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

James Sands is Figuring It Out

NYCFC’s homegrown talks about taking his game to the next level.

It’s not always easy to know who and what James Sands is. He’s still trying to figure it out himself.

Headed into his fourth professional season, NYCFC’s first homegrown player is not your typical 19-year-old. He’s simple and he’s kind. He lives comfortably at home with his parents in Rye, where he enjoys the perks of youth (“I like saving my money”) and being close to the club’s training facility in Orangeburg (he likes the reverse commute). In conversation and on the field, he’s far more composed than most teenagers, which helps when coaches shuffle him around: whether he’s squeezed between the back line or lodged deep in midfield, the thing you notice about Sands is he looks like he belongs.

Now he wants to find his voice.

“A big focus for me is organizing the guys in front of me and being more of a vocal leader,” Sands told The Outfield recently. “That’s something I’ve always struggled with. But now that I think I’m a bit more established in the team, it’s something I can really focus on. Something like that just makes everyone’s life easier.”

Sands can come off as shy, but maybe he’s quiet because he’s busy learning. His goals for this season include improving tactically and working on his recovery to stay healthy after injuries interrupted a breakout 2019. He models his preparation on his teammate Maxime Chanot, watching the veteran center back’s movements and how he takes care of himself off the field. For craft, he idolizes the likes of Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte and Rodri—versatile, ball-playing defensive players who exemplify City Football Group’s possession style.

Like a lot of Pep Guardiola’s favorite players, Sands blurs the line between a defender and a midfielder. “I’m really happy that I’ve been able to play both because one helps you with the other,” he said. “By playing in the midfield, I think I have good feet as a center back. For a center back, I can cover ground like a No. 6. So I think I try to take the best of both worlds.”

It’s too soon to say which position will be his future. There’s a risk that if a transfer doesn’t materialize Sands could find himself NYCFC’s odd man out this season, scrounging minutes behind Chanot and Alexander Callens in defense and Alex Ring and Keaton Parks in midfield. But he’s used to staying flexible. In last week’s CONCACAF Champions League season opener, Sands slotted into new coach Ronny Deila’s 4-3-3 as a defensive midfielder, the position where he was groomed in NYCFC’s academy, but he’s also thrived at center back for the U.S. Youth National Team and under Deila’s predecessor, Dome Torrent.

It was Torrent who gave Sands his breakthrough last spring. The former NYCFC coach and longtime Guardiola assistant often spoke highly of the teenager, once going so far as to name Sands the first player he’d call if he were coaching in Europe. Torrent trusted Sands with 18 starts and 1,602 minutes in 2019, primarily as a center back, and might have given him more if a pair of freak injuries—a broken arm, then a broken collarbone—hadn’t kept Sands out for most of the second half of the season. Still, the performances drew accolades from pundits and MLS executives, and the buzz earned Sands a chance to train with Bundesliga club Fortuna Düsseldorf in November. 

Düsseldorf Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel told The Outfield that Sands is “an interesting player” who came recommended by multiple people, including at Manchester City. “He’s not the typical six-foot-three No. 4 like others. He’s a good player of the game and a very, very good No. 6 when he controls the game more or less in the midfield,” he said. 

Although Sands’ 5’11” frame would be small for a Bundesliga center back, Pfannenstiel explained, he’s well trained, with a good physique and good experience for his age. Pfannenstiel believes figuring out Sands’ long-term position will be an important step to establish him further. “We’ll definitely keep a look at him in the future and maybe take him over again for a few weeks,” he said.

For Sands, the trip was a chance to compare his skills to top-flight players in Germany, where he said he had to adjust to a quicker speed of play. It may also have been a preview of things to come. As Gio Reyna’s meteoric rise at Borussia Dortmund and Joe Scally’s sale to Mönchengladbach draw Europe’s attention to NYCFC’s academy, it seems likely that Sands could be the next to earn a move abroad.

“Personally, I think I’m close to that level, but there’s still lots of things I need to improve on,” he said. “That’s some of the stuff I’ll be focusing on this year.” ❧

Image: Sam Buxton, Inhale, Exhale

Does Gedion Zelalem Have Anything Left?

The world remembers the one-time Arsenal wunderkind. New York might be his last shot to prove it should.

Six years ago, Gedion Zelalem had the world at his feet—or so everyone thought.

A German-born American, Zelalem was being hailed as the next big thing not only in American soccer but in the world, too. At 16 he was already knocking on the door of Arsenal’s first team, the heir apparent to Cesc Fàbregas. Arsène Wenger was licking his lips at the prospect of Zelalem becoming a mainstay in his squad for years to come. “Remember the name,” blared The Guardian.

Zelalem had yet to play his first professional minute.

Fast forward the better part of a decade—through injuries, unsatisfying loan spells in lower leagues across Europe, and a grand total of four appearances for Arsenal—and Zelalem’s name is still remembered, just not how it was supposed to be. Last year, his star faded, he retreated to the United States only to wind up at Sporting Kansas City’s USL affiliate, Swope Park Rangers. In November his option was declined.

That’s how, two weeks shy of his twenty-third birthday, Zelalem arrived at New York City Football Club. In a move first reported by The Outfield‘s Christopher Jee, the former United States youth international is NYCFC’s first new player announced under coach Ronny Deila. The news comes on the eve of the club’s preseason in Florida, with games against Corinthians and Palmeiras scheduled this week and a CONCACAF Champions League tie looming next month.

But after all these years it’s fair to ask: Who is Gedion Zelalem—not the must-buy prodigy from Football Manager and FIFA, but the player he became—and what does NYCFC see in him?

The Pilkington Connection

Before he was supposed to solve Arsenal’s midfield problems, Zelalem had already bounced around a bit. He spent time at a few academies in Germany as a kid before his family packed their bags for the United States. Zelalem landed in Maryland and earned a spot with the pro-pipeline youth club Olney Rangers under coach Matt Pilkington, who now heads NYCFC’s U-19 team.

Pilkington’s Olney Rangers produced not only Zelalem but a whole pack of pros including future U.S. internationals in Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse and Minnesota United wingback Chase Gasper. In 2016 Pilkington joined NYCFC’s academy and soon took charge of the U-19s, coaching them to back-to-back national titles while training future first-teamers in James Sands, Justin Haak, and Tayvon Gray.

Pilkington has prepped players for the kind of leagues Zelalem was once expected to star in. He coached Gio Reyna, who’s currently flirting with Borussia Dortmund’s first team at 17, and oversaw the development of Joe Scally, who became NYCFC’s first player to achieve the academy-to-first-team-to-Europe trajectory when Borussia Monchengladbach signed a lucrative deal that will send him to Germany in 2021 for $2 million to $7 million, depending on performance incentives.

Like everyone else, Pilkington once drooled over Zelalem’s potential. “He dribbles like Iniesta and he passes like Xavi,” he said in 2014, not long after his brightest prospect moved to Arsenal. “I’ve thought like that for the past few years but I’ve been wary about saying it. I don’t worry now.”

Then things took a turn. Following a much-publicized courtship by USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann, Zelalem made the switch from German youth teams to the United States. Just 34 minutes into the first game of the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea, playing alongside Tyler Adams and Josh Sargent, Zelalem tore his ACL. The injury changed the trajectory of Zelalem’s career. It kept him off the field for more than a year, costing him vital development time and cementing his place on Arsenal’s U-23 squad, a has-been that never quite was.

How He Fits at NYCFC

With Keaton Parks returning to the midfield next to Alex Ring, new sporting director David Lee can afford to take a flyer on a creative, vaguely Parksish backup. Zelalem’s total compensation last season was $78,000, low enough for the reserve roster, where NYCFC will stash him in hopes of polishing him into a useful first-team player.

At first glance, there’s a timidness to the way Zelalem plays. He’s slick-footed and when given space he can create moving forward. You can tell he’s intelligent; there’s a clear idea with his passes. At the same time, there’s too often a sluggish, disinterested manner to his play, like a caricature of Mesut Özil minus the World Cup or any meaningful first-team minutes at a top-tier club.

There’s also the question of his position. Zelalem has variously been pegged as a box-to-box guy, an attacking mid (according to his former U.S. youth coach Tab Ramos), and even a defensive midfielder (according to himself). “Honestly, I don’t know what my best position is anymore,” Zelalem told MLS in 2019. “It’s either No. 6 or No. 8. … My ceiling is higher as a No. 6 if I get it right defensively.”

That complicates things a bit. NYCFC currently has a logjam of young players waiting behind Alex Ring. James Sands has been projected as a defensive midfielder by many who question whether he has the physicality to play center back beyond MLS. Justin Haak is being groomed for the same position, and Juan Pablo Torres is still trying to figure out how he can reclaim whatever spark got him a chance in Belgium two years ago.

In short, don’t expect Zelalem to start on opening day. He tallied a whopping nine appearances for Kansas City last year, with little to show for his 463 minutes. At Swope Park Rangers, he played 537 minutes across seven USL matches, scoring one goal. The most memorable part of his American club career so far might be his teammates refusing to pass to him.

At this point, Zelalem is a buy low (really low) prospect, but that won’t stop the American soccer community from dreaming. With his career in steady decline, there’s still a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, a reunion with Pilkington can help Zelalem rediscover the old magic. ❧

Image: Jasper Johns, White Flag

Colorado Preview: What We Talk About When We Talk about Jonathan Lewis

Revisiting a dream that never quite worked out.

Raymond Carver wrote about destroyed souls. His characters were beaten to disarray, stuck in unhappy places in their marriages, their careers, and usually themselves. Take Marge, the narrator of “The Bridle,” who spends her isolated days daydreaming of exotic places while managing an apartment building and working a side job as a not-so-busy hairstylist. One day she’s fixing the hair of a new tenant, Betty, who tells her about a long ago conversation with a high school guidance counselor:

“‘What dreams do you have?’ this woman asked me. ‘What goals have you set for yourself? What do you see yourself doing in ten years? Twenty years?’ … Now, if anybody asked me that question again, about my dreams and all, I’d tell them.”

“What would you tell them, honey?” I have her other hand now. But I’m not doing her nails. I’m just holding it, waiting to hear. …

She sighs and leans back. She lets me keep the hand. “I’d say, ‘Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from.’”

Raymond Carver, “The Bridle”

I think of that passage when I think about Jonathan Lewis’s struggles at NYCFC, his two years spent bridled on the bench, stuck like a Carver character in a world that was and wasn’t chosen for him.

It’s been more than two months now since the club traded Lewis to the Colorado Rapids, and so far it looks like a near-perfect deal for both teams. NYCFC received a boatload of Garber Bucks for a castaway, while the Rapids got another weapon for the Conor Casey quasi-revolution. And Lewis, who’s finally been given a chance to play, has produced enough to make you wonder.

With sports you always have to take a step back and look at things in retrospect. Since the trade, Lewis has scored three goals in just 354 minutes. He’s yet to play an entire match, but tonight he’ll likely set a new career high for starts and minutes played in a season. Fittingly, it’ll come against NYCFC.

Figuring out exactly where it went wrong with his old club remains complicated. Lewis passed the eye test whenever he took the field for NYCFC: his ability to run at defenders and create one-v-one chances was unlike any other winger in the squad. He was chaotic, which was entertaining against tired defenses. He made things happen. More than anything, he made you wonder how Rodney Wallace held down the left wing for nearly an entire season despite going goalless for 15 months.

Lewis’s youth and lack of playing time destined him to become a fan favorite in the Poku mold. His 0.77 expected goals and assists per 96 minutes last season were the highest tally in club history by a player not named David Villa, according to American Soccer Analysis, but those tantalizing 2018 numbers came on just 296 mostly substitute minutes; in his 234 minutes for NYCFC at the start of this season his xG+xA slid to a dismal 0.09.

The promising flashes weren’t enough to convince coaches and management. Patrick Vieira questioned his technical abilities, and just when it appeared that Lewis was about to break through Vieira jetted to Nice. Dome Torrent brought new opportunities, but despite pleasant early overtures, things quickly went sour. Lewis was banished to places beyond the bench, and had to broker his own USL loan to Louisville City FC to try and figure out how to defend the way Torrent wanted—and to show everyone else he really could play.

He showed enough to convince Gregg Berhalter, the new United States Men’s National Team coach, who’s given Lewis five caps already this year and a spot on the Gold Cup roster. But NYCFC’s response to the national team interest was muted. Claudio Reyna offered backhanded praise, commenting on Lewis’s maturity. Torrent infamously said he needed to do more than two great things a game, which sounded like a lot for a player getting limited minutes.

Like Marge and Betty, Lewis was stuck. And like in any Carver story, we never really got the full picture of why things didn’t work out. Even after Lewis escaped to Colorado, we were left to draw our own conclusions.

There may still be a happy ending to all this. Lewis’s open-play xG+xA per 96 has rebounded to a healthy 0.62 since the trade, placing him 14th in the league among players with at least as many minutes, just three slots below Carlos Vela. Now that the Gold Cup is over, he could see regular starts for the first time in his career. It’s an exciting time to be Jonathan Lewis.

As for NYCFC, they’ve moved on too. Dividing Lewis’s lack of minutes was easy enough. The new Scottish winger Gary Mackay-Steven was handed Lewis’s number 17 jersey, something that would’ve seemed unimaginable back when Lewis had Jack Harrison worrying about his starting spot. Mackay-Steven had a promising cameo at the end of the Red Bulls game last weekend, including a memorable stepover before slipping a tidy ball between Aaron Long and Michael Murillo to cue up a Héber shot.

With Ismael Tajouri-Shradi still out and Jesús Medina not showing much from the bench, Mackay-Steven could play a bigger role against Colorado tonight. The game will be a glimpse of things to come for NYCFC, but also of what might have been from a kid on the other team who’s just starting to wake up. ❧

Image: Bit and Bridle (Tibetan)