Is NYCFC’s Stadium Ready to Ramp Up?

New records shed light on the push to finalize development details before NYCFC’s stadium proposal begins public review.

It’s safe to say this year hasn’t gone according to plan—including the one set of plans NYCFC fans have been waiting years to see finalized. In February, NYCFC CEO Brad Sims confirmed reports by The Outfield and the New York Times that the club was preparing to go public with a stadium proposal in the South Bronx, just south of Yankee Stadium. “In the coming months,” Sims wrote in an open letter, “we will take further steps to formalize our participation in the public approval process.” Instead, those months brought a global pandemic, mass protests over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a brief murder hornet invasion, even a James Sands assist.

But through it all, the developer Maddd Equities and its army of consultants have been working behind the scenes to move the stadium plan forward. New public records shed light on two longstanding challenges—relocating the GAL Manufacturing factory and removing a highway ramp—that have occupied developers as they get their ducks in a row before entering New York City’s public land use review process, which restarted this month after a six-month hiatus.

The Major Deegan Ramp

Ever since NYCFC first looked at building a stadium on the GAL site in 2013, the nearby Major Deegan Expressway ramp has stood in the way. Last October, The Outfield reported that Maddd had hired Tonio Burgos & Associates to lobby for “an update of the East 153rd Street ramp,” an early sign that plans were heating up again.

Though stadium work has gone quiet for the last six months, new public records obtained by The Outfield show Tonio Burgos and other parties have made progress in conversations with the state department of transportation about ramp changes—but plans aren’t yet final and, as of last month, a critical ownership question remained unsolved.

Images from a presentation by NYCFC’s stadium development partners to the New York State Department of Transportation.

Unlike a 2013 plan that would have removed the northbound entrance ramp to Major Deegan, Maddd’s current proposal would eliminate a southbound offramp at Exit 6 and shorten a southbound onramp, removing the ramp option at East 153rd Street. Planners have examined traffic data from game days as well as normal patterns, and are finalizing agreements with the city’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) that would ensure NYCFC and the Yankees would not play at the same time.

Developers have proposed turning a large portion of the existing highway ramp into a pedestrian walkway from the soccer stadium to the Harlem River waterfront. “Activating the waterfront” was a key recommendation from last fall’s Urban Land Institute panel that studied the possibility of a stadium development along the River Avenue corridor. “Any stadium or rezoning should ensure there is safe and prominent pedestrian and bike access over or under the highway down to the waterfront,” a member said at the most recent meeting of the local community board. “We cannot and should not have to rely on the Metro North station to cross over to the waterfront or walk through a mall parking lot.” 

A preliminary sketch for the pedestrian walkway that would connect the stadium to the riverfront.

Developers first presented ramp plans to the state department of transportation late last year, followed by a more formal proposal in May of this year. When the department replied with comments in July, they highlighted a problem: the question of who would own what was left of the highway ramp. Developers had proposed that NYSDOT would retain ownership of the pedestrian bridge west of the Metro North tracks, as well as the decommissioned Major Deegan ramp. “We would have no interest in owning or maintaining a bridge which is not open to public traffic,” the department replied. 

Though developers have stayed in touch with government agencies, the ownership question remained a sticking point as recently as last month. “The ownership issue will need resolution,” a NYSDOT official wrote in an internal email last month. “City claims to support this project, but per EDC does not want the long-term responsibility of ownership. I can’t see where any State Agency would want this property long term. I think we need to directly contact City Agencies to ascertain interest in the property.” 

“We had proposed to transfer to NYC but they have no interest in owning the ramp. We need to discuss ASAP on our approach,” another transportation official wrote in an email on August 26. Representatives from NYSDOT and NYCEDC did not respond to requests for comment.

Relocating the GAL Factory

A highway ramp isn’t the only thing that needs to go to build NYCFC’s stadium. The GAL Manufacturing elevator parts factory sits squarely in the proposed stadium footprint—there’s a reason it’s referred to as the “GAL site.” But while the New York Times has reported that Maddd and NYCFC are in contract to purchase the factory, the company’s search for a new home has been an ongoing issue. 

In May of last year, emails showed David Quart of the development firm VHB working with NYCEDC to find a relocation site for GAL. (Quart has since registered as a lobbyist for Maddd and worked on the ramp issue.) Last November, GAL brought on its own lobbyists, from the law firm Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, to lobby on the subject of “Procurement – Construction & Economic Development Benefits.” According to an email obtained by The Outfield, the firm reached out to the Bronx Borough President’s office in January to request a meeting about relocating GAL within the borough to keep its hundreds of jobs nearby.

“As you know, quiet efforts are underway to plan for the major redevelopment of properties south of the Stadium, which would include a new soccer stadium at the site of GAL Manufacturing factory and offices, and surrounding properties,” a DHC lawyer wrote. “GAL’s property is the lynch pin of this $2B development plan, that I’m told will include the creation of 1,200 jobs, hundreds of affordable housing units, commercial uses, as well as the noted soccer stadium.”

A representative for GAL declined to comment for this story. The Bronx Borough President’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. 

The Road Ahead

NYCFC and its partners still have some loose ends to tighten up before the stadium plan is likely to enter public review. The Outfield has not been able to confirm whether any formal meetings have been held to resolve the Major Deegan ramp ownership issues. The Federal Highway Administration will have to sign off on any plans involving decommissioning an off ramp. And finding a new home for GAL remains a key issue, though the company’s own involvement in the search seems like a sign that it’s ready to relocate from the stadium site. 

In an email dated February 3, Quart laid out a timeline that included reaching a ramp agreement with NYSDOT in the final quarter of 2020, with a published environmental statement and ULURP certification—steps that would take the proposal fully public for the first time—to follow in the first quarter of 2021. The roadmap included completing land use review in the fall of 2021 and beginning construction in early 2022.

So maybe 2020 still won’t bring any good news on the stadium front, but Sims’ statement that the pandemic may not have set back the development timeline remains plausible. If we can all just survive this forsaken year, maybe we’ll finally see some public progress toward a home for NYCFC. ❧

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Image: Presentation from stadium developers to NYSDOT

Why They’re Protesting

MLS players in their own words on why they didn’t play soccer last night.

Yesterday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the floor for Game 5 of a first-round NBA playoff series. Some people called it a “boycott,” but nobody was refusing to buy basketball. Others called it a “wildcat strike,” but this wasn’t a labor dispute. It was an act of social protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by video of a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting a black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back as he tried to get into his vehicle. Three of Blake’s children were in the back seat.

Within hours, the athletes’ protest had spread. The NBA cancelled all of its games scheduled for last night. MLB and WNBA games were called off, too. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber issued a statement condemning racism but declined to delay a kickoff between Orlando City and Nashville, so Atlanta United and Inter Miami players took it upon themselves to stop their game. After other squads followed suit, the league issued a followup statement that “Major League Soccer has made the decision to postpone the remaining five matches.”

As LAFC’s Mark Anthony Kaye pointed out, the league had done no such thing. It was MLS players who made the decision not to play games last night. Here are some of those players explaining the reasons for their protest.

Image: Kara Walker, Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might Be Guilty of Something)

A Structure Takes Shape

Will less possession and more compact defending be building blocks for Ronny Deila’s NYCFC?

Zero point three. That’s how many goals per game NYCFC was averaging in its last six matches coming into Sunday evening’s tilt against Toronto. Two goals in six games. It felt like the nets were still responsibly quarantining.

So after an offensive explosion spat out three goals, seven shots on target, and two more late ones off the crossbar, you might have wondered what changed at the attacking end. Did Ronny Deila switch up his strikers’ tactics? Was it the return of Maxi Moralez that gave our hapless front line a shot in the arm?

Here’s a theory: What really propelled NYCFC to the quarterfinals was Deila’s defensive structure and counterpressing.

Two weeks ago, Deila told reporters that his aim was to bring more “structure” to NYCFC: “When the ball is there, I want you there.” For that kind of coaching to work, every player needs to internalize his instructions in a dizzying variety of situations. But on Sunday evening, the orders were clear. Limit Michael Bradley’s touches, cut off access to Alejandro Pozuelo, and wait.

NYCFC’s defensive shape focused on denying Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo.

Deila ran the team out in a typical 4-3-3 that defended as a compact 4-4-2; after Ismael Tajouri-Shradi left early with an injury, Maxi Moralez took over the No. 10 role and joined Taty Castellanos at the tip of the defensive shape. The two Argentines sat directly in front of Bradley during Toronto’s buildup, taking turns applying light pressure on the ball while the other cut off the passing lane to Bradley at the base of the midfield. At the edges of the middle line of four, Jesús Medina and Alexandru Mitriță marked Toronto’s fullbacks to funnel any balls out wide backward. Alex Ring and James Sands anchored the middle, keeping an eye on Marco Delgado and Nick DeLeon and looking to turn any balls through the middle into quick turnovers and counterattacks. But the key man for Toronto was Pozuelo, a DP attacking midfielder deployed as a false nine with Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola hurt. Deila gave Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens free rein to leave the back line in pursuit when Poz dropped off the front line to receive.

The defensive structure paid off. Even though Toronto had most of the possession, Bradley was limited to his fewest touches of the tournament, and both he and Pozuelo had their lowest passing accuracy all season. Ring and Sands were a destructive force, combining for seven tackles and seven interceptions while sparking dangerous counters that produced chances at the other end.

The clips below show a sampling of the ways NYCFC disrupted Toronto’s buildup while denying Bradley. Sometimes it’s Chanot stepping forward to cut out a linebreaking pass, like at 0:07 and again at 0:45, when he comes all the way past the midfield line to force Pozuelo into a loose pass that Mitri picks off on the run and slides to Medina for a big chance in transition. Maxi’s man marking job on Bradley is on full display in the sequences at 0:37 and 0:56, forcing Toronto’s center backs to try and fail at creating from the back. Again and again, the turnovers NYCFC earned in its disciplined mid block launched its best attacks. 

Against the side with the most passes per game in MLS is Back, NYCFC ceded possession in a departure from the typical “City way” of controlling the ball and building from the back. Sean Johnson sent nearly all of his goal kicks long, and the team looked to generate chances off of turnovers high up the field. Two of three goals came in transition.

Should we expect more of the same in the next round? The jury’s still out on exactly how Ronny Deila wants to play, and at this point we can’t even be sure whether possession is part of the plan. Through six MLS games, Deila’s NYCFC ranks smack in the middle of the league for share of passes played, one spot above its quarterfinal opponent, Gio Savarese’s Portland Timbers.

Unlike Toronto’s ball-hungry style, Portland is perfectly happy to sit back in a 4-2-3-1 and strike on the counter with quick combinations between attacking midfielder Diego Valeri and left winger Sebastián Blanco. Valeri often pushes up alongside the striker, Jeremy Ebobisse, while Blanco comes inside to open a lane for left back Jorge Villafaña bombing up the left. It could be a busy night for Anton Tinnerholm and whichever one of Chanot or Sands (who’s finally starting to garner some attention beyond the five boroughs) gets the nod at right center back. Once again, the result will hinge on NYCFC’s defensive instructions and a structure that’s still coming into view. ❧

Image: Paul Guillaume Lemoine, Architectural Ground Plan

Notes from Florida

Five things we liked in group stage, and five things we never want to see again.

Two teams dropped out of MLS is Back before it even started, and there were times in group stage when it looked like NYCFC had made it three. But things weren’t all bad—outside of the disastrous start against Orlando, Ronny Deila’s men have been the better team more often than not—so we went around the table to talk about what’s working and what’s not.

Justin Egan

What to Build On: Although I still think that this tournament should not have been held, it does seem that since FC Dallas and Nashville were sent home, and despite some questionable safety practices, Covid-19 has been contained so far in the Disney bubble. All of the positive tests have come from faulty testing or players who contracted the virus before entering the bubble. That’s good news. But the fact that MLS and the NBA are burning through thousands of tests every week and getting results in a couple hours while the public health system is struggling to provide regular people access to timely testing is morally reprehensible.

What to Learn From: The 3-5-2 that Ronny Deila brought out for the first half hour of Orlando made me so mad I think my hairline receded a couple of inches. I can’t decide which was worse, the shape or the names on the teamsheet. The lineup featured seven players whose best position is in defense or defensive midfield, plus two attackers and whatever Jesús Medina is these days. Ronny’s selection of Gudi over Keaton Parks makes me wonder if he really did finally get around to watching NYCFC’s games from last year. When Maxi Moralez is out, Keaton is the only midfielder with the passing skills to link defensive and offensive phases in transition.  He may not be a No. 10, but neither is Gudi. The formation, which inexplicably flipped the traditional 3-5-2 midfield triangle and left NYCFC’s buildup in shambles, was also questionable. What was the point of going three at the back against Oscar Pareja’s generic 4-2-3-1? Whatever it was, it didn’t work, and the team played better after changing shape at the water break.

NYCFC’s passmap before and after the water break against Orlando.

John Muller

What to Build On: Coming into this tournament I still wasn’t sure what James Sands is, and the way Ronny Deila used him in group stage didn’t seem designed to clear that up. Sands started as a center back in a back four against Philadelphia, a right center back in a back three against Orlando, and a midfielder playing sometimes behind, sometimes ahead of Alex Ring against Inter Miami. There was a moment in the Miami game where he carried an intercepted clearance out to the wing, put the moves on the defender, and set up a Medina cross. There was a moment in the mess against Orlando when I remember typing in the chat “jimmy sands shooting from the six yard box everything is normal everything is fine.” But the performance that stuck with me was his lockdown shift against Philadelphia, when Sands’ stolidity looked like the perfect complement to Callens’ more adventurous play in a center back pair. More of that, please.

What to Learn From: The Orlando City goat rodeo aside, Ronny seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Time will tell how his vision of a simpler, more structured NYCFC will shape up, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt so far by explaining himself plainly and learning from mistakes. And yet one mistake just won’t go away: Jesús Medina has appeared in all eight competitive matches under Deila, starting six of them. Which, look, the first few games? I get it. You’ve got this high-dollar hole in your roster, the kid’s still youngish, he’s got some skills, maybe all he needs is a little time and trust to be the talent he looked like he was becoming before his sudden implosion two years ago. But even after Deila conceded that Medina’s not a winger and brought him into a more natural attacking mid role, Medina has kept being Medina, drifting in and out of games (mostly out), getting bullied off the ball any time a defender looks at him in a way that hurts his feelings, and just generally being the worst player on the team. Yeah, it sucks that City Football Group won’t buy the team three functioning DPs, but don’t force the issue. There’s talent on that bench. Use it.

Chris Campbell

What to Build On: Ronny Deila still has work to do learning the squad, who his best options are, and what combinations do and don’t work (see above re Medina, Jesús). But it appears in his quarantine-induced film study, he noticed how productive the Heber-Taty partnership was in 2019. The two South American strikers may not have brought their finishing boots to Orlando, but they’ve combined for 2.15 expected goals on 20 total shots in the two matches they’ve played together. It’s still up for debate how they best fit together, and Ronny is feeling his way through that as he tried Taty as a box-crashing left winger against Philly and a second striker against Orlando. When the partnership was broken in the third game due to a mysterious Héber injury, NYCFC only mustered 0.71 xG and Taty didn’t get a shot on target.

What to Learn From: As Maxi Moralez goes, so goes NYCFC. The last two matches have exposed the roster’s biggest weakness, the absence of a capable attacking midfielder to spell the aging Argentine. With so little turnover from last year’s Eastern Conference-winning squad, there weren’t many holes to fill and you might have thought finding a capable backup for Maxi would have topped David Lee’s agenda. Instead, Ronny’s been stuck between a marshmallow and a soft place trying to patch the No. 10 hole with Jesús Medina or the ghost of Gedion Zelalem. The ugly results speak for themselves.

Kevin Nelson

What to Build On: Ronny Deila’s defensive press continued to prioritize funneling possession into the midfield halfspaces in Orlando, a tactic that has proven to be high risk, high reward. It’s allowed NYCFC to launch quick counters off turnovers and attack with a numerical advantage, but the lack of ball pressure on opposing center backs can be invitation to slice through the defense. Inter Miami put together two dangerous buildups in the opening ten minutes when the press was activated, and Deila seemed to have a come to Jesus moment where his defense shifted to cutting off central passing lanes and forcing long balls. It remains to be seen whether the adjustment was evidence of Deila’s tactical acumen, but it’s a promising indicator that he can identify problems and change his plans accordingly. 

What to Learn From: Héber is one of the best strikers in MLS at dropping in to link up during the buildout. His movement and connectivity naturally distort opponent defenses, making room for all kinds of creative off ball runs. Unfortunately, NYCFC rarely took advantage of that during group stage, offering poor off ball movement in every stage of the attack. Each time Héber drops in to save the buildup, his only teammates interested in making short runs to offer layoff options are the fullbacks. The wingers, Alexandru Mitriță and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, like to come short and carry on the dribble instead of looking for runs into the space exposed as Héber pulls a backline apart. And things get even worse when you remove Héber from the equation, as we saw against Inter Miami. Considering this same roster didn’t have this problem last year, it’s not unreasonable to pin some of this on the new coach, though injuries and the general weirdness of the circumstances have probably played a part. Maybe Tajouri-Shradi’s goal against Miami, a rare example of good off ball movement, will remind the team what it’s been missing. 

NYCFC Tactics

What to Build On: Like Chris said, NYCFC has a Maxi understudy problem. But hark, the solution is on the bench: the Big Bird himself, Keaton Parks. In the Texan’s limited minutes so far in 2020, he’s been dynamic, looking to switch the field and attack the final third vertically instead of doing Medina’s shiftless sashay. If Maxi’s still not ready to start against Toronto, it’s time to give Keaton the microphone and let that bird sing.

What to Learn From: Taty’s scoring ability is stifled by his current responsibilities (or maybe regression to the mean is real). [Editor’s note: Our writer got sidetracked and the draft ends here. Seems that like Castellanos, who led NYCFC in group stage xG but came away scoreless, The Outfield just can’t finish.] ❧

Image: Henri Rousseau, The Repast of the Lion

Previously, on New York City Football Club

MLS should cancel the Orlando tournament. We at The Outfield spend more time watching soccer than ought to be legally allowed, but we’ll be the first to tell you there’s nothing essential about playing fan-free preseason games at Disney World in the middle of a pandemic. What does matter is the wellbeing of players, coaches, staff, their families, and the Floridians who’ll come into contact with them. Please support players like our own Brad Stuver who chose to stay home, and urge the league to let everyone do the same without penalties. —John Muller

We’ve got a boss called Ronny Deila. Remember him?

MLS is back, sort of, at least for now, and if there’s a bright side to this utterly stupid tournament it’s that we’ll get a better look at NYCFC under Ronny Deila. Early returns from the Norwegian manager have been decidedly mixed, even if you throw out the Columbus match played pretty much entirely with ten men. If we’re being honest 362 minutes of full-strength soccer is nowhere close to an adequate sample size to evaluate Deila, but since the last time this team played feels like a lifetime ago it’s probably worth reviewing what we know.

What has Deila’s NYCFC looked like so far? The short answer is: not all that different from last season.  

Ronny declared upon arrival that he had no plans to make sweeping changes to the tactical profile of the best team in the Eastern Conference in 2019, whose stacked roster is mostly unchanged. The build-from-the-back possession principles that defined the Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent eras are alive and well under Deila, who recently told The Outfield that he thinks “the best formation that suits us is 4-3-3, and maybe 3-4-3.” How do you say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in Norwegian?

It’s clear that Deila does not view those two formations as mutually exclusive, and we’ve already seen him exploit the versatility of James Sands and Alexander Ring (and soon likely Cacha Acevedo, too) to move fluidly from one to the other on both sides of the ball. From a base 4-3-3, NYCFC likes to send the center backs wide when building out from Sean Johnson and drop the defensive midfielder in the middle to evade a two-man press. A rotating cast of NYCFC players will then take turns moving into the vacated midfield space to offer passing options to the makeshift back three. 

The defensive midfielder has a fluid role out of possession as well, alternately protecting the back line and joining it. Having an auxiliary center back on standby gives Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens freedom to pursue opponent attacks that drift wide, as we saw them do to try and contain elite attacking threats like Tigres’ Simon-Pierre Gignac and Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo.

In the attacking half, Deila appears to have loosened the positional rules for his front three, encouraging wingers to tuck inside, link up with the midfield, and interchange freely. That’s not to say he wouldn’t like to have more wingers who can play wide and offer a threat on the dribble. Like Torrent before him, Deila gave Jesús Medina an early run of starts before deciding the hapless young DP’s future isn’t on the wing “because he’s not the guy to go past people and go outside. He goes a lot of inside, so I think Isi [Tajouri-Shradi], Gary [Mackay-Steven], and Mitriță are more wingers suited for going outside.”

The unpredictability of the wingers’ positions and movements puts the burden on NYCFC’s fullbacks to read the situation in front of them and choose the right overlapping or underlapping run to facilitate progression. Luckily, Deila has two of the best outside backs in the league in Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm, who’ve been successful in using middle third combination play to launch breaks towards goal, though by the coach’s own admission those attacks can sometimes be so direct as to veer toward chaos.

One thing that’s definitely looked new under Deila is the structure of the press. Previous versions have functioned as a wedge, applying ball pressure high upfield to push opponents towards the sideline, but Deila’s press has been interested in funneling passes a little more inside, into the midfield halfspaces, where multiple players can collapse on the receiver. This press is activated when Héber spots an opportunity to shepherd a possessing center back wide. NYCFC’s strong side winger cuts off the outlet pass to the fullback, forcing the opposing ballcarrier to play up a central channel, where an NYCFC midfielder is ready to apply aggressive pressure before the pass even arrives.

Ronny’s press has created some counterattacking chances for NYCFC, but it’s also left them vulerable to center backs who are comfortable driving forward into the gap without direct ball pressure from a forward. We’ll see whether Deila sticks with the tactic in Orlando or if it was more of an early season experiment.

Deila’s tenure so far has been marked by a conscientious commitment to the status quo with some minor tactical tweaks around the edges. That’s not a bad thing given the success he inherited. The fun part will be seeing how things change now that Deila, whose hiring was announced just a week before preseason, has had time to actually watch video of his team. The chaos of the MLS is Back tournament may not be the best setting to get a feel for a coach, but it’s the best we have to work with for now. ❧

Image: Walt Disney, Steamboat Willie

MLS Really Shouldn’t Be Back

We don’t have to do this.

The MLS is Back tournament is right around the corner! Coming to you live from Orlando, inside a safely sealed bub—

*refreshes Twitter*

Okay, look, the bubble’s really more of a metaphor, but at least you’ll finally get to watch your favorite stars like reigning MVP Carlos Ve—

*refreshes Twitter again*

Let’s try this again:

The MLS is Back tournament is a moral travesty and it should be cancelled immediately.

For the last four months we’ve been trapped in an endless coronavirus-induced clown fiesta. Now, in the middle of the worst public health crisis since the Spanish flu of 1918, President Trump is urging sports leagues into action to show that everything is returning to normal (it isn’t) and that we’ve beaten the virus (we haven’t). MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been working with the White House on a restart plan since the early weeks of quarantine, and other league commissioners even sat on Trump’s committee to reopen the economy.

Why on earth are sports leagues agreeing to come back now?  The simple answer is money.

As an industry whose standard revenue model involves mass gatherings of people breathing loudly on each other, sports leagues saw the writing on the wall at the outset of social distancing and began to devise plans to play inside fan-free “bubbles.” For leagues like the NBA and MLB, I can understand—but still totally disagree with—the economic case for playing these games for a TV-only audience. The NBA earns $2.6 billion a year from broadcast rights; for the NFL, it’s $7 billion.  

MLS, on the other hand, makes an overwhelming share of its money from gameday attendance. The league receives a paltry $90 million a year from its TV deals with Fox, ESPN, and Univision—barely a drop in the bucket of the billion dollars of revenue Garber expects MLS to lose this year. 

It’s unconscionable for MLS owners to rush the league back into action for such a meager sum. Here’s who has to take a trip to the Magic Covid Kingdom for this thing to happen: young players trying to support a family on a league minimum salary. Here’s who can stay home in their mansions: a bunch of billionaires whose franchise values are skyrocketing thanks to expansion fees and SUM equity even as they happily “lose” millions of dollars in a good year.

Owners have already used the virus to wring salary cuts and other concessions from players. Though the league had agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement with players before the pandemic struck, owners saw a Machiavellian opportunity to reopen negotiations and try to jimjam an unfair force majeure clause into the deal by threatening a lockout. Players won the force majeure battle but lost the negotiating war, which is how we got this stupid Orlando tournament.

After the CBA deal was done, Garber held a video conference with reporters. On the topic of safety, Garber said, “What I will tell you is that everything that we do will be within the accordance of local health authorities, and we’re not going to do it unless we can assure the safety of our players and the safety of our team administrative staff and operational staff.”

The key phrase, of course, was “local health authorities.” MLS cherrypicked Florida to host the tournament because they knew Governor Ron DeSantis—who you might call a potato wearing a MAGA hat if only that weren’t so insulting to potatoes—was the brain genius who’d dunked on New York for its coronavirus caution and declared that his state had beaten the virus and was reopening for business. A few weeks later Florida is the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, yet DeSantis insists that Florida will not be closing back down, or even requiring statewide social distancing and mask wearing. Welcome to your new home, MLS players.

Instead of doing the responsible thing and pulling the plug on the tournament, MLS has doubled down on the bubble fantasy. Although teams will be confined to two Disney World hotels, the reality is that thousands of Disney employees will pass in and out of the bubble daily, and their union has sounded the alarm that park employees will not be tested.

Up until this week, we didn’t even know MLS’s own test results, as league policy didn’t require teams to disclose coronavirus cases before the tournament. Though NYCFC announced that a member of the front office tested positive in March, The Athletic reported that the club has since stayed silent about multiple cases among players and staff. When players complain about being forced to play through the pandemic, they know the risks involved. Fans are kept in the dark.

As MLS cases multiply and teams scramble to postpone their flights to Florida, the Disney bubble looks dangerously close to popping.  Three FC Dallas players who were coronavirus-free upon arrival have since tested positive inside the bubble, bringing the team’s current known cases to ten. Even as the entire squad has been put on isolation orders, the league continues to insist that Dallas will play in a tournament scheduled to start in five days.

These games do not need to happen. Forcibly mingling thousands of MLS and Disney employees is guaranteed to spread the disease even in the safest circumstances—and Orlando right now is anything but safe. Cancel the tournament. Send players home. Let owners take the L and start planning a safe return to play 2021. Playing this tournament just so that MLS can finally beat axe throwing and cornhole in the TV ratings isn’t worth the price. ❧

Image: Mac.Else von Berlin, colourful

Here’s What People Who Know Cacha Acevedo Say About His Game

Coaches, analysts, and journalists who’ve followed his career agree: NYCFC’s new defensive midfielder is one of Uruguay’s brightest young talents.

Once upon a time, the story goes, the kid’s hair flowed long and golden. Never mind that it’s brown fuzz these days. Never mind that he’s a twiggy defensive type, not a glamorous World Cup goalscorer. Those shaggy days in the sun were enough for Uruguayans to nickname him after one of their country’s great strikers-slash-conditioner models, Diego Forlán, who they’d already decided looked like la Bruja Cachavacha from old Argentinean cartoons. In other words: the kid’s named for a witch. Every time you call him Cacha—and you should, really, he prefers it—remember there’s a touch of magic in it.

But then that’s always been what people notice about him, the magic. Nicolás Brian Acevedo Tabárez was born in Montevideo on April 14, 1999. A childhood playing soccer in the low-rise neighborhood of Villa Española took him across town to the academy of Liverpool FC (no, not that one). “Liverpool is my home and I will always be grateful,” he told the Uruguayan soccer reporter Gonzalo Martini, who shared their conversation with The Outfield. “It is the team that I love, that opened doors to me since I was a child, that formed me as a player and as a person, that gave me everything and never let me lack anything.” Cacha repaid them on the field. At 19 he earned his debut with the first team. Within a year he was named the country’s best U21 player and Liverpool’s captain. In the Uruguayan Primera. At 20 years old. And he led them to a trophy. Remember, magic.

Uruguay’s national team took notice. Last year Acevedo was a leader at the U20 World Cup, where Leeds United scout Gaby Ruiz judged him Uruguay’s standout player along with LAFC’s DP winger Brian Rodríguez. This year Cacha featured in Olympic qualifying for the U23s, a full year younger than his teammate Diego Rossi. His international performances drew attention from Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool (yes, that one), and City Football Group, which won the bidding in February when NYCFC bought him for a reported $2.6 million with a 10% sell-on fee.

What’s NYCFC getting for that kind of money? A player who, on paper at least, looks an awful lot like a three-months-older version of the club’s most accomplished homegrown, James Sands. Acevedo grew up as a central defender but when he reached the first team, Liverpool’s manager at the time, Paulo Pezzolano (who also coached Valentín Castellanos at Club Torque), converted him into a defensive midfielder—probably a better long-term bet for a kid who topped out at 5’8”. 

“Cacha’s played pretty much every position in the center,” former Liverpool club analyst Juan Giuffra told The Outfield. “Technically he’s very good. He solved a lot of problems for us with his passing and always tried to receive in a position to turn. On defense he’s good at recovering the ball and an intense marker.” Though Acevedo may take some time to adapt to MLS’s physicality and pace, Giuffra said, he’s perfect for CFG’s playstyle. 

Like any good Guardiola-style six, Acevedo admires Sergio Busquets for how simple he makes the position look. “My style is defined by grit, sacrifice, positioning, and trying to play simply with two touches, always searching and searching for a free teammate. My strengths are marking and staying well positioned,” Acevedo told the Spanish journalist Nahuel Beau. He added that he’s most comfortable in a possession-based 4-3-3, which happens to be Ronny Deila’s preferred system at NYCFC.

“We want players who can step forward with the ball from behind, and that’s something he can be really, really good at,” Deila told The Outfield. As a coach he’s not worried about any overlap between Acevedo’s and Sands’ skillsets. Both are versatile, he said, but he expects Cacha to compete with Alex Ring for a spot at the base of the midfield, while Sands may see more time on the back line. Besides, there’s the question of timing as both players look to make the next big step. 

“If [Sands] continues progressing like he’s doing now, it’ll be hard to keep him. Clubs in Europe are going to be [interested],” Deila said. “It takes time for players to come into the league and adapt, especially young players, so it’s very possible that Nicolás needs some time to get used to the style of play and the league and the players around him. I don’t see it as a problem. We’re very happy that we have one of the biggest talents in Uruguay.”

Conversations about Acevedo’s room for growth tend to focus on his undersized frame. “Physically he has to improve a lot,” said Beau, who’s followed his development with Liverpool and Uruguay’s youth national teams. “He’s not fast and he doesn’t have much bulk or height. I think he’s got some work to do there.” Everyone agrees Cacha is an excellent ball winner, though some cautioned he can get caught out during quick defensive transitions. And while he doesn’t offer much on the attacking end, his work in the buildup draws raves. “He always plays with his head raised,” Martini said. “That’s a big plus, since he can easily find an open teammate to pass to at long or short distance.”

Acevedo stands out for his progressive contributions in the buildup. (Wyscout)

Acevedo’s stats at Liverpool show a metronomic, precise passer with an eye for breaking lines. According to Wyscout, last year he had the eighth-most progressive passes per 90′ in Uruguay. High involvement and a surprising number of balls into the final third from his defensive midfield hole might explain his outstanding expected buildup, which tallies the xG from shots at the end of possessions he contributed to. (Sands, by contrast, was an extremely cautious passer last year, though he played more vertically in the first few games of 2020.) Acevedo isn’t a big dribbler—as he told Beau, he tries to keep things simple and quick. Like most young players, he does lose the ball in dangerous positions from time to time, and his 5’8″ frame is average at best in the air, but his ruthless closing down, especially right after his team loses possession, more than makes up for it.

Wyscout data shows Acevedo winning the ball all over the midfield by blocking passing lanes and closing down in transition.

When NYCFC announced Acevedo at the beginning of March, Deila and sporting director David Lee were ecstatic. “He’s an excellent player technically and loves to win the ball back, which is key in how we want to play our football. In possession, he’s able to dictate the tempo and that’s a quality that really helps us build from the back,” Deila said. Cacha was poised to be one of the most exciting signings of the season—until the season, and the world, fell apart.

This week, after months of waiting, Acevedo finally joined his teammates in New York. In fact he’d already met them in February, when he flew in secret to Costa Rica to be with the team during its first CONCACAF Champions League game, followed by a jaunt to Manchester for a medical and photos, Acevedo told Sebastián Amaya for Uruguay’s El Observador. Then it was back to Montevideo for quarantine, which he spent cooking with his girlfriend, hopping on video calls with Deila’s coaching staff, and playing FIFA against FC Barcelona’s young Uruguayan center back Ronald Araújo. “I play with Manchester City, always them, even before [the transfer],” Acevedo said.

It’s not lost on him that a star turn with NYCFC could put him on the mothership’s radar. “I was a little surprised by [the bid from] New York, and I liked the idea, because they’re in City Group, they’re very organized and they play very well,” he told Amaya. Winning playing time from Alex Ring at 21 would be a feat, and working his way from Montevideo to Manchester by way of the Bronx would be a fairy tale. But don’t count Cacha out—after all, the kid is magic. ❧

Image: Las Nuevas Aventuras de Hijitus, “El Genio de Cachavacha”

Gary Mackay-Steven’s Quarantine Bookshelf

“Reading takes your mind off things and puts you somewhere else,” says the Scottish winger, who’s needed that escape lately.

The Outfield: I’m going to take a guess and say there aren’t many NYCFC players reading Hemingway right now.

Gary Mackay-Steven: [Laughs] I enjoy reading a lot. I’ve always liked having a book—we have a lot of free time through travel and in hotels. In quarantine, you’re home a lot and there’s nothing better than getting a good book. It does more than take your mind off things—it takes your mind into a whole new world. I think it’s a great pastime.

What have you been reading in quarantine?

I’ve been reading a lot and it’s great to have time to sit and read all sorts of genres. It’s all random, to be honest. Recently, I’ve been reading older classics by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read The Great Gatsby before the movie came out with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s amazing and so descriptive of parties, the glitz and the glamour of the 1920s. That was the first that I really enjoyed [by Fitzgerald].

And Hemingway?

I read an Ernest Hemingway novel next. The first Hemingway I read was The Old Man and the Sea. It was great and I went back to him at the start of this quarantine. I read A Moveable Feast next. It may be one of his first books—I’m not sure—but it was just about … it’s hard to explain what it was. It wasn’t a story but it was a memoir about the time when he lived in Paris. It was funny because he described in it in the 1920s that he became friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald in real life and other writers that are beloved today. That was really cool to know that their real lives crossed paths.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

What about Fitzgerald?

I read four F. Scott Fitzgerald books. Tender is the Night which I went back to during quarantine to go over it. It’s a great book.

It’s a very personal book for Fitzgerald. It sort of mirrors his own life at the time.

Exactly. His own personal relationship was tragic in a lot of ways. In Tender is the Night, there was a lot of that personal tragedy, so I thought I understood his story. Similar to The Great Gatsby, it takes you somewhere else—the South of France—where it’s just like summertime in the South of France, the beaches; it’s a place where I took a holiday a few years ago. It’s just an amazing place. With the craziness of the world, it’s nice to delve into a book that’s nice.

What’s your normal reading routine?

It’s mainly when we travel. I like reading books when I’m at my bed, just before I turn off the lights. We travel and spend a lot of time in hotels and planes. I always have some sort of book with me. It can be a wide range of books. I enjoy all biographies from sports stars I admire, to anything, to fictional stories too.

What’s been your favorite book during quarantine?

I really enjoyed The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s been on my radar for a while and people told me to read it. I never got into it before but it’s a beautiful story. The last autobiography I read was Usain Bolt’s—it varies greatly. It takes your mind off things and puts you somewhere else.

What’s your tally so far in quarantine?

Good question—I’ve been doing other stuff but I think I’m on my fifth book now.

[H]e was all relaxed for combat; as a fine athlete playing secondary defense in any sport is really resting much of the time, while a lesser man only pretends to rest and is at a continual and self-destroying nervous tension.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

Life away from the club probably has been tough. How have you prepared to keep yourself fit at home?

[NYCFC] have been amazing in terms of keeping us with our training programs and keeping us engaged. As for our week, we have workouts on Zoom and weight training. We were sent some equipment like dumbbells so we could do our own work in our houses and apartments. It’s been kind of structured to the week. We’ll have a workout of some sort, whether it’s something different during these unique circumstances, where it’ll be kickboxing on Zoom to get our cardio up in a fun way where the team feels connected. It’s been great because if you were left to your own devices, maybe it would be really tough, but you quickly adjust to the new way it is right now. It’s different but we’re getting through it.

What about for you, personally? Have you learned anything about yourself through quarantine?

It’s just little silly things. I play guitar and I’ve been working on that. I think I’ve improved a little. I love acoustic music, a lot of R&B, and Spanish music. I love old music. Older bands, what I grew up with and what my parents like. When I ordered some books at the start of quarantine, I ordered juggling balls. I’m really enjoying juggling—my new thing is trying to juggle with more than three balls. It’s very difficult but I’ve enjoyed it. We are doing a yoga routine on Zoom. I’ve been meaning to start it but I never did. I never realized how stiff I was everywhere, but yoga has certainly helped with that.

What are five books you would recommend to people?

I’d put The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo in there because I feel like a lot of people would enjoy that. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway—those are short stories. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s about sleep and why sleep is so important for everyone. It’s an eye opener in terms of being an athlete. Sleep is so important for rest and recovery, but reading that book hit home how important it is to get eight hours plus, and if you skip a night of sleep, it shows the type of things that can go on in your brain. It dives into all types of sleep. It was really scientific but it kind of changes little habits in yourself. 

You’ve got one more in you?

One more—there’s so many. I’m going to get off this phone and think, “Why couldn’t I think of one more?” ❧

Image: Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City

NYCFC’s Stadium Still Has One Stakeholder to Convince: the Bronx

After years of social distancing from community leaders, are developers ready to reach out?

On Tuesdays and Thursdays in May, Vanessa Gibson and Diana Ayala, New York City’s councilmembers for the districts surrounding Yankee Stadium, have donned masks to hand out food to Bronx residents with an organization called Bridge Builders Community Partnership. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has dropped by. Each week, Ayala and Gibson’s posts on Facebook and Twitter about the food distributions have taken care to mention one partner in particular: the real estate developer Maddd Equities.

Charity seems to be a new passion for Maddd Equities’s owner, Jorge Madruga, who as a 12-year-old boy on a boat fleeing Cuba decided to pocket half the Juicy Fruit gum that his uncle gave him to hand out to his fellow refugees because, according to his business partner Eli Weiss of Joy Construction, “it didn’t come naturally to just give it away.” In the last few weeks, Maddd’s Twitter account has received kudos for Covid-19 aid work from U.S. Congressman Adriano Espaillat and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as well as Gibson, whose former chief of staff recently joined Madruga’s company. The flurry of social media attention is unusual for the developer, which despite its big real estate deals and generous campaign contributions only tweeted twice last year to an audience of 24 followers.

Why might Maddd Equities want to raise its public profile now? Besides good corporate citizenship during a crisis, there’s also the reason the developer has in common with another partner in the food distributions, New York City Football Club: they’re trying to build a soccer stadium as part of a billion-dollar development on the border of Gibson and Ayala’s districts. Maddd declined to comment for this article.

NYCFC’s food distribution in the Bronx is linked to its stadium partner Maddd Equities. 

In February, NYCFC President Brad Sims confirmed reports that the club was “actively involved with MADDD Equities” on a stadium project that was nearing the public approval stage. In the coming months, Sims wrote, the club would engage “in meaningful public dialogue with community residents, civic leaders, supporters, and local elected officials to obtain critical feedback on the details of this proposal.”

According to the developers, that dialogue was already well underway at the time. They told the New York Times that, unlike previous plans for a soccer stadium that had withered under community criticism, this time “they began with community outreach and sought input long before they presented any concrete proposals.”

But while the stadium project appears to be gathering necessary support from city and state agencies, local leaders aren’t quite on the same page. At a Bronx Community Board 4 board meeting two weeks after the Times’ February stadium update was published, District Manager Paul Philps wasted no time in addressing it. “What I would say about this article is that there’s a lot of misinformation in here. I’ll be very clear, they’ve been meeting with lots of city agencies, but they’ve not been meeting with the community or the community board as of yet,” he told residents gathered at the Bronx Museum of Arts.

“In reading the article, it gives the impression that there’s going to be a public process,” Philps said. “I think in there they say that construction will not begin until at least 2022. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is almost March of 2020 and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s highly unlikely.”

Weiss told the Times that the stadium had reached “a moment in time where the stars have aligned. And by the stars, I mean all the people involved.” But in an interview taped alongside Madruga just weeks earlier, on December 18, Weiss said the project was “in the very nascent stages.” “There have been discussions with the city and with the stakeholders that there could be enough excess land there where a stadium could be put in,” he said. “But I think the concept comes back to excess land.”

NYCFC’s developer partners were asked about the stadium (starting at 8:17) in a December interview.

That land lies in Ayala’s council district. Speaking to The Outfield in February, she sounded less than convinced. “I think that the soccer stadium people and the city, they’re going to have their hands full in trying to really persuade the community that this is something that is in their best interests.” Ayala characterized her meetings with Maddd up to that point as very high level, and emphasized that she would have to hear from her constituents and small businesses before backing a proposal. “This one is really something I would like to take my time with,” she said. “Because you know there’s real potential here, but there’s also a little bit of risk and so I want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable.”

Winning over Ayala and Gibson will be vital if the stadium development enters New York City’s lengthy land use review process. “By tradition,” according to one ULURP explainer, “the Council usually follows the lead of the councilmember in whose district a project falls.” (Maddd and Joy also have affordable housing and retail developments in the works just north of Yankee Stadium, in Gibson’s district. “We like the commercial corridor of River Avenue,” Weiss said in the December interview.)

Some community stakeholders doubt the developers’ interest in local needs. Cary Goodman, the executive director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District, told The Outfield that he met with Madruga about a potential stadium almost two years ago, when Madruga intimated that he wanted the BID’s fullest cooperation and inclusion. That was the last time Goodman heard from Maddd on the subject. Last year, the BID took it upon itself to demonstrate the community’s needs by surveying local business owners and residents about what they would want from a new soccer stadium.

Bronx Community Board 4 likewise acted without input from developers when it sponsored an Urban Land Institute panel on the stadium plan in October. ULI Executive Director Felix Ciampa spoke to The Outfield when the panel published its report in March. Although the ULI group met for only two days, Ciampa said that community board sponsorship allowed the panel to represent the community and voice its broad concerns. He noted the panel’s finding that, in addition to a stadium, the proposed development could bring employment opportunities to the area. The full footprint, which includes plans for housing, retail, and a hotel, could complement the mixed-use development at Bronx Point by allowing increased access to the River Avenue corridor, he said.

“River Avenue has wonderful potential as a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use corridor with new affordable housing at anchor points at each end,” the ULI panel wrote.

“The great thing with working with the community was they have a plan,” Ciampa said when asked about the disconnect between city agencies and the South Bronx. “They have a plan and a strategy and a set of recommendations for the vision they have with their community.”

It’s unclear whether the community’s vision is aligned with the stadium developers’ plans. “The city has been meeting with the development team for close to two years and no one has really reached out to us at any level until we engaged ULI on the technical assistance panel,” Philps told the Commercial Observer in March. “It would have been nice to be engaged a little bit sooner.”

In the first lobbying reporting period of this year, Philps and Community Board 4 were named for the first time in the disclosures of CFG Stadium Group lobbyist Geto & de Milly and Yankees President Randy Levine. (The Yankees are part owners of NYCFC, and Levine has been a key player in the soccer stadium push.) Newly released filings from March and April show Maddd and Joy shifting their attention from city officials to the state legislature, where Maddd’s powerhouse lobbyist Stanley Schlein has been in touch with New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie regarding Bronx real estate development. At the same time, Tonio Burgos, which has been lobbying the state’s transportation department on the critical step of removing a 153rd Street ramp to build the stadium, added the MTA to its list of targets. On May 18, Maddd registered a new lobbyist, David Quart of VHB, who was last seen swapping stadium plans and discussing the GAL factory’s relocation with NYCEDC in mid-2019.

Reached by email, Sims told The Outfield that while “wider work on the stadium has continued” amid the pandemic, NYCFC and its stadium partners have had “many other important things to focus on during these challenging times.” Sims added: “I am proud of the significant impact that our team, along with a number of our partners, have made, in conjunction with NY Common Pantry, to provide relief locally in the South Bronx.” ❧

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Image: Ernest Lawson, Spring Night, Harlem River

Let’s Talk About the Salida Lavolpiana

Ronny Deila’s fledgling romance with a buildup known as the “lovers’ outing.”

During the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, a Spanish newspaper columnist who’d spent that spring playing soccer in Mexico reported something he’d heard about El Tri’s manager, Ricardo La Volpe. For 30 minutes of every training session La Volpe made his center backs practice advancing the ball over and over, coaching their every pass, every decision, until after hundreds of repetitions defenders and ball fell in love. Led by their captain, Rafa Márquez, Mexico’s back three didn’t just start play. That was the phrase people used for shuffling the ball around the back and then booting it long. La Volpe’s center backs salieron jugando, went out with the play. Como novios. Like lovers.

The column’s author was one Josep Guardiola, who was just two years away from taking charge of FC Barcelona and changing the whole world’s ideas about building from the back. But Pep’s hope to emulate La Volpe’s lovers-going-out buildup had one little hitch. Barcelona didn’t like to waste bodies behind the ball when it could have numbers in midfield instead. That meant lining up in a 4-3-3 instead of a three-back system like La Volpe’s. But during the first phase of Barça’s buildup, a lot of opponents pressed with two forwards, one for each center back. How could Guardiola’s defenders drive the play forward without the numerical superiority they needed to find space?

His solution was to drop his defensive midfielder, Sergio Busquets, between the center backs to form a temporary back three. Two opponents couldn’t mark all of them, which meant at least one center back—or, more dangerously, Busquets in the middle—would be free to bypass the first line of pressure and pick the pass that would get Barcelona out of its defensive third in a controlled, purposeful way. The tactic, meant to approximate the Mexican buildup that Guardiola admired, became known as the salida lavolpiana, the La Volpean going-out.

Twelve years into the Pep revolution it’s become commonplace for any coach who aspires to play possession-based juego de posición (which if you’re going off hiring-day press conferences is pretty much all of them) to turn a center back pair into a back three during certain buildup situations. Sometimes that’s done by nudging one fullback toward the middle, although the evolutionary triumph of attacking fullbacks has produced a generation of overlapping whippets who might not be at their best when hanging around at the back. Sometimes a midfielder drops off to one side of the center backs, like Frenkie de Jong loved to do at Ajax. But the salida lavolpiana is still a classic: a defensive midfielder retreats into the middle of the back line, the center backs split wide, and a two-man press watches helplessly as one unmarked defender or another doesn’t just start the play, he goes out with it.

Ronny Deila is (Perhaps) for Lovers

Like everyone, Ronny Deila says he wants to play attacking, possession-based soccer. Unlike everyone, Deila has a squad that’s talented enough, in MLS terms, to pull it off. They’ve been doing it for years. The way New York City FC lined up for its first competitive game under Deila—a 4-3-3 with inverted wingers, overlapping fullbacks, and ball-playing center backs—has been a favorite for this team ever since Patrick Vieira gave up trying to resurrect the W-M.

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise in the ninth minute of the CONCACAF Champions League game against San Carlos to see James Sands, whose hybrid position makes him perfect for this kind of thing, relieve pressure on NYCFC’s buildup by dropping from the defensive midfield line into the salida lavolpiana. For a moment he was back in the middle center back role where he got his big break in last spring’s 3-4-3. It felt familiar.

If you looked closely, though, Deila’s first draft of the salida lavolpiana had some peculiar features. Unlike Gregg Berhalter’s version at Columbus, the goal wasn’t for Sands to become a Wil Trapp-style pocket passer but rather to free an outside center back, ideally Alexander Callens, to dribble toward the halfway line and pick a linebreaking pass. Counter to conventional wisdom, one or both of NYCFC’s central midfielders didn’t drop to support the buildup by showing for the ball in the space Sands vacated; instead Alex Ring and Keaton Parks pushed up between the two banks of four in San Carlos’s standard-issue 4-4-2 medium block. And unlike Guardiola, who likes his wingers to provide width, Deila let Alexandru Mitriță and Jesús Medina come inside, sometimes almost colliding with the center mids in the halfspaces. The whole strategy only really lasted about 25 minutes, until NYCFC went up 2-0 and both teams changed their gameplan in response, but it was enough to put tactics nerds in a tizzy.

Here’s how Deila’s buildup worked:

To be clear, CCL Round of 16 ties are still basically preseason games for MLS teams, and analyzing preseason games is, as a rule, a huge waste of time. But this pattern was distinctive enough, and clues about Deila’s style are still scarce enough after weeks of closed-door scrimmages, that it felt worth going to the tape. Will Ronny’s hilariously aggressive salida LOL-piana be a staple of NYCFC’s buildup this season? Does that mean we’re in for a wild year of gunning for 5-4 scorelines? Who wouldn’t have time for that?

The Salida de Ronny

If you skipped past the video in the last section, take a minute to back up and watch it now. It’ll help illustrate the four tactical ideas we’re going to talk about here, the step-by-step objectives that make this buildup interesting.

Relieve Pressure

The whole purpose of the salida lavolpiana is to outnumber the opponent’s press three (or four, counting the goalkeeper) to two. Once the defensive midfielder—here, James Sands—drops between the center backs, somebody’s going to get open. 

More often than not against San Carlos, NYCFC would move the ball around until that somebody was Alexander Callens, the Peru international who bosses this team’s buildup. Since 2017, Callens leads NYCFC’s center backs in expected goal chain per 96 minutes (a measure of how likely NYCFC was to score from possessions he participated in) and is second among all MLS players for expected pass score per 100 attempts (a measure of pass quality). Get Callens the ball in space and good things will follow.

Claim Space, Break Lines 

Once you’ve got a player in space, use it. Over and over again Callens would turn upfield with nothing but fifteen or twenty yards of bright green grass in front of him. As San Carlos’s front-line press played catch up, the center back would carry the ball past them and keep going until an opponent left the second line to confront him. As soon as that happened, Callens would pull the trigger on a linebreaking pass through the hole that marker left open. And once you’re between the lines, the defense is in trouble.

In some ways the salida lavolpiana isn’t too different from last year’s 3-4-3, which also spread Callens and Maxime Chanot out to the halfspaces. Getting wide can help the center backs find lanes to make more aggressive passes. According to American Soccer Analysis’s Tiotal Football, Chanot and Callens attempted lower-percentage passes and performed significantly worse against ASA’s expected passing model when playing in a back three in 2019, but those riskier passes were more effective, producing a higher average expected goal value per possession for NYCFC and less xG on opponents’ next possession compared to when NYCFC played four at the back. That’s about what you would expect if the outside center backs were playing more linebreaking passes from their wider positions.

But there are differences from the 3-4-3 too, most notably that Deila’s version of the salida left NYCFC’s defensive midfield line totally empty. There’s no easy passing option—it’s break lines or bust.

Get Numbers Upfield

The reason there’s nobody in the center of the pitch is that Deila pushed both central midfielders upfield between the lines. That’s feasible when the defense is mostly passive, like San Carlos was until NYCFC’s second goal, but it’s a high risk, high reward proposition.

The reward of positioning as many as five attackers between the lines and two more on the wings is obvious: get anyone the ball with room to turn and you’re facing the last four defenders with overwhelming numbers. Even if your first foray fails—a misplaced throughball, a clumsy dribble—you’ve got extra bodies in place to win the ball back in a dangerous spot.

Deila says he wants to improve NYCFC’s counterpress, and it’s true that there’s some room for improvement. Even though the club ranked near the top of the league last season in most high-press metrics, the numbers weren’t quite as dominant as the two years prior. A bottom-heavy buildup and direct attack (part stylistic choice, part function of protecting a lot of leads) meant they weren’t always in position to recover lost balls in the attacking half. Moving more players upfield will help keep opponents off balance.

But there are a couple of not so subtle drawbacks to the ol’ 3-0-7 formation, too. For one thing, that attack can get awfully crowded. Recall that Dome Torrent, who knows Guardiola-style tactics better than just about anybody, sized up this same NYCFC squad and decided it wasn’t suited to a 4-3-3. No extremos puros, wide wingers who could spread the field and beat a fullback up the touchline instead of working inside. Sure enough, Deila’s aggressive buildup sometimes saw the wingers, Mitri and Medina, stepping on the midfielders’ toes in the halfspaces. That proximity can help players improvise short passing combinations, but the suboptimal use of space means you’re going to get caught in awkward positions sometimes. 

Which brings us to the second problem with high center mids: yes, they’re in place to challenge for lost balls in the final third, but if a counterattack gets past them you’d better have someone right behind them for a quick tackle or tactical foul. You need your defensive midfielder again.

Reshape and Counterpress

This is where the salida lavolpiana has a natural advantage over a three-back formation: it’s built for flexibility. The defensive midfielder acts like a center back in the buildup, but he’s still a defensive midfielder, and once his services are no longer needed at the back he can charge forward and cut out counters in midfield the way a 4-3-3 is built to do.

Busquets, who’s equally comfortable orchestrating the buildup and snuffing out attacks in the opposing half, was the ideal defensive midfielder for Guardiola’s salida lavolpiana. For Deila’s NYCFC, that two-way player just might be the 19-year-old Sands. In Costa Rica, the homegrown’s dual training as both a center back and a defensive midfielder came in handy as he showed a knack for knowing when to drop into the back line and when to get forward for a well-timed midfield stop. 

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly how NYCFC’s first goal of 2020 happened: Sands moved up a line, recovered a loose ball, and two quick passes later Héber was celebrating (when is Héber not celebrating?). The salida lavolpiana was working. The defenders were going out with the play, the midfielders were counterpressing, and Deila was winning the way he said he wanted to win. For the moment, at least, it was easy to love. ❧

Image: Pierre-Auguste Cot, The Storm