the Pigeons during their previous two seasons in MLS.

New York City is coming off a resounding 3-0 win at Orlando last weekend, and can make further headway when it travels to Atlanta on Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). All that despite heavy rotation that suggests second-year coach Patrick Vieira still doesn't entirely know what his best XI looks like.

The midfield, especially, has been in flux. This month alone, NYCFC has shuffled six players through the three midfield slots in Vieira's standard 4-3-3 formation.

Much of the attention has understandably centered on Andrea Pirlo's uncertain future with the club. The Italian icon has appeared in just one of his team's past five games, and in the nationally televised showdown against FC Dallas a few weeks ago, he didn't even make the bench.

Pirlo has been rightfully lauded for his late-career reinvention as a deep-lying playmaker. At 38, though, there are signs that age is finally catching up to him. In a league where the demand for work rate and physicality seemingly increase by the year, there's a strong case to be made that NYCFC is better off with Pirlo out of the lineup.

It is testament to this roster's depth that Vieira does not lack for capable alternatives.

Venezuelan teenager Yangel Herrera has showcased poise beyond his 19 years. Cult hero Tommy McNamara, as always, has made the most of his opportunities when given the chance.

Designated player Maxi Moralez has lived up to his billing since signing from Mexico's Club Leon in February. The Argentine winger has tallied two goals and five assists, having played in all 12 of New York City's matches. So has Alexander Ring, another acquisition whose presence, more than anybody else's, has forced Pirlo to the pine.

A Finnish international who spent the past six years playing in Germany, Ring was personally courted by Vieira, who was a defensive midfielder during his playing days and saw similarities in their games.

"He was the one person who could take me to the next level in my career," Ring said of Vieira.

Ring's first few months in the Bronx have been a whirlwind. NYCFC churned through potential starters all the way up until the final few weeks of the preseason. The lack of consistent reps with each other, Ring said, makes the team's hot start even more impressive.

"Now, we kind of know each other," Ring told ESPN FC. "We had a couple of players come in just a few weeks before the season started. Because of that, we have to be happy with how our season started. Now, you can see that we've gotten a lot of training sessions and games under our belt.

"We practice each day with each other. I think that's the quality we have in our team. If someone is injured or away, you don't even know that there's a difference."

Should NYCFC earn a positive result at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the positive momentum may only gather from here. The club is on the tail end of a four-game road swing, which has included that win at Orlando and a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Western Conference front-runner Dallas. New York City plays its next three at home, including winnable matchups against conference foes New England and Philadelphia.

Forward David Villa has very much looked like the reigning league MVP, ranking third in MLS with eight goals plus four assists. NYCFC's 13 goals against rank second only to Toronto for stingiest defense in the East. If the midfield congeals in the coming weeks and months, New York City could very well step up and challenge TFC for supremacy in the conference standings, too.