After a long winter, during which New York City FC was forced to sit and watch fellow Eastern Conference rivals Toronto FC raise the MLS Cup, Patrick Vieira’s side is back in action this weekend against Sporting Kansas City. Today we’ll preview NYCFC’s season to come as well as look back on the offseason.
The team has undergone a few roster changes since the whistle last blew in their 2-0 win over the Columbus Crew at Yankee Stadium on November 5th. Patrick Vieira has seemingly completed the building of his squad and eliminated all but two players left over from the short-lived Jason Kreis era.
Heart Of The City
Really, there’s no other acceptable place to start than by talking about David Villa. The Spaniard is NYCFC’s version of Anthony Bourdain. Both came from humble origins, ultimately found success in what they do and as a result have traveled the world, and both remain at the top of their respective professions despite their ages. They keep doing what they’re good at and we can’t wait to see what’s next.
Everyone tries to predict his downfall due to age and injury but at 36-years-old Villa bounces back like the round ball he dribbles so well. Still leading the line for Patrick Vieira’s side, Villa will be relied on heavily for his goal-scoring ability once again.
Goal keeper Sean Johnson continues to improve in Vieira’s 4-3-3 system where there’s an insistence on playing the ball out of the back. The keeper has done well to get the ball out quickly and accurately and looks to continue building on his relationship with the center back duo of Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens. The trio will be key to New York City’s play in the coming season and each of them has their second full pre-season together to work out responsibilities on and off the ball. It’s worth keeping an eye on Chanot’s play to see how he recovered from his lingering injury at the end of last season which forced him to sit out the playoffs but supporters are looking forward to his return.
Ronald Matarrita and Ben Sweat both return this season and will continue pushing each other for minutes in the left back role. Sweat’s emergence last season as a key contributor will help fill the void to be left by Matarrita’s absence during international competitions with Costa Rica.
The midfield trio of Alexander Ring, Maxi Moralez and Manchester City loanee Yangel Herrera returns for a second year and the trio is expected to be the starting midfield on day one, but that may change as the season progresses. Defensive midfielders Kwame Awuah and James Sands also return for their sophomore seasons and will hope to get more than the handful of minutes they earned last year. Whether or not the two players a preview of the NYCFC midfield of the future or simply passing through the South Bronx remains to be seen.
Tommy McNamara who was once seen as a key midfield piece, providing NYCFC with a dangerous goal-scoring threat from long-range, has seen his minutes decline and will have to make his case for relevancy in this retooled offense.
Jonathan Lewis is back for his second season and fans are clamoring to see more of the exciting attacker. With a full season and confidence under his belt, expect to see more of the highly rated Generation Adidas player. Rodney Wallace will reprise his role as Villa’s parter on the left-wing if pre-season is any indication but increased competition on the wings will mean Vieira won’t hesitate to drop him if he thinks his work rate drops off. His international commitments for Costa Rica at the upcoming World Cup will open the door to new players as well.
Andre Rawls will reprise his role as backup keeper to Sean Johnson.
Hard Knock Life
It’s difficult to make it in New York City and it’s no different for professional athletes so it’s not surprising to see some players go from being a hot commodity, to the front office being less than lukewarm on their talents.
Andrea Pirlo drew the curtains on a 22-year long career when he announced his retirement from professional soccer in November. Pirlo helped draw fans to both NYCFC and MLS but his play was seen more as a hindrance than a benefit by outside observers.
R.J. Allen and Frédéric Brillant both had their MLS rights traded to Eastern Conference opponents on November 27th. Allen is currently playing for fellow 2015 expansion side Orlando City and Brillant will help D.C. United debut their new soccer specific stadium. Both players had been key contributors to NYCFC’s defense in the past two years but did not fit into the team’s vision for the future. Mikey Lopez, Sean Okoli, Ethan White and Andraž Struna all had their options declined and were shown the door on November 27th as well.
Eirik Johansen who had come over from Manchester City’s academy returned to Norway and signed a contract with Sandefjord Fotball after just 3 appearances in three seasons with NYCFC.
Shannon Gomez who joined NYCFC on loan from Trinidadian side W Connection in 2016 and had his contract purchased in 2017 was released after making 0 total appearances for NYCFC.
Miguel Camargo was on loan from Panamanian side Chorillo FC and was returned to his club at the end of the season. Camargo had a promising start for NYCFC and was impressing in the Gold Cup until a severe injury caused him to miss the majority of the year. Jefferson Mena was loaned to Barcelona SC and the team let his option expire while he was on loan. Vieira saw no place for Mena in his squad after several disappointing MLS performances.
Jack Harrison had been drawing the interest of various English clubs and was eventually sold to sister club Manchester City for an undisclosed fee. Harrison’s departure means Vieira will have to find someone else to challenge defenders one-on-one and help draw attention away from David Villa.
NYCFC’s first ever draft pick, the second overall 2015 MLS SuperDraft Pick Khiry Shelton was traded to Kansas City for Saad Abdul-Salaam.
Empire State of Mind
Welcome to the melting pot. NYCFC’s front office embraced the city’s nickname quite literally as they brought in several new players from across the Atlantic Ocean who will try to make it in NYC.
As mentioned earlier, NYCFC acquired Saad Abdul-Salaam from Kansas City in exchange for Khiry Shelton. The defender is seen as a depth signing to back up NYCFC’s primary right back.
Anton Tinnerholm, the Sweedish league’s Defender of the Year was acquired on a free transfer from Malmö. Tinnerholm is a right-back and is expected to be the starter for the foreseeable future. He’s known to be an attacking defender who isn’t afraid to charge up the right side of the pitch to help the offense which makes him ideal for Vieira’s 4-3-3 system.
NYCFC acquired Brad Stuver from Columbus to replace the departing Eirik Johansen as a backup option behind Sean Johnson. The team also signed their first round SuperDraft pick Jeff Caldwell to a contract making him the fourth keeper the team has on their roster for the 2018 season.
Jesús Medina was signed as the clubs third designated player from Paraguay’s Club Libertad. Medina’s transfer has flown largely under the radar in MLS this offseason due to his low profile internationally (only 1 appearance for Paraguay) and bigger signings in MLS such as Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco. Medina is just the latest in a string of MLS teams signing young South American prospects to big deals with the eventual hopes of turning a tidy profit on a future sale. Medina has played as a winger for NYCFC in pre-season but can also play as an attacking midfield. It’s suspected he will be tasked with replacing Jack Harrison.
Cédric Houtondji signed on a free transfer after working out a deal with French Ligue 2 side Gazélec Ajaccio. Houtondji is a center back and becomes NYCFC’s tallest player at 6’5″. He has one career appearance for the Benin national team and is known more for his strength on the ball than his pace.
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi joined NYCFC on a transfer from FK Austria Wien. The attacking midfielder was a regular starter for Vienna but had seen his minutes diminish in the preceding months. He played primarily as an outside midfielder and on the wings in Austria Wien’s 4-3-3 system which should mean he will adapt quickly to Vieira’s tactics. We saw a preview of his pace on display against the LA Galaxy.
Jo Inge Berget was the second player signed from Malmö on a free transfer this offseason. The 6’1″ target forward described himself as a viking in a statement released by the club. The 27-year-old Norwegian is a bit of a journeyman, having played in Norway, Italy, Scotland, Sweden and Wales before joining NYCFC. With 11 goals in 26 appearances across all competitions for Malmö, he inherits the unenviable task left by Okoli of trying to displace David Villa as the striker.
Ebenezer Ofori was brought in on loan from VfB Stuttgart after NYC failed to sign him last winter. Ofori’s loan signals a win for Vieira who had prized the 22-year-old midfielder. The Ghanian is seen as a possible long-term replacement for loanee Yangel Herrera . Ofori has shown fantastic ability on the ball and should adapt well to New York City’s quick passing and high tempo system.
Sebastien Ibeagha joined NYCFC on a transfer from USL affiliate San Antonio FC. Ibeagha is a central defender and was the USL defender of the year for 2017. His signing will act as center back depth behind Chanot and Callens as well as giving Vieira another option coming off the bench late in matches.
Do It Again
New York City FC had their best ever season in 2017 and finished in second place behind Toronto FC. The team also won their first playoff game in franchise history and conceded fewer than 50 goals for the first time in their history. Despite all these positive steps the season ended in disappointment when they were kicked out of the playoffs by the Columbus Crew.
This season Patrick Vieira will be tasked with doing it all again, but better. NYCFC’s Director of Football Operations Claudio Reyna, said in an interview posted on the club’s website that he defines success this season as winning a trophy. Whether or not that is his personal expectation or a demand from a higher up such as Ferran Soriano at City Football Group is unknown but don’t expect CFG to be happy with anything less than silverware. Expect NYCFC to pick up where they left off last year, a 4-3-3 system that presses far up the pitch and plays the ball out of the back.
The loss of Jack Harrison is huge and can not be understated. The fact that they had to sign a designated player to try to replace Harrison shows how much NYCFC valued the young Englishman’s contributions. Medina is a bit of an unknown and one has to wonder if he will be able to produce the same moments of electricity Harrison did. It’s a tall task to ask of Medina, and if he fails to deliver goals, expect fans to quickly sour on him and City Football Group for their strategy of signing cheap or free players for NYCFC while splashing record amounts of cash on Manchester City.
The additions of Ofori, Tajouri and Ibeagha show that NYCFC’s main offseason plan was to build depth. Last year the team struggled towards the end of the season as the fatigue from a long season and even longer flights caught up with them. MLS is known for being a league that’s physically demanding, not just because of the play but because of the travel as well. If this year’s additions fare better than last years then you can expect NYCFC to perform well for longer stretches of time. A deep World Cup run for Costa Rica and Sweden could mean NYCFC is without Wallace, Matarrita and Tinnerholm for several weeks.
The new players to watch this season will be Jesús Medina and Ebenezer Ofori. Both players will be trying to make a name for themselves in MLS and both players are still young at 20 and 22 respectively. There has been a lot invested in these players financially and in the case of Ofori even personally as NYCFC identified him as a target over a year ago. Expect Ofori to attempt to nudge out Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera for playing time.
Despite all of their success on the pitch last year and the new talent they acquired the team still faces the same exact problems it faced last year which reflects poorly on senior management.
NYCFC played home games at three different venues last season, and with another year at Yankee Stadium coming up fans are growing impatient with the lack of progress on a permanent stadium. With the New York Yankees expected to perform better this season than last, a deep playoff run would likely mean NYCFC would have to find an alternate venue for an early round playoff match. The team was looking at alternate sites for a home game last season but managed to secure the field once the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs.
Season ticket numbers continue their decline from the original 20,000 in the inaugural season. We can report that NYCFC has 16,000 season ticket holders as of January 2018. The team continues to bleed season ticket holders as they bide their time looking for a permanent stadium.
NYCFC not only shares a stadium with the Yankees but they also share the Yankees own tv network YES. NYCFC will have at least three of its home games this season on tape-delay due to conflicts with Yankees programming. Fans who won’t be in attendance will be able to stream the games live on the Fox Sports Go app. Despite the workarounds, in 2018 tape delayed games are a relic in professional sports which give detractors of MLS plenty of ammunition.
Younger players continue to get the short end of the stick without a proper place to hone their skills. Last year Kwame Awuah would play with some of the youth sides to get some game time in. Shannon Gomez was loaned to Pittsburgh to get playing time and Jonathan Lewis played less than 350 minutes in the regular season. James Sands is fortunate enough to play for US youth national teams which allow him to earn some game time.
Without a proper B side NYCFC has no place for players lower down the depth chart to hone their skills in competitive matches. Don’t expect a USL side this season either, according to Claudio Reyna the plan was for the academy team to eventually be the B team once they were in the appropriate age group. It’s incredibly difficult to develop talent in the United States and City Football Group is hindering the development of their talent by not having a development side. While NYCFC is affiliated with USL side San Antonio FC there have been no loans of players to them.
What More Can I Say?
At the end of the day, despite NYCFC’s successes or failures off the pitch, it is what they do on the pitch that will define them. It’s a very long season and the team will need all of their new additions to perform while other players are injured, suspended or out on international duty. Over the course of the year some key contributors will go down but that will offer the newer players a chance to earn their position. Last year Ben Sweat came through big for NYC and this year someone else will have that chance. The biggest personnel issue last year was a lack of solid depth and the front office did well to address that this offseason.
Fans have every reason to be hopeful for the 2018 season. Medina may be under-hyped but he was still being courted by Danish club FC København and other European clubs so the talent is there. Tinnerholm should provide some stability on the right side and the rest of the starting defense returns intact. The midfield is also unchanged and reinforced with the offense only missing Jack Harrison. With another year for Patrick Vieira to instill his tactics on the players expect another year of quick passes and possession based soccer.
All eyes will once again be on NYCFC as they go up against big spending Toronto and Atlanta United for the Eastern Conference title. Villa will turn 37 at the end of the year and Patrick Vieira has had multiple offers to manage from European clubs so this may be their last chance to add to their NYCFC legacy. The team and its fans will hope a star will be born as NYCFC make their push towards their version of the Holy Grail, the MLS Cup.