It’s been an offseason of goodbyes in the Bronx.
Maxi Moralez, the diminutive spark plug who keyed New York City FC’s attack since 2017? Returned to Argentina. Alex Callens, the centre-back who solved problems everywhere on the field? Moved on to LaLiga side Girona, the City Football Group (CFG) club that also took former MLS Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos on loan in July.
Héber is off to the Seattle Sounders for somewhere around $500,000 in MLS accounting dollars. Cacha Acevedo? On loan to Bahia. Anton Tinnerholm? Back in Sweden. Sean Johnson? Say hello to Toronto FC.
Teams in MLS undergo radical transformations between seasons, sure, but the talent departing NYCFC was dramatic even by the standards of the American first division. According to The Outfield, the Pigeons saw 209 player performances (games played, if you will) from the 2022 season walk out the door, 84 of those performances considered “good” (using the goals-added metric developed by American Soccer Analysis, which measures a player’s total on-ball contribution in attack and defense, players whose G+ is above the 75th percentile). That represents the most departing good performances of any team in the league since 2013.
In their place, well…
Twenty-six-year-old Argentine Braian Cufre and 18-year-old Slovenian Mitja Ilenic will handle the full-back spots. Matt Freese comes onboard at goalkeeper, pried from the Philadelphia Union for the Héber haul and then some. There’s talk that young American Richie Ledezma will join. Santi Rodriguez is reportedly coming back from CFG club Montevideo City Torque. Holdovers Talles Magno and Gabriel Pereira will shoulder more of the burden for Nick Cushing’s side.
No, the roster build isn’t fully complete, but the season kicks off in 10 days and the team that began life as the squad of David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo is now the team of, well, some guys and perhaps some joining later in the season? There’s an aimlessness to the roster construction, an indecision between being a destination for promising young South Americans to stop for a few seasons, a pipeline for youth academy prospects, a holding place for wayward CFG players and other kind of, sort of identities.
What, exactly, is the vision in New York?
Regardless of how it might look right now, it’s hard to argue with the club’s on-field success. NYCFC won the 2021 MLS Cup and boasts the third-best points-per-season average of any club in league history. They’ve developed young talent, including James Sands, Joe Scally and Tayvon Gray, while Maximo Carrizo was the youngest player to sign a professional contract. (Sorry, Freddy Adu.)
The betting markets love the team, too. Two weeks before kickoff, the Pigeons are +800 to win the MLS Cup, behind only LAFC (+400) and the Philadelphia Union (+600). That’s a sign that even without a fully constructed roster, smart money believes Cushing & Co. will figure it out.
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The club is making moves off the field as well, most notably finally, finally, finally landing a deal for a stadium to call their own. The project, a mixed-use, mixed-income plan in Willets Point, Queens, calls for a 25,000-seat stadium to open in 2027.
Since launching in 2015, NYCFC have been quite successful in MLS, and almost as anonymous in New York. They are treading water in the market. In another city, the team’s track record — on and off the field — would be a cause for celebration. Fairly or unfairly, though, a club in America’s largest city, playing their games a few miles from MLS headquarters and backed by an endless wealth fund, needs to do better. They need name recognition, both from the crest on the shirt and the names on the back. (In the name of fairness, you could say the same thing about an energy-drink-fueled rival across the Hudson River.)
It’s possible that this squandered first decade won’t matter in the long run. If you squint, you can see progress towards becoming a fixture in the city: the stadium deal, the championship, the club-branded mini-pitches installed all over town. MLS writ large exists in a strange place right now, a new media rights deal and a fledgling network being built on the fly, a sense that the real goal is to build momentum to capitalize on the 2026 World Cup. NYCFC going with the flow isn’t a team killer.
It is a waste of time, though. And the team sits in a more precarious position than the league.
An $800 million valuation (sure …), losing $12 million a season, backed by an ownership group targeted for dramatic financial improprieties by one of world soccer’s most powerful governing bodies. If the Premier League comes down hard on Manchester City, how might that affect CFG more broadly and NYCFC specifically? No one can say for sure, but it probably won’t be positive.
The MLS campaign, however, waits for no team. The club opens on the road at Nashville SC. A week later, they take on the Chicago Fire in the Windy City.
On the Tuesday between matches, Cushing and his staff, along with sporting director David Lee and NYCFC executives, are hosting a charity fundraiser on a Tribeca rooftop. Tickets can be had for $350 (cocktail hour), $750 (cocktails plus dinner), or $6,000 (half a table). It’s billed as “A night to remember to kick off the 2023 season!” What or who, exactly, will be remembered remains to be seen.