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

Brad Sims is Ready to Talk

NYCFC’s CEO on transparency, ambition, and what he’s learned in a year on the job.

Of all the things New York City FC is known for, it’s safe to say openness and communication aren’t what your corporate exec types might call “top of mind.” Like a lot of soccer outlets, The Outfield’s occasional efforts to pull interesting quotes out of this club have felt like dental surgery with rusty pliers, and like a lot of soccer outlets those efforts have sometimes ended with us getting ghosted by NYCFC’s comms department.

So it was a pleasant surprise to eat bagels around a conference table in NYCFC’s office this morning while the club’s still newish CEO, Brad Sims, held forth to the usual local media suspects on the coming season. I’d braved Grand Central at rush hour because lately Sims has been making noise about communicating better with fans and media, and I wanted to sit down with him one-on-one to find out whether we’re really seeing the dawn of some kind of City Football Glasnost.

Our conversation is below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

You said in a recent Q&A that communicating more with fans was your New Year’s resolution, and true to your word we’ve seen more of that from the front office in the last month. Is this a new era of transparency from NYCFC? Why now?

So, first, yes. I’m excited about it. I really want to focus more on it going forward. I’ve been on the job twelve, thirteen months or so and I’ve heard about how things may have been in the past, but for me all I have to go on is the last year-plus. Looking back at the last year, I don’t feel like in 2019 I communicated as much as I should have or needed to with fans. I had some feedback about that and I think it was fair feedback, so that is something that is more of a focus.

I think that generally I was really hyperfocused internally, in our house, in 2019. And I still need to do that in 2020, there’s still work to be done, but I think it’s important to be more externally facing. Myself and then we’ve had—whether it’s our coach, our sporting director Dave Lee, and now Matt Goodman, coming on, has done a number of things. That’s a huge focus across the senior level of the organization going forward.

On Thursday night you told a reporter that “the reality going back five years” on the stadium was that “we can’t legally announce something until there’s contracts signed by all the parties.” On Friday the New York Times published a stadium story and by Saturday you were emailing fans to fill them in on the stadium situation. What happened to the legal obstacles in those 36 hours?

I think my intentions were to say, in most situations, we won’t announce things that aren’t signed. Two recent examples are the CCL venue and the Citi Field series. Going back to Citi Field, I heard some feedback from people saying, “Why are you announcing this now in December? This is a bait and switch.” Most people were very positive about it, but the people that were saying that—we literally did not have the discussions and plans until two weeks before. We were negotiating the contract. When we signed the contract with the Mets, we literally announced two hours later.

Is that a PR strategy or is that a legal obstacle?

No, so that—it’s two things. Sometimes it’s legal and sometimes it’s negotiating leverage.

So what changed on Friday, was that a negotiating leverage point or a legal obstacle that was cleared?

The primary thing was negotiation. One thing I said on Thursday night was that we were still exploring other opportunities, which is true, we were attempting a hail mary option at that point in time. And the other thing is there were some important deal points that we needed to have in that deal that at that point, on that night, had not been agreed upon, and we felt that if we said anything specific it would put us in a much worse position. The next morning we got to a point where things were negotiated to our satisfaction—well, relatively speaking—and from the time we signed a contract, within thirty minutes we had an announcement out there.

Have you been happy with the feedback that you got on that email?

On Saturday?

Yeah, what you sent out to fans this weekend.

On the stadium? Yeah, I probably had fifteen, twenty emails, LinkedIn messages, responses from fans that they were appreciative of it. Other feedback has been positive. Emails to our staff, social media, things like that, I think it’s been positive.

City Football Group has privately expressed concern that NYCFC’s stadium search could expose it to criticism for Abu Dhabi’s politics on, quote, “gay, wealth, women, Israel.” Has NYCFC’s ownership kept the club from being more transparent with its city and fans?

As it pertains to UAE, that’s not something I can comment on. I’m not familiar with that quote or anything that you said, and I’m not an official spokesperson for UAE. All I can talk about is NYCFC and my role, and from that standpoint, all I’ve seen from our organization here in New York and in Manchester and in other markets, I’ve seen nothing but incredible amounts of support and resources from our ownership group, from CFG, into local communities and City in the Community, our nonprofit group. It’s been unbelievable the amount of resources and support that they have put toward that.

Have they had any influence on the club’s lowkey media strategy on the stadium?

They’re not—really we drive all the decisionmaking here locally. We consult probably a little bit but none of our policies or business operations are top-down driven. I think that we utilize our CFG resources appropriately, because they’re great resources. We have talented people. Our global CMO in Manchester and our VP of Marketing here talk regularly, because our global CMO is really smart and has a ton of good ideas and resources and can be helpful. Same with all of our other departments. Sam [Cooke, NYCFC’s Head of Communications] has a similar relationship with the global Head of Comms; our head of finance with the global CFO; and Dave Lee, our sporting director, with the global Head of Football. They’re great resources for us, but ultimately decisions are made here in New York across the board, on business strategy and sporting.

Speaking of the sporting side, in its first season, NYCFC signed global superstars like David Villa for what it called “one of the most ambitious projects in MLS history.” Last year the club sank below the median MLS payroll. What happened to that ambitious project, and why should New Yorkers accept an uber-wealthy team settling for low-budget efficiency?

Well, I don’t know that we’re settling. We had the best record in the Eastern Conference last year. It was the best club we’ve ever had, the most goals we’ve ever scored, the first time we’ve qualified for the Champions League. So if that’s settling, bring it on, we’ll settle some more.

The reality is, I think we’ve gotten, as an organization, smarter, and have found better ways to team-build. That’s not anything I can take any credit for, but I think we have really smart people in our sporting department and great resources from CFG. That’s probably our biggest advantage against other MLS clubs: we’re finding players like Héber and Mitriță that no other club really knew existed, and they’re being every bit as impactful or more impactful than some aging big name star player.

It was a good season but the club lost in the first round of the playoffs. It could have been a historic season with somebody like Carlos Vela in Jesús Medina’s wasted DP slot. Why are you satisfied with good enough?

We’re not satisfied with good enough, and that’s why our ambition is to hoist a trophy this year. We have four opportunities to hoist trophies this year.

Can you do that when all three of your DPs aren’t on the field?

Sure. I mean, we could have done it—just because we didn’t have a third DP isn’t the reason why we lost a playoff game. The playoff system is a cruel system. It was a different system last year, the first time it’d been kind of a knockout round versus being two legs. Anything could happen. You could have players that get injured, you could have players that pick up a bad foul, you could have a bad call, you could have one bad 45 minutes, one bad one minute, and that could be the difference in a match. And it doesn’t mean that our roster construction was flawed.

I mean, one of your Designated Players, Jesús Medina, wasn’t even on the bench in the playoffs. That’s a problem, right, in MLS, when you only have three Designated Player slots?

Well, I think that ideally every player on the roster is playing at or above your expectations. You can make the same argument for player number nine, if they are way worse than every other team’s player number nine. I think that for us, ideally, you want to maximize every roster spot. There are challenges and complications around the rules in MLS. There’s the salary cap, and obviously like you pointed out there’s a number of DP slots. Ultimately we’re trying to construct the best roster we can, and we feel great about it.

After NYCFC finished first in the East, the founding sporting director and most successful coach in club history both quit, signaling problems in the organization. Why did Claudio Reyna and Dome Torrent leave, and what will NYCFC do differently to retain talent in the future?

I can’t speak for Claudio or Dome. You’re welcome to contact them and ask them.

What I can say specifically to Claudio’s situation is he’s got a great opportunity. He built this club. He was the first team member here and he built the sporting department from scratch. Those kind of opportunities, to start a club, or to build a stadium or arena—there’s certain transformational opportunities, in this industry, that don’t come along very often. Most people go their entire careers without being a part of them.

That’s something that’s attractive to me about this job. In prior jobs I’ve built stadiums and arenas. Starting a team from scratch, that’s one thing I haven’t done, personally, on the business side. I know people who have and it’s one of the most rewarding experiences that anyone can have in this industry. Claudio did it here and he’s got a chance to do it in Austin. Austin’s set up to be an amazing success, I think, from a business standpoint, and they’ve got a great person to run the sporting side.

So we’re—I don’t want to say happy for Claudio, because Claudio did a great job here, but we’re happy that he’s found a challenge that he’s excited about as his next career step. Having two of those projects in a career is something almost nobody on the sports side or the business side, regardless of the sport, I don’t know of anyone who’s started two teams from scratch. It’s an amazing opportunity.

And Dome leaving with no job lined up, that doesn’t worry you, that somebody would want to leave this club that badly?

Again, it’s just speculation from my standpoint. Personally I had a really good relationship with Dome. Dome had a number of challenges, I think, with the league and with other areas that were well documented. I’m not going to speak for him. But he’s done very well in his career, and he felt like he was ready for a change.

For us, what’s really important is having people who are really dedicated to the club and want to be here. I think that way whether it’s an entry-level ticket salesperson, a VP of Marketing, an academy coach, or a head coach. We want people who are dedicated to this club, who really want to be here and want to be a part of this. That wasn’t the case, for whatever reason, with Dome, but it is the case with Ronny [Deila].

I mean, Ronny couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of this organization. When we went through the coaching search, that was a key piece. There’s all these big names—people opine, like, go get this guy or go get this guy, but we didn’t want someone where this job was settling for them, or just a placeholder until they could get their next job. We wanted someone who really saw the opportunity here, saw the type of club we had, the type of team we had, how well positioned we were, and that wanted to be in New York, wanted to be in MLS, wanted to be at NYCFC and bring championships to us. That was super important.

So Ronny Deila’s happy to be here, possibly because he comes here from a team in the bottom half of the Norwegian league that got worse in three seasons under him. Why does NYCFC think he’s qualified to improve on Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent’s teams?

I would say a couple things. One is look at the full story. You can look at anyone’s career at any point—if you look at a salesperson’s last two weeks and they had a bad last two weeks and you say why should we keep that person on—

Last three years, though?

Well, he’s had a career that’s longer than three years, and he’s lifted lots of trophies. One of the things that’s important for us is someone who’s actually coached winning teams, has won trophies. That was important for our head coach and also our top assistant that we announced recently, Nick Cushing, from Man City Women. Again, same kind of great reputation with players, has lifted many trophies. We believe we have a team that’s ready to take that next step, so we wanted someone who has been a part of that, which Ronny has been many times and Nick has been many times.

Again, we want people that really want to be here and people that understand and want to play a similar style of play. That’s the core of the DNA of NYCFC—and City Football Group, for that matter—having people who have a strong familiarity with our system and our organization, which Ronny does, Nick obviously does, and Dome and Patrick did. We’ve found it’s been important to have people familiar with our organization and the way we play.

How many coaches were interviewed for that position?

Oh, our vetting process was unbelievable. I was in Manchester shortly after that process. We vetted hundreds of coaches and we interviewed many. I won’t give an exact number, but we interviewed many. Our shortlist was four or five after the initial round of interviews, the initial round of vetting based on lots of factors we felt were important. It took a while because it was a very thorough process.

All right, last question. You spent your first year at NYCFC on a “listening tour.” What did you learn about this club that you didn’t know when you took the job?

Good question. One thing I didn’t know was the level of passion of not only our biggest fans, but also our team members. A passion for the club but also growing the sport. I’ve spent 24 years now in the sports industry, been very fortunate to have spent my whole career in this industry. I’ve worked in baseball, basketball, hockey. Major leagues, minor leagues. I’ve been in the league office, I’ve been on the team side. This was my first foray into soccer, and that’s what stood out to me.

In addition to seeing NYCFC do well and win, I think people want to see the sport of soccer elevated and grown in this city and in this country. Our mission statement is building New York City into one of the soccer capitals of the world. I feel like we have that opportunity in New York City, the greatest city in the world, in a country where soccer is going on a very steep upward trajectory. We have an awesome opportunity and, quite frankly, really, responsibility. 

None of that was really on the top of my mind when I took the job. On the top of my mind when I took the job was: We’ve got to increase attendance. We’ve got to increase partnership revenue. We’ve got to, you know, connect with the fanbase. But it became pretty clear to me pretty early on that this is next level stuff. Which is really exciting and refreshing.

Now obviously passion can go the other way, too. And that’s going to mean that I’m going to be—me personally and our organization—criticized, and I get that, I appreciate it. I have thick skin, so I can deal with it. I don’t take things personally because ultimately I know it’s coming from a place of passion. Our fans love this club and they love this sport and they have high expectations. For me, it’s a great opportunity and responsibility to lift this whole thing to a place where everyone feels great about it. It’s not easy, it hasn’t been easy, it’s not going to be easy. But I like a good challenge, so I’m having a lot of fun. ❧

Image: Irving Penn, Mouth (for L’Oreal)