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

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”

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

Valentín Castellanos Is (Still) Better Than You Think

An appreciation of NYCFC’s 22-Under-22 forward.

Taty’s come a long way. In the uncertain summer of 2018, a 19-year-old Argentine named Valentín Castellanos showed up in New York a complete unknown, climbing the corporate ladder from City Football Group’s tiny Uruguayan club, Torque. At the time NYCFC fans worried—correctly—that he would steal minutes from Jonathan Lewis. What they didn’t know was how much he’d deserve them.

Yesterday, less than a year and a half after hitting the league, Castellanos was announced at number six on the annual MLS 22 Under 22 list. The only surprise was that it felt a little low. Number one on the list, Diego Rossi? Fewer goals and assists per 96 minutes than Taty this season. Number two, Ezequiel Barco? Playing for a lower Argentina National Team age group than Castellanos, who scored a hat trick in his debut for the U-23s last month. In a survey of MLS technical staffers, Castellanos was the only name that cropped up in the same conversations as Rossi, Barco, and Brian Rodríguez, the trio of high-profile South American prospects everyone expects to move to Europe for eight figures in the next year or two. Fans who once worried about Taty’s arrival now wonder how much longer NYCFC can hold onto him.

This year was a giant step in the development of the Argentine, who’s adapted to MLS better than anyone could have hoped, displaying improved strength and body control in his second season. While many young players struggle to adjust to the physical nature of the league, Castellanos seems to relish it, endearing himself to his fans (and pissing off everyone else’s) by throwing his body around with enough South American verve to get under opponents’ skin.

His physical maturation has gone hand in hand with a tireless workrate on both sides of the ball. Castellanos is a vital part of NYCFC’s high press, hounding backlines deep into the final minutes for a defense that allowed opponents to complete a league-low 78 passes per game from their own third. 

Taty’s linking play and hair-trigger shot helped him grow into the center forward role.

That energy carried over to the attack, where Dome Torrent praised Castellanos’ off-ball movement as fundamental to the way NYCFC distorts defensive shapes to create space in the final third. The fact that he could slot in at both center forward and winger made Dome’s life easier, as the offense looked its best on those too-rare occasions when Taty and Héber made the same eleven. But Taty could also hold down the striker spot on his own, and he proved it during a crucial September stretch that helped NYCFC cling to the top spot the East while Héber was hurt.

You want numbers? How about some fancy ones from American Soccer Analysis. Although Castellanos had the lowest touch percentage on the team at just 6.2%, buildups that flowed through him were incredibly efficient: he ranked seventh among MLS attackers in the percentage of his possession chains that ended in a shot (39.8%). Part of that was his much-improved hold-up play, but significant credit also goes to Castellanos’ skill at putting chances on frame without much time or space. Getting open play shots off at a rate of 3.0 per 96 minutes was good for seventh among MLS forwards, and Héber was the only NYCFC player who topped Taty’s 0.49 expected goals plus expected assists per 96 minutes. It’s not hard to look at the kid’s 11 goals and 6 (non-MLS) assists this season and still see room to grow.

22 Under 22? Definitely. But at this rate Castellanos won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday in New York City, so enjoy it while it lasts. ❧

Image: Marble torso of a boy

What Does NYCFC Have in Gary Mackay-Steven?

The Scottish winger had a solid first start, but is Mitri blocking the path to his best position?

NYCFC’s pair of summer transfer window newcomers made their first start for the club last Thursday evening against the Houston Fighting Tommy McNamaras, and while Eric Miller may still have a role to play this season as a backup fullback, it’s Scottish international Gary Mackay-Steven who’s expected to help the playoff push. But will he? After all, his stats in Scotland weren’t great last year, and it wasn’t obvious how a guy who likes to play as a wide winger would help a team that doesn’t typically employ any.

After cutting tape of Mackay-Steven’s every touch against Houston, I’ve got some good news: it looks like the Pigeons have added another potent offensive threat to their arsenal.

The Houston Game

Mackay-Steven started as a right winger in the 3-4-3, where he kept mostly to the sideline and cut inward on the ball to support the attack with his preferred left foot. Maybe the infield turf or lack of an offensive-minded right back on the overlap played a part, but he looked a bit uncomfortable playing on the right. The bright spots came from his off-ball movement, as GMS continuously made himself available in threatening spots, creating a number of chances. His best of the night came in the space behind a lead run by Jesús Medina, and the shot was headed for the back of the net if not for a desperation block by a Dynamo defender.

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Even when they weren’t the preferred option, Mackay-Steven’s trailing runs were neatly timed. Below, Rónald Matarrita sends a dangerous goalmouth cross that Héber should probably have put into the back of the net. But at the same time, GMS provides another dangerous option in the space behind the runners, where he finds an opening at the top of the box.

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But too many times GMS’s off-ball work just wasn’t recognized, with Medina often the culprit. In the clip below, as soon as Medina turns on the ball Mackay-Steven starts a diagonal run in behind Houston’s back line. There’s plenty of space to loft a ball in front of the keeper, but Medina hesitates and opts for a backpass instead.

Mackay-Steven’s game changed for the better not long after Taty Castellanos got subbed on at 58′, as Dome responded to Houston’s deep ten-man defense by flipping Alexandru Mitriţǎ to the right and GMS back to his more natural left winger spot.

“When I say play wide and when you arrive one-v-one and cross the ball, he tried to play in that way,” Dome Torrent said of Mackay-Steven after the game. Operating for about half an hour on the left side, GMS did just that, bombing up the wing and creating separation to launch dangerous balls into the box. He connected on six of six crosses from the left side after the switch, including three key passes.

Looking Ahead

Mackay-Steven’s wing play against Houston provided plenty of danger, but familiarity with teammates takes time, and Dome Torrent promised after the game that we’ve yet to see the best of his new winger. Moving forward, Torrent’s quandary will be how to best use GMS along with the other offensive weapons at his disposal. With the uncertainty surrounding Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, NYCFC’s top two choices at winger right now very well may be Mitriţǎ and Mackay-Steven. But both like to play on the left, even though they have differing tendencies. While GMS likes to stay wide and send left-footed crosses into the box, Mitri prefers to cut inside and shoot on his right.

Last Thursday, we saw Dome initially opt to have Mitri on the left and GMS on the right, each with instructions to cut in on his preferred foot. But the second half switch put Mitri on the right and Gary left as natural wingers, providing width and crossing the ball against a low ten-man block. This change was quite effective against the Dynamo, but is it something Dome will revisit? Was it just because there were no outside backs in that makeshift second-half formation to provide the width with overlapping runs? Or was it because Castellanos had taken the field and provided a target for crosses?

Trying to figure out how to arrange your winger talent is a good problem to have, and one Torrent will definitely tinker with from game to game (and in game, too). Whichever side he plays on, we’ll definitely be seeing more of GMS. ❧

Image: Hendrick ter Brugghen, Bagpipe Player

What Is James Sands?

Sizing up NYCFC’s versatile homegrown teenager.

James Sands is special. At 18, NYCFC’s first homegrown player has already laced up his boots with World Cup winners and marked Manchester United’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney into the ground. He’s talented at aerial duels, good on the tackle, and quick enough to cover opposition speedsters. Under pressure he’s composed, completing more than 86% of his typically short passes, and his ability to read opponents’ transitions gives him a dominant positional sense. There’s a reason NYCFC looks best when the Rye native is on the pitch.

On offense, Sands is a reliable cog in the middle, guiding the direction of the buildup and showing Pirlo-level calm receiving passes in his own defensive third. He’s not a one-v-one artist but he has a deft touch and positions his hips and plant foot well. And while he’s yet to show much of a goalscoring threat, final third production isn’t really his responsibility.

Still, there’s the nagging question that follows any positionally flexible young player: he’s great, but what exactly is he?

Position

Defensive Midfielder: This is Sands’ most transferable role, the position that, if he masters it, could make him a global hot commodity. He excels at a defensive mid’s bread and butter: tackling, intercepting passes, and playing short. But he doesn’t have the offensive output to become a box-to-box midfielder like his former teammate Frank Lampard. Ultimately, as Sands grows into his 5’11” frame, his ability to play this position may be decided for him, as any drop in speed could force him to shift to a role that suits his profile better.

Sands’ first MLS start, in September 2018, came as a defensive midfielder. (Credit: Knuckler)

Central Defender: Long term, this role suits Jimmy the best. It rewards his aerial ability, his knack for being in the right place at the right time, and his unnervingly calm short passing. Physically, he’s already shown he can handle most MLS strikers one on one in the box, an impressive feat for an 18-year-old. He’s been deployed as a right-sided center back for the youth national team and looks very comfortable in the center of NYCFC’s back three, where he should continue to get minutes as the club looks to develop its future spine. Center back is a position that rewards experience and skills honed by repetition, so for a young player already succeeding there the future looks rosy.

Sands has looked comfortable in the middle of NYCFC’s back three this spring.

Inside Fullback: Sure, this one’s a longshot, but it’s a possibility Sands and Dome Torrent have raised in the past. While fullbacks who tuck into midfield have become an important tactical wrinkle for Gregg Berhalter’s United States Men’s National Team, finding the right Americans to plug into the role has been difficult. Could Sands’ international future be at the position that’s lately been manned by Nick Lima and Tim Ream? His experience as both a defender and a midfielder puts him in the conversation, but playing as an inside fullback would limit his aerial usage and his distribution in all phases from the center of the field, where he’s thrived for club and country.

Outlook

Promising young hybrid defenders don’t always come good. Take Reece Oxford, who made waves as a 16-year-old wunderkind out of West Ham’s highly regarded academy (where he played under new NYCFC academy director Liam Manning). He was lauded for his positional flexibility, playing both defensive mid and center back at a high level thanks to his imposing physicality and ability on the ball. But after injuries, pressure, and a drop in form derailed his meteoric rise, Oxford landed on loan at FC Ausburg, where his ambiguous position is now considered a liability in his struggle for minutes. There are drawbacks to not committing early to mastering one position.

Still, if we’re talking possible futures for Sands-style hybrids, Oxford would be a pretty decent floor. And if you were to stand on the floor and look up, you’d see Bayern Munich’s stalwart Javi Martinez looking down from the Sistine Chapel ceiling of defensive versatility. The Spanish international can dominate as a lone defensive midfielder, in a double pivot, or—as he often did under Pep Guardiola—at center back. Like Sands, Martinez has great timing in his tackles, aerial prowess, and a strong short passing game. Perhaps Dome Torrent sees some of Martinez in Sands. After all, he did coach Martinez in Munich.

Sands’ best position is what he’s currently playing for Torrent, as a center back in a back three with the option to push into the midfield. His physicality is an asset on the defensive end, especially with the healthy weight he put on this winter, and his fearlessness distributing the ball allows his team to build from the back with confidence. If NYCFC sticks with the 3-4-3 long enough for Sands to find some stability in the role, his breakout season should continue to develop him for long-term success. ❧

Image: NASA, Mars Odyssey All Stars: Arabia Dunes

I Followed Héber’s Career in Croatia—Here’s What I Learned

NYCFC’s new striker spent the last three seasons in Croatia’s top flight. Journalist Ivan Žeželj writes about how it shaped Héber as a player.

By Ivan Žeželj

The last time I watched Héber play was in early December, the final game of the Croatian First Football League before winter break. It was a comfortable 3-0 win for his team, HNK Rijeka, with Héber himself contributing a brace. His first was a header from a free kick in the 13th minute. But the second goal was the one that will stick with the four thousand people in the stadium that day.

Rijeka were 2-0 up with 15 minutes to go. Héber got the ball on the left touchline, almost at the center stripe, with a defender closing on him. That’s the moment the Brazilian brought a touch of samba to the field. He wheeled around the defender with a slick turn and played a one-two with a teammate off a heel chop. Héber slipped behind the defense and into the box, where another Ronaldo chop bought him space to shoot. He took a moment to scan the keeper’s position, and—bang: a right-footed curler off the far post and into the net.

It was Héber’s last and, in my opinion, prettiest goal for Rijeka. It was also the last time he’d wear their famous white shirt.

If NYCFC fans need an introduction to their new striker, I’d point to this goal: this is the player you’ve got. But don’t stop at highlights. A little backstory and a deeper look at his profile and stats will help you get to know Héber Araujo dos Santos.

Year One: A Striker Becomes a Winger

The first time Héber first left Brazil on loan, it was already obvious that he was destined for bigger things than the Armenian Premier League. Playing as a center forward for Alashkert, he was the country’s top goalscorer in 2015–16, with 16 goals and 7 assists in 26 games.

He was ready to move up, and his break came with Croatia’s NK Slaven Belupo. At the time the club was coached by Željko Kopić, the rare Croatian manager who kept up with modern soccer: high pressing, building from the back, etc. His teams overachieved with mediocre players and were always a black cat to the bigger sides.

It was a pivotal move for Héber. As he later told me in an interview, it was Kopić’s decision to change his position that brought out his true potential. The coach needed a strong central striker and thought Héber would do the job, but he soon concluded the Brazilian was best deployed on the left side as an inverted winger, or “inside forward,” as guys in Football Manager call it.

Slaven Belupo’s mediocre squad required Héber to get more involved in the buildup, frequently dropping deep to receive the ball and distribute to his teammates. Kopić recognized his forward’s smart movement and gameplanned around his off-ball runs that created space for teammates to move into. Despite all the extra chores, Héber finished 2016–17 with 10 goals and 2 assists—not league-topping numbers, but good for a midtable side. It was enough to convince HNK Rijeka to buy the Brazilian for almost half a million euros, one of the highest fees in their history.

Year Two: A Versatile Goalscorer

When Héber arrived in the summer of 2017, Rijeka was coming off a domestic double under manager Matjaž Kek, having won the Croatian Cup to go with their first ever Croatian First Football League title. But their best striker would be scooped up by Dinamo Zagreb the following winter, forcing Kek to find a new goalscoring threat. The burden fell to the versatile Héber.

Unlike at Slaven Belupo, Rijeka had a quality team supporting the attack, so Kek revived the old center forward Héber for a couple games until the team could buy a prolific new striker, at which point the Brazilian returned to the left side. The only constant was Héber playing good soccer.

Héber’s touch map last season as an inverted left winger and occasional center forward.

I admit that the best I’ve seen him is at left inside forward, but he does show a nose for goal and a knack for capitalizing on his teammates’ coordinated movements. Of the 15 league goals he scored in 2017–18, 12 were first-time shots inside the box. He scored every 97 minutes that season—an impressive record for a player who lines up on the left, not as a central striker.

Unfortunately, Kek also trained his team like a madman, sometimes pushing Héber to play through muscle problems. Héber’s time in Croatia has been marred by a string of short-term injuries, which may have ultimately kept Rijeka from selling him for more.

Year Three: A Complete Attacker

Fast-forward to this year. Kek left Rijeka early in the season and was succeeded by Igor Bišćan, a young Croatian manager with a solid résumé. In Bišćan’s system Heber again became an important link in the buildup chain. Although he sat out 2019 as the club prepared for a transfer, Héber showed quality in the first half of the season. Nine goals in 15 appearances this season might not sound particularly amazing, but stats suggest he’s been playing some of the best soccer of his career.

Consider: he was Rijeka’s leading offensive contributor with 0.75 goals and 0.58 key passes per 90 minutes, putting him among the league leaders for both finishing and creating chances. Although his preferred foot is officially his right, he’s almost equally proficient with both, scoring five of his goals this season with his right, three with his left, and one header. And he’s devastatingly efficient, placing 61% of his shots on target and converting 29%.

I’ll try to illustrate Héber’s chance creation abilities. One of his strengths is acceleration and pace. In the clip below you can see how he manages to win an aerial duel and burst forward into the attack, beating an opponent to get the assist.

This is a typical Héber assist, but it’s not the only kind in his attacking arsenal. Below you can see how efficiently he handles a 2-v-3 situation where he’s providing support for his squad’s natural striker.

This season Héber completed 4.23 throughballs in the opposition box per 90, another stat where he placed among the league leaders. He attempted 4.98 dribbles per 90, an average number for a Croatian First Division attacker, but that’s due in part to Rijeka’s style, which wasn’t overly reliant on Héber.

What makes him complete is not ignoring defensive tasks. Both Kopić at Slaven Belupo and Kek at Rijeka emphasized defense first and attack second, and Héber got used to carrying his weight off the ball. His 2.63 interceptions per 90 this season were a solid contribution for an attack-minded player, and he’s never had a problem tracking back on the opponent’s fullback or winger or running deep into his own half for a tackle, clearly:

Héber’s versatility has been key to every European system he played in. He’s sometimes been used to play in low-block systems where his only chances came on the counter, but he’s also comfortable in a system geared toward breaking down a defensive block, where his playmaking ability and off-ball movement can shine. He’s shown quality in various positions, including left and right attacking mid and center forward. This is something managers appreciate a lot nowadays—having one player for various positions, systems, and gameplans (see: Guardiola, Pep).

Did New York City FC get themselves a prolific goalscoring center forward? I can’t say. But with the right system and players around him, I’ve seen firsthand that Héber can do great things. ❧

Image: mollsie, Rijeka, Croatia

Meet Six New NYCFC Players Who Are Not David Villa

They’re good at soccer. But they’re not David Villa. But they’re very good, really.

By Chris Campbell and Christopher Jee

After a 2018 that started so brightly and faded so alarmingly, and with midseason coaching arrival Dome Torrent hinting that he didn’t quite have the lineup to play his preferred style of soccer, the stage was set for this to be a busy winter window. David Villa’s departure cast a long shadow and the La Liga call-up of Yangel Herrera—whose injury absence coincided with NYCFC’s least inspiring spells in 2018, and whose late-season return gave us a tantalizing reminder of his impact—left the front office with holes to fill. Although the club teased big changes with a flurry of declined roster options early on, the first half of the offseason was nothing but anxious radio silence.

Then players came! Several of them! With less than two weeks to go before the season opener, some of the most glaring roster questions have been answered (yes, NYCFC splashed out on a third designated player; no, it wasn’t Chicharito), while new questions have taken their place, such as “How many center mids does it take to make a pretty pineapple?”

The winter of our discontent is almost over and while the sun of York (an English striker perhaps? any kind of striker, surely?) has yet to appear, here are some new names to consider for the back of your bepigeoned 2019 jersey.

Alexandru Mitriță

With fans demanding a major signing to replace Villa, NYCFC’s front office gambled big on the $8.5 million acquisition of Alexandru Mitriță, making him the third-most expensive designated player in MLS history. A quick, technical, 5’5″ attacker, Mitri has inevitably been dubbed the Romanian Messi, and was groomed by the legendary Gheorghe Hagi (himself styled the “Maradona of the Carpathians”). He comes to New York hot off a league-leading 12-goal start to the season at Romania’s Universitatea Craiova, a hero’s farewell, and an epic Valentine’s Day. So what should you expect from this lightweight but heavily tattooed newcomer?

To judge from highlights and a sparkling birthday goal in his NYCFC preseason debut, Mitriță looks deadliest cutting in from the left side, dropping deep to pick up the ball and running directly at goal, though his pace also makes him an option over the top when necessary. He shares Maxi Moralez’s surprising ability to use his frame to protect the ball under pressure from more imposing opponents, and his acceleration and low center of gravity help him to unsettle center backs and put powerful shots on frame. If you squint and turn the Eastern European dance music up loud enough, you can sort of see what Dome’s talking about when he compares his new DP to Philippe Coutinho.

With a conspicuous lack of dedicated strikers on the roster, expect the club’s biggest signing to bear much of the burden of replacing Villa’s goalscoring. Torrent has hinted that we could see Mitriţă feature in various positions across the front line. So far Mitri’s impressed teammates, although followers of Romanian football have warned NYCFC fans to watch out for attitude (he’s got more career yellow cards than assists) and adjustment problems as the 24-year-old settles into an unfamiliar environment, much farther from home than he’s ever played before. —Christopher Jee

Keaton “Keaton” Parks

When Yangel Herrera’s loan expired and he jetted off to Spanish basement-dwellers SD Huesca, he left a gaping hole in NYCFC’s midfield—one bigger than an Eloi Amagat or Tommy McNamara type could fill. Enter Keaton Parks.

The 21-year-old American arrives on a season-long loan from Benfica, the centerpiece of Claudio Reyna’s recent shift toward hoarding young domestic talent. Parks spent most of his first year and a half at the Portuguese powerhouse with the reserves, edged out by Champions League–caliber competition. He needed first team minutes somewhere, and NYCFC has plenty to spare.

A versatile, attack-minded midfielder, Keaton has shown some defensive bite—not like Herrera, but enough to give Alex Ring a little breathing room. His slippery pirouettes should help in possession, and already this preseason we’ve seen Parks drop into the buildup and make the first pass to initiate the offense, freeing Maxi Moralez to play higher up the pitch. It doesn’t hurt that he’s 6’4”, adding some welcome height on set pieces.

There’s justifiable excitement around what Parks can bring to NYCFC this season. But Benfica seems to have him in their long-term plans, so expect another Herrera-type loan situation here. —Chris Campbell

Juan Pablo Torres

NYCFC’s midfield hasn’t always been a fountain of youth: 29-year-old Andrew Jacobson, 33-year-old Eloi Amagat, 36 year-old Andoni Iraola, and 2,938-year-old Andrea Pirlo have all earned significant minutes in years past. The club looked to reverse that trend this offseason by acquiring 19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres from KSC Lokeren.

Torres only featured twice for Lokeren’s first team during his year and a half in Belgium, but he did help the USYNT earn a berth in the 2019 U-20 World Cup, scoring 4 goals in the process. Finding club playing time and national team exposure ahead of the tournament appears to have weighed heavily in Torres’ move. Nothing on his résumé really stands out, but he looks technically adept and tactically versatile, able to fill in at any of the midfield spots. Picking up a young domestic player for depth makes sense for NYCFC, who will look to use their international spots in more valuable places.

In the preseason Torres has been defensively capable and calm on the ball, able to pick out the appropriate short pass option. And look, the kid is only 19. He’s new to top flight play, new to New York City, and not yet old enough to order a pickleback. This is a depth signing, but one with a future. —CC

Tony Rocha

Forgive fans who found themselves slightly underwhelmed with the first move of the offseason: NYCFC picked up Tony Rocha from Orlando City in exchange for a token fourth-round pick in the 2019 MLS Superdraft. Despite his lack of name recognition, though, there’s reason to hope Rocha might be another shrewd bit of business from a front office that has made the most of overlooked, budget-friendly American talent like Ben Sweat and Sebastien Ibeagha.

Advanced stats aficionados will like that Rocha completed 5.8% more passes than expected in 2018, second among MLS midfielders to Ozzie Alonso. He endeared himself to Orlando with his versatility, seeing time at all three midfield spots, left back, and center back. New Yorkers still hoping to see glimmers of Pep Guardiola’s genius in Torrent’s tenure as head coach will have been encouraged by Rocha’s low-key stint as an inside fullback in the preseason friendly against AIK, where his clever run helped set up a goal:

While Reyna has called Rocha a player that the club has “had [its] eye on for quite a while,” only time will tell whether he emerges as the next Sweat. At any rate he’s cheap, experienced, and should give Torrent reliable depth and positional flexibility in the push for a more tactically fluid roster. —CJ

Justin Haak

In late January, NYCFC signed Justin Haak as its third homegrown player, signaling a continued commitment to the club’s championship-winning academy (and an eagerness to play up his East Village and Bushwick roots). Those who remember Haak’s rapturous debut in Mexico last winter, which brought tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Edinson Cavani, will be eager to see whether he can find minutes along with fellow homegrown James Sands in a stacked NYCFC midfield.

Ca-va-ni! (Image: @NYCFCFan)

With a USDA U-19 championship and a U-18 USYNT call-up under his belt, Haak’s future looks promising. He’s been called a “prototype 6,” although he says he likes to get forward to the final third. What little video is available shows a well-rounded skillset (according Alex Ring, Haak “has everything”) but suggests he’s far from the finished product. With plenty of midfield options ahead of him, no preseason appearances thus far, and no USL reserve team to accommodate him, Haak may get most of his minutes this year with NYCFC’s U-19s. —CJ

Luis Barraza

When the news dropped mid-Superdraft that NYCFC was moving $75k in allocation money, it had to be for 6’4” forward JJ Williams, right? No chance the club would trade up for a goalkeeper a year after drafting one in the first round, right?

Oh, you.

Bucking expectations, NYCFC selected Luis “Huicho” Barraza out of Marquette. He was coming off a Big East Goalkeeper of the Year season, so the first round wasn’t out of the question. But it was Barraza’s ability on the ball that had caught Reyna’s eye—and soon everyone else’s, when he showed it off barely 10 minutes into his preseason debut. He might be the goalkeeper most comfortable with the ball at his feet in NYCFC history, a big deal at a club that emphasizes playing out of the back.

Why did NYCFC burn first round picks on keepers in back-to-back Superdrafts, especially when Sean Johnson is already entrenched as the starter? In the 2018 draft, Reyna and Vieira didn’t see anyone who would provide value in the first round, so they took a flyer on a goalkeeper in Jeff Caldwell. But Caldwell hasn’t locked down a backup role and veteran Brad Stuver didn’t impress in his spot minutes last season. Given the unsettled depth chart and his stylistic fit, Huicho’s got a shot to compete for the number two slot on day one.

If you’re looking for a player comparison, Nick Rimando’s distribution and penalty-saving skills seem like a reasonable fit. Luis spent his academy years at Real Salt Lake, where Rimando has been manning the net for what seems like forever.

NYCFC has never won a U.S. Open Cup match, going 0-4 in its first four seasons. Look for Barraza to get his first chance to prove himself there this summer. In last year’s Big East Tournament, Barraza saved three penalty kicks, which would’ve been handy during the tiebreakers that have ended the Pigeons’ Open Cup hopes twice. —CC

Image: Almax, Volti di Uomo