The 2019 Major League Soccer regular season kicks off Saturday and New York City FC is a team in transition. Not a single player remains from the inaugural season of 2015 (Fly away Tommy McNamara, you Irish angel). Pine cone aficionado and Pep Guardiola underling, Domé Torrent is here to stay whether you like it or not. And Yankee Stadium is our home… still. The off season began at a snail’s pace and concluded frenetically. Yet, there are still questions fans have heading into our first match of the season. So let’s dive in.
1) Who will be the face of the organization?
David Villa’s departure following the conclusion of the 2018 season not only left a huge hole on the pitch, but in the organization as well. Villa was the first player officially signed by the club back in 2014, a year before NYCFC even played its first game. Other designated players followed, like Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, but Villa was the face of the organization. With Villa gone, who is the new face of the club?
Some might argue that Alex Ring can fill that void. He made his first All-Star team appearance last year. Ring is entering his third year with NYCFC and was named captain. Maxi Moralez is another player that could step into this role. Arguably the team MVP during the 2018 season, Maxi put together his best season for NYCFC with 8 goals and 16 assists. City’s newest Designated Player, Alexandru Mitriță is another likely choice. Signed to the third largest transfer fee in MLS history, Mitrita has already given supporters much to look forward to in 2019. We’ve already seen a pair of golazos (versus AIK and Nashville) in two preseason games.
2) Will Dome struggle or succeed?
If you had one word to describe former coach, Patrick Vieira’s tactical style you’d probably use the word “consistent.” You knew you were going to see a 4-3-3 formation game in and game out. Domé Torrent? Not so much. The ever-tinkering Torrent joined NYCFC following the departure of Vieira and spent the remainder of the 2018 season trotting out formation after formation in a never-ending attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. During the 2018 season “Domé toyed with 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-diamond-2, and a couple of brief flirtations with a three-back system,” according to Good Friend of the Nation, Dummy Run.
Domé was quoted as saying, “I want to create the style, but maybe it’s better next year. If you want to create a certain style, you need the right players to be able to play in the style. I am very happy — very, very happy, believe me — with my players because they fight until the last minute. … But for example, if I want to play with 4-3-3, I need two wingers.”
With the addition of newly acquired designated player Alexandru Mitriță, and the return of Taty Castellanos, Jesus Medina, and Jonathan Lewis, NYCFC has a formidable group of wingers that should provide the play Torrent wants. He’s now had an offseason to hand select players and an entire preseason to impart his preferred style of play. Fans won’t be as forgiving in year two and Domé will be out of excuses if the team gets off to a rough start. Fans won’t tolerate the constant tinkering and lineup changes unless it leads to winning results.
3) Will NYCFC’s front office be more transparent?
When Jon Patricof stepped down as President of NYCFC in December of 2018, Brad Sims stepped in as new CEO of the club. For the past two months most supporters haven’t heard a single word from Sims, with the exception of a Q&A session with NYCFC’s own, Mark Booth. In the article, Sims told Booth that he would be spending the next few months on a “listening tour,” meeting with people most connected to the club.
Last night Sims and Reyna held a Town Hall with supporters at the Helen Mills Theater in Manhattan. Ian Paul Joy emceed the event and gave the two pre-selected questions from fans. According to Tony Larsen, there were no stadium updates aside from the usual comments that it’s the clubs #1 priority and that it will be built within the five boroughs. Reyna spoke about the shift toward younger, more versatile players, and asked for patience from the fans. Reyna also said the club is continuing to look at attacking players to bring in during the first portion of the season.
Fans are increasingly frustrated with the front office that lacks leadership and direction. Claudio Reyna has not addressed the roster construction. The front office hasn’t said anything about a stadium update since July of 2018. Additionally, the Neo-Nazi / white supremacist issue was never formally addressed. A little openness and honesty on these topics, and others, would create some long-needed goodwill between the organization and supporters.
4) Will NYCFC advance in the MLS Cup Playoffs and/or US Open Cup?
NYCFC’s playoff and tournament troubles are well known to fans. Fans have suffered through the 4-0 shellacking by the Red Bulls last year in the US Open Cup and the 7-0 aggregate drubbing by Toronto FC in 2016 in the MLS Playoffs. Over their first four years NYCFC have won a total of two playoff games and have never advanced past the conference semifinals.
NYCFC will have to prove itself this year with big changes to the MLS Playoff format. Say good bye to the two-leg playoff system of the past. There won’t be any reseeding as well. This year it will be imperative to finish in a top 3 position. Atlanta United will likely to continue their domination of the league thanks to the addition of Pity Martinez. Falling into the 4 or 5 seed would most likely mean facing Atlanta in the conference semifinals again, in Atlanta, for a single game elimination. Finishing second or third in the division would guarantee at least one home playoff game in the first round.
As for the US Open Cup, again, NYCFC has never advanced out of the fourth round. NYCFC has always been hurt by the USOC’s rules limiting clubs to 5 international spots on the roster. In 2018 NYCFC fielded a starting lineup that included players like Tommy McNamara, Cedric Hountondji (of blessed memory and 6 minutes of playing time), and Kwame Awuah. This year, thanks to new green cards for Jesus Medina, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Anton Tinnerholm, NYCFC currently carry only 4 international players. That means NYCFC can send out their best available lineup. The expectations from supporters are enormous. Any first round loss in the MLS Playoffs or USOC would be a failure for the club.
5) How does NYCFC improve season tickets and their value?
Jump on StubHub right now. You’ll find tickets for several matches this season going for as little as $14 a ticket. Even tickets for this season’s derby versus the Red Bulls are going for slightly below face value. Any way you slice it, being a season ticket holder is about as rewarding as a soccer ball to the gut. NYCFC has even undercut season ticket holders with $99 ten match plans and something called a Platform Pass back in 2017 that only cost $15 per match.
Meanwhile, the Cityzens Portal has been a disaster that has never been fixed. Fans don’t get the points they deserve. The rewards are repetitive and uninspiring. There are even rumors of its demise. This means that fans could lose out on all the points they have accrued. Instead of throwing ideas against the wall in hopes of improving attendance, NYCFC’s front office should be reaching out to fans to ask them what they want and how the match day experience can improve.
6) Where’s our striker?
David Villa, where art thou? As many predicted, NYCFC legend left for greener pastures in Japan during the offseason. Then surprisingly, at the end of January, Jo Inge Berget and the club agreed to mutually terminate his contract. This left a gaping hole at the center forward position that has yet to be filled. Speaking to the media on February 14, Torrent told reporters that it would be difficult to find a replacement for Villa’s production, but that they would hopefully find someone in 1 to 2 weeks. Then it was 3 to 4 days. Still two weeks have past and no magical striker has appeared.
A more likely possibility would be waiting until the summer transfer window and bringing in a player from Europe. NYCFC has plenty of international slots and TAM/GAM to play with. In any case, entering the season without a proper striker might leave NYCFC at the bottom half of the Eastern Conference table before the summer transfer window even opens.
Asking Questions is the First Way to Begin Change
While the start of every MLS season brings about new change, this has never been more true than this year for NYCFC. The organization is being lead by a new captain on the field and a new CEO in the front office. Even Domé Torrent is starting his first full season patrolling the sidelines. The questions I’ve asked won’t be answered right away. Many of them will be hashed out as the season progresses. Domé will or won’t be here at the conclusion of the year. The club will choose a player to promote on TV and in advertisements. Attendance will rise or continue to drop. The organization will most likely continue to keep supporters in the dark regarding the stadium, but hopefully not. At the end of the day, the important thing is for supporters to continue asking questions. Hopefully they will lead to answers.