Last year, Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola‘s retirements left huge gaps in midfield for New York City FC to fill. NYCFC had to find players to replace Frank Lampard’s goals and Iraola’s midfield dominance. I posited possible options for them in the first edition of this series. With the acquisitions of Maxi Moralez as their newest Designated Player alongside Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera the midfield became one of the best in MLS. The trio of new acquisitions helped string together passes and create the fluid game Patrick Vieira envisioned, unfortunately for Vieira the trio could not replace Lampard’s goal scoring.
This year NYCFC finds themselves with another older midfielder retiring in Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo was well received in MLS until it became evident that he was no longer able to perform at the level fans expected. With diminishing returns in 2016 and essentially being seen as an overall negative addition to the lineup in 2017 his retirement opens up roster space and salary cap space for a younger replacement.
This article will review some of the options available to the NYCFC front office, and is by no means meant to be totally inclusive due to the sheer vastness of the global talent pool. In previous years we’ve seen NYCFC bring in players from all over the world, however the players on the 2017 roster were from much more established leagues than previously seen. Claudio Reyna‘s front office brought in players from Mexico, Germany and Spain this year in addition to domestic players (and Rodney Wallace who was a former MLS player in Brazil).
The first group of players fall into either the central forward or winger category. (The second part will be released at a later date) In this scenario Patrick Vieira would be hoping to add a much-needed second goal-scoring threat. The players will be listed by name, with their current team in parentheses along with their age, their primary position and their contract status.
Fernando Torres (Atletico Madrid)
33 years old
Expiring contract in June
Fernando Torres was once believed to be the next great Spanish striker, following in the footsteps of David Villa. From his debut at Atlético Madrid through his stint in the Premier League with Liverpool he was seen as one of the brightest young stars of the dominant Spanish national team. After moving to Chelsea for close to $65 million in 2011 his goal scoring prowess seems to have taken a hit. Eventually, failing to find a spot in Chelsea he moved on loans to both Milan and Atlético Madrid. From a juggernaut who was averaging 2 goals every 3 games with Liverpool to only 1 start through 16 matches across all competitions at Atlético, Torres has fallen a long way.
Torres faced severe knee injuries while with Liverpool and those injuries followed him to Chelsea. While he’s been relatively healthy in the last 3 years his past injuries would immediately raise concern for any suitors.
A reunion with fellow Spain teammate David Villa could rekindle that goal scoring flair for the 33-year-old, however given NYCFC’s urgent need for goals from someone not named Villa, it would be a risky move to rely on a man who has struggled mightily. Torres plays as a striker which would mean David Villa would have to shift over or the two could line up at the top in a 4-4-2 system. Signing Torres to a Designated Player contract would be a huge gamble, it would likely increase ticket sales as more casual fans would turn out to see the former Premier League striker, but there’s no guarantee he would regain his form. The risk of signing Torres diminishes greatly if he was willing to join NYCFC on a non-DP contract. Torres has drawn the interest of MLS clubs as recently as last year.
Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)
33 years old
Expiring contract in June
Arjen Robben is as close to a known quantity as you’ll get on this list. Robben plays on the right-wing, cuts inside and always finds the top corner of the goal. He’s made a career out of this talent and very few people have figured out how to stop him from doing it. Playing for teams like Chelsea, Real Madrid and now Bayern Munich, he’s no stranger to the spotlight and may relish the chance to play in New York City.
Should Jack Harrison be headed out of MLS this offseason as has been rumored, Robben would be an ideal replacement especially if the front office sees 2018 as the last chance to get David Villa an MLS Cup. Robben would slide in perfectly from Bayern’s 4-3-3 to NYCFC’s 4-3-3. With the ability to contribute in buildup play, and in the final attack he would be a delight to watch. Robben announced his retirement from international competitions following the Netherlands failure to qualify for the World Cup, which means he will not miss large portions of time for national team duty and his (still present) pace on Yankee Stadium’s small dimensions would make for exciting moments. Robben told the Men In Blazers in 2015 that he can see himself playing in MLS.
Kasper Dolberg (Ajax)
20 years old
Contract through 2021
Dolberg is exactly the type of player MLS teams need to sign if they want to prove the league’s financial clout. Dolberg could likely be the future striker for Denmark as the 20-year-old continues his meteoric rise since being signed by Dutch powerhouse Ajax for a mere €270,000. The 6’2”, 180lb forward has the size to fight with strong defenders for the ball and has the pace to make defenders pay for letting him past.
His first touch and shot power are fantastic, and coupled with his size and strength make for a deadly combination for defenses. He played as a left-wing with Ajax’s U-19 side which would give Patrick Vieira options in attack.
He’s also no stranger to City Football Group as Manchester City scout Sebastian Arnesen confirmed that Man City were tracking the Dane in 2016. Dolberg would likely fetch a high transfer fee, seeing as he is under contract through June 2021 but his projected future value would make him a wise investment for NYCFC. He’s currently struggling through a goal scoring drought.
Mark Uth (TSG Hoffenheim)
26 years old
Contract expiring in June
Mark Uth had once drawn comparisons to Lukas Podolski. Both forwards have been developed by FC Köln’s academy and have a knack for finding the back of the net. Uth however did not fit into Köln’s plans and was sold to Heerenveen in the Eredivisie. Moving to the Eredivisie brought Uth closer to the Bundesliga than he ever would get with Köln. Uth’s spell in the Netherlands proved he had the talent to be a top flight goal scorer and 1899 Hoffenheim brought him back to the Bundesliga with a $2.5 million transfer. With his contract expiring this summer he can potentially move to MLS on a free transfer.
He’s everything Patrick Vieira and NYCFC look for in a player. His footwork and vision coupled with his passing make him ideal for Vieira’s aggressive 4-3-3 system and his ability to play anywhere in the attack would give Vieira the option to tinker with his lineup in order to give Villa rest and allow his younger players time as well. Uth’s signing would serve two purposes, it would shift some of the goalscoring burden off of Villa, as well as lineup a possible replacement once the Spaniard decides to hang up his boots one last time.
Adrej Kramaric (TSG Hoffenheim)
26 years old
Contract through 2020
Kramaric is Uth’s teammate at Hoffenheim and the Croatian international has had a revival at Hoffenheim since arriving on loan from English Champions Leicester City in 2015. Not having found a role after his highly touted arrival from Croatia, Leicester loaned him out to Hoffenheim where he banged in 5 goals and had 4 assists in just 15 matches. His form carried over into the 2016-2017 season where he tallied 15 goals and 8 assists in 34 matches.
Kramaric’s biggest draw comes in his ability to play anywhere in the attacking third. He plays on the right-wing for Croatia but will routinely run out as a second forward or attacking midfielder for his club team. His versatility would allow him to slot in anywhere depth is needed or where it is the weakest as Vieira sees it. His passing ability and ball control would earn him more than a few smiles from Patrick Vieira. Should Jack Harrison leave for greener pastures, Kramaric would be more than a worthy addition to the side. It must be said that the only thing more difficult than stopping Kramaric on the pitch might be luring him away from Hoffenheim after he signed a 4 year deal in 2016.
Yacine Brahimi (Porto)
27 years old
Contract through 2019
Brahimi makes for an interesting possible signing, the 27-year-old French-Algerian bounced around France and Spain for most of his career but has blossomed at FC Porto. The first thing you’ll notice about Brahimi is his incredible pace, when he gets the ball at his feet one is instantly impressed. His ability on the ball makes for some incredible moments and he’s been one to watch during Porto’s European matches.
There’s not much to say about him besides: he’s really talented. He can play on either wing and is no stranger to playing as an attacking midfielder behind a striker. Brahimi would instantly compete with the likes of Giovinco, Almiron and Villa for most exciting player in MLS. The big negative? English sides from Arsenal to Liverpool are rumored to be interested in his services and Porto is in talks to extend his contract. City Football Group have yet to pay a sizable transfer fee for any of NYCFC’s players which makes this all but a beautiful pipe-dream.
Angel Correa (Atlético Madrid)
22 years old
Contract through June 2019
Correa’s life could easily be made into a movie. By the age of 12 he had lived through the death of his father and of his brother. After that he was brought on by local Argentine side San Lorenzo despite not having any formal training, he went on to help lead San Lorenzo to a championship as the captain by age 19. He’s no stranger to New York City either, having undergone heart surgery to remove a tumor found on his Atletico Madrid physical in 2014.
Since signing for Atletico, Correa has consistently struggled to get consistent minutes. He’s publicly stated in the past that he’s thought about leaving Madrid for playing time. NYCFC could offer the dynamic forward guaranteed playing time behind David Villa. He has played primarily as a secondary striker this season for Atletico but can, and has played on either wing. His vision combined with his pace make for a deadly combination when he’s locked in. Correa could be New York City’s Giovinco. What are the negatives? Much like Brahimi, there is reported interest from Premier League clubs including a reported £12.5 million transfer offer from Liverpool which means NYCFC would have to make a large offer, but guaranteed playing time is something NYCFC can promise and it may be an offer he can’t refuse.
Bautista Merlini (San Lorenzo)
22 yeras old
Contract through June 2020
From a former San Lorenzo man to a current one. Bautista Merlini is aptly named because his wizardry on the pitch is unbelievable at times. His dribbling skills and vision make you wonder if you’re watching a game of FIFA 18 or a real match at times. His short passing and willingness to get stuck in on tackles and help on defense would make him a welcome addition into Vieira’s side and his flair on the ball would make him a fan favorite.
His long passing and crossing ability leaves something to be desired and at times he can be a bit too overconfident, opting to make a difficult play himself rather than pass the ball to a teammate which could raise some friction with the coaching staff. The BIG negative is that he just suffered a bad ACL injury this October which means it’s unlikely he’d be ready in time for NYCFC’s 2018 campaign and only time will tell if he will return as the same player. With his upside it’s a risk Claudio Reyna may be willing to take.
Antonio Sanabria (Real Betis)
21 years old
Contract through June 2021
Antonio Sanabria is currently lighting up La Liga with Real Betis. After a lackluster 2016/2017 campaign in which he was plagued by injury and only managed 3 goals in 22 matches he now has 7 goals in 10 matches including a game winner against Real Madrid. Sanabria came up through Barcelona’s youth sides which is the style Vieira and CFG are looking to emulate. His ability to drift back and contribute on defense as well as his ability in the air, despite only being 5’11” is also key.
The big downside would be the potential cost, as it may be the final deterrent to NYCFC and CFG. Sanabria joined Real Betis for a €7.5 million transfer fee from Roma with a substantial buy-back clause which could raise the transfer fee upwards of €14 million should Roma decide to buy him back amid NYCFC interest.
Arber Zeneli (Heerenveen)
22 years old
Contract through 2019
Zeneli is an exciting prospect, the Swedish born winger opted to play for his father’s native Kosovo in international competitions which would work to the benefit of NYCFC as he wouldn’t be likely to be dropped from his national team side for a move to MLS.
Zeneli plays on either wing, and does it quite well for his Eredivisie side. He has excellent speed but it’s his ability dribbling that makes him so dangerous on the wing. Just as we’ve seen Jack Harrison pull off some spectacular dribbles, Zeneli excels in one-on-ones. He had started the season off well prior to picking up an ankle injury at the end of September which will mean he’s in for a long stint of rehab prior to returning to the pitch which would likely hinder a move. He does well in Heerenveen’s 4-3-3 system which would make for an easy transition to Vieira’s side.
Dabney dos Santos (AZ Alkmaar)
21 years old
Contract through June 2019
Dos Santos is a young player worth taking a gamble on. He’s had some struggles recently with discipline on the pitch but has shown his ability on the field with his past accomplishments. When Dutch striker Vincent Janssen had his golden boot winning season, which led to a big money transfer to the Premier League, it was dos Santos who helped pull the strings from midfield with key passes. His ability would allow NYCFC’s other players to find themselves in more scoring positions.
Dos Santos has been fighting for minutes at Alkmaar and a move with guaranteed minutes might entice the young midfielder. Coming from AZ’s 4-3-3 he could easily slot in at the top of midfield behind Villa or on the left-wing for Vieira. Given his pace, passing ability and vision, at his best he’s everything fans expected Maxi Moralez to be.
Martín Benítez (Independiente)
23 years old
Contract through June 2019
Benítez’s impressive skills have already started drawing long looks from European giants. Independiente rejected a January 2016 offer from Real Madrid’s because they didn’t want to stunt his development by having him loaned out constantly. Independiente’s decision has turned out to be the right one for the player as he has blossomed into one of their key players.
Benítez is versatile when it comes to positioning given his club’s reluctance to stick to a standard formation. Depending on the opponent he’ll either line up on the left-wing, right-wing or almost as a midfielder in a 4-4-1-1 system. Because he has a contract through 2019 don’t expect to see Benítez leave his club for less than €3 million. If CFG are willing to pay for him, he could be MLS’s next Josef Martinez.
Michael Estrada (Independiente del Valle)
21 years old
Contract status unknown
Estrada continues climbing up the ladder of Ecuadorian soccer with a seemingly impossible to stop ability to score goals. He bagged 19 goals in 30 matches with El Nacional in 2016 and is currently lighting up the Ecuadorian Primera with 17 goals in 32 goals in 2017 for Independiente. His pace and strength coupled with an innate ability to finish earned him a call up to the national team for the first time this year.
Estrada is excellent at using his body, combined with his quick acceleration to get past defenders. He is exactly the type of player MLS teams like NYCFC should be targeting. His age combined with his future potential make him not just a brilliant short-term signing, but he would also be a shrewd long-term signing as it’s only a matter of time before European clubs come around asking for him.
Wrapping up Part 1
There are many other names that I intentionally excluded for various reasons whether that be contract length, transfer value or a players overall desire to stay where they are.
There are many, many more forwards Patrick Vieira and Claudio Reyna could bring in to MLS but this next signing will signal the route CFG are choosing for NYCFC. Will they actually invest in a young player the way Atlanta United did or will they once again avoid paying a transfer fee and look to get NYCFC what’s available on a free transfer.
Let us know if you have any suggestions you’d like to see added to this list and stay tuned for the second part which will feature possible midfield signings.