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.” ❧
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?
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. ❧
The stiffer-than-normal preseason competition at the Florida Cup, in the form of Brazilian titans Corinthians and Palmeiras, featured weird mascot antics and a halftime performance by a singer wearing a full winter jacket in mid-70s temperatures. All that would be interesting on its own, but the debut of new coach Ronny Deila was the real headline. With the relatively unknown Norwegian taking the touchline for the first time, supporters finally got some glimpse of an answer to the defining question of the preseason—what will Deila’s NYCFC look like?
Luckily for Deila, he inherits a roster with ample continuity. Last season’s starting XI returns in its entirety and, barring injury, that same lineup can be predicted in pen going into the season. That familiarity should make the transition all the easier to whatever new tactics Deila throws their way.
In the weekend action, following an initial academy runout against Corinthians, Palmeiras created chances with ease against NYCFC’s first-choice defense in the first half. But for the first team’s debut, we’re inclined to note this as a function of offseason rust rather than a symptom of larger tactical problems. Deila did not make any groundbreaking changes in defense, setting up his team in a 4-4-2 that looked quite similar to arrangements Dome Torrent flexed at times. Deila pushed the attacking midfielder forward alongside the center forward to address both Palmeiras center backs as they built out of the back, but geared down the press—possibly due to early preseason fitness in humid weather—from the high octane badgering NYCFC usually puts forth.
On the other side of the ball, Deila’s attacking philosophy seemed to fit his roster well. He took advantage of the wingers’ preference for inverted play by encouraging Alexandru Mitriță and Gary Mackay-Steven to cut onto their strong foot toward the central areas of the field. As the attacking group collected in the inside channels, it set up a natural interchangeability, where positional rotation and combination play could form organically. Whether that’s a happy coincidence or a managerial adaptation to the players at hand is anyone’s guess.
There was no better example on the attack than Andres Jasson, who replaced an injured Maxi Moralez early in the first half. Nominally playing as a central attacking midfielder–second striker hybrid, the 18-year old had the freedom to roam throughout the opposition half, regularly popping up on either wing or dropping in to collect possession. Jasson made the most of his opportunity, drifting out to the wing to beat his defender 1v1, with a sly hesitation, and whip in a perfectly placed cross to assist NYCFC’s only goal. The young squab, our 2019 Academy Player of the Year, displayed enticing energy and movement in a performance that left fans wondering if a homegrown contract was on the way, but ultimately a grassroots revolution may be needed to convince the Yale 2020 commit that an Ivy League education is overrated (an absolutely ironclad position that nobody can doubt).
The excitement from the youth ranks did not stop there. Fellow academy product Osaze De Rosario, son of MLS and Canadian legend Dwayne De Rosario, was on the other end of Jasson’s assist with a beautiful header. Seeing the teenager dunk on a Palmeiras center back was undoubtedly the highlight of the match, but De Rosario showed some hesitancy to get involved in the buildup to the extent we’d expect from a player like Heber or Taty Castellanos. This raises a question of how much this offensive system could improve with a center forward capable of dropping in to take advantage of the space created by his free-roaming teammates. An extra layer of fluidity could distort opposing backlines with a higher degree of efficiency than what we saw against Palmeiras and pave the way for outside-in runs from the wingers.
For attacking width, Deila relied on the fullbacks to get upfield on the flanks. Anton Tinnerholm and Ronald Mataritta (8th and 12th in xA/96, respectively, among MLS fullbacks) both have the skill set to thrive in this role, acting not only as a release valve when the defense compressed but also as an attacking threat up the wing.
The weight the fullbacks may have to carry stresses the importance of depth at those two positions. There’s stability at right back with Joe Scally, a player so promising that Borussia Monchengladbach invested in him based almost entirely on his academy and USYNT showings. However, with the return of Ben Sweat to his natural habitat, there is a concern on the left side of this equation if Tony Rocha slots in as Mataritta’s primary backup. Although Rocha is a useful player, his talents don’t line up with what Deila needs from the left back, at least based on our Florida Cup–sized sample. Rocha’s stability in possession, lack of pace, and inability to generate offense up the wing make him better suited to an inside left back role, supporting the attack from deeper positions, and likely necessitated the signing of Icelandic international Gudmundur Thórarinsson.
In central midfield, whether deploying a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, Deila clearly favors a double pivot. With Gedion Zelalem and Justin Haak putting in promising performances against Palmeiras, NYCFC must be quite really pleased with the depth available here. The pair replaced Keaton Parks and Alex Ring in the pivot as Deila made sweeping changes for the second half. Some struggle ensued with the youthful lineup, but Zelalam and Haak stood out for their composure on the ball and positional awareness, despite lacking some of Ring’s defensive bite. Add James Sands to the mix (who did everything on the day either perfectly or terribly), and the holding midfield looks strong moving forward.
The first two matches of preseason are far from the full sample needed to draw real conclusions, but we can reasonably predict that Deila is a double-pivot and hard-working winger enjoyer who may not set the whiteboards on fire tactically. And with the academy pressing into the depth chart, we’ll be watching closely as he moves the club closer to its first competitive action, later next month, in the CONCACAF Champions League. ❧
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. ❧
On July 30, 2018, a team led by the developer Maddd Equities met with the NYC Department of City Planning to lay out a neighborhood-wide vision for a stadium project near Yankee Stadium. The new stadium would be soccer-specific, home to New York City Football Club. NYCFC, City Football Group, the Yankees, and a host of construction companies, law firms, and lobbyists were already on board. They had a big-name architect. There were renderings.
The project that Maddd Equities pitched city planners in the summer of 2018 aligns with details that The New York Timesfirst reported a couple weeks before the meeting: a 26,000-seat soccer stadium anchoring a multibillion dollar development to include, according to the Times, “a park, a hotel and conference center focused on soccer and sports, shops, office space, a school and as many as 3,000 affordable apartments.” The newly obtained slides below show where many of those elements would fit into the proposal as it looked at the time.
The project’s July 2018 scope, revised from an earlier proposal dated March 30, 2018, stretched from parking lots north of the GAL Manufacturing elevator parts factory, where the stadium would sit, and continued nearly half a mile down River Avenue, where several blocks zoned for manufacturing were slated to be rezoned and developed for commercial and residential use. Those rezoning applications, which would trigger a long public planning process, have not yet been filed.
Sprinkled throughout the slide deck were tantalizing glimpses of the stadium itself: a partly covered rectangular structure with the corners lopped off to fit its peculiar triangular footprint.
These are not the first architectural renderings to emerge from NYCFC’s seven-year search for a home. They’re not even the first ones associated with Rafael Viñoly Architects, listed as “Stadium Architect” in the presentation. That firm, which keeps offices in New York, Manchester, and Abu Dhabi, has designed training facilities for Manchester City and NYCFC. Rafael Viñoly was also the architect listed for a $700 million NYCFC stadium proposal at Harlem River Yards, whose leaked renderings caused a stir last year before the club declared that it was “not an active site.”
But unlike Harlem River Yards, the GAL site is still very much in play. And while details may have changed since city planners saw those early sketches, recent lobbying filings and public records obtained by The Outfield show that NYCFC and its partners are still working to build a soccer stadium on the same site in the Bronx, right where the images show it.
The Public Records
On October 30, 2019, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute held a Technical Assistance Panel to discuss Bronx community development needs. The panel operated under the assumption that a stadium would be built on the GAL site, and the ideas presented at the TAP meeting bore similarities to Maddd Equities’ presentation, including an emphasis on affordable housing. Though the manager of the local Bronx community board, Paul Philps, noted at the meeting that no formal stadium proposal had crossed his desk, records show that the plan has continued to receive quiet attention from city government.
In an email obtained by The Outfield dated July 1, 2019, Nate Gray from the NYC Economic Development Corporation talked soccer stadium with David Quart of VHB, a planning, design, transportation, land development, and environmental firm. After rattling off traffic considerations, programming and uses, and local community partnership opportunities, Gray added, “Once you have had a chance to digest with the team, we should talk about a follow up meeting at the appropriate time.” Gray and Quart did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether “the team” referred to NYCFC or the project team.
Included as an attachment to that email was a map of the stadium development that identified a particular plot along the Harlem River as “GAL Manufacturing Relocation Site.”
Finding a new home for GAL Manufacturing has long been an obstacle to building an NYCFC stadium where the factory stands. Although Maddd Equities reportedly reached a binding agreement to secure the GAL property in 2018, a May 2019 email from Quart to the Department of City Planning made clear that GAL was still looking for the right relocation site, and that the city itself was involved in the relocation effort. That process may have been one cause for delay for the stadium project.
You won’t hear much about delays—or anything else—from NYCFC. A club spokesperson declined to speak on the record about GAL site stadium plans, referring The Outfield to the club’s routine statement that it “is actively pursuing a permanent home in NYC and exploring several options, including working with Maddd Equities in the Bronx.”
Behind the scenes, though, NYCFC’s partners have been meeting with city officials about specific details surrounding the development. Public filings show that the law firm Akerman LLP, which was listed as “Land Use Lead – ULURP” in Maddd Equities’ stadium presentation, focused its most recent lobbying for Maddd on “South Bronx Master Plan – Block 2490, Lot 1 in the Bronx.” Block 2490, Lot 1 is better known as 45 River Avenue, one of the underused parking garages at the heart of the stadium plan.
Since 2014, a client registered as “CFG Stadium Group, LLC” has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees to Martin Edelman, who sits on City Football Group’s board and signs his own lobbying registrations, and Geto & De Milly, whose website touts the company’s experience “handling public affairs for New York City’s newest Major League Soccer team, the New York City Football Club.”
On October 29, Edelman registered a brand new lobbyist for CFG Stadium Group: The Hayes Initiative, a PR firm that advertises its ability to handle “high pressure, politically sensitive, and confidential issues” as well as “making an announcement about a community improvement in your neighborhood.” Anthony Hayes, who signed the registration, did not immediately return a request for comment on the nature of his relationship with NYCFC.
Whatever its reasons, NYCFC’s silence around its stadium maneuvering seems to have caught on. On June 18, in the lead-up to the fall ULI TAP planning session, an employee at the Department of City Planning emailed a ULI representative. “How much of the briefing book and other materials will be made public? i.e. posted on a website or otherwise publicly available,” he asked. “We just wanted to see as the applicant’s stadium proposal is still at a sensitive stage.” ❧
Image: Development Conversation, NYC Department of City Planning, July 30, 2018
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.
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. ❧
New records show preparations for a soccer stadium near Yankee Stadium.
There’s smoke rising in the South Bronx, and it’s not coming from the Yankee Stadium smokestacks. Although a deal to build a soccer stadium next door to New York City Football Club’s current home has yet to be announced, a drumbeat of local activity—including records obtained by The Outfield—suggests the club’s days of playoff games at Citi Field may soon have an end in sight.
For more than a year, developers and officials in the Bronx have discussed the possibility of a soccer stadium just south of Yankee Stadium, on a site long targeted by NYCFC. New public records, lobbying disclosures, and an upcoming planning meeting show increasing preparations for a stadium development at the same subway stop where the club now plays.
The Return of the GAL Site
In May, an NYCFC fan named Alexander Schaefer noticed a mention of a “pending soccer stadium development” in the minutes of a general board meeting of Bronx Community Board 4. The community board oversees a section of the South Bronx around Yankee Stadium where NYCFC has sought a home of its own as far back as 2013.
But the latest stadium push was underway well before fans caught wind this spring. The plan appears in Community Board 4’s minutes as far back as October 2018, when a general meeting discussed a potential soccer stadium centered on a parking garage and adjacent properties at 153rd Street and River Avenue. In February 2019, a CB4 planning document for fiscal year 2020 noted “the potential development of a soccer stadium” among a number of developments that “underscore the critical need to develop the 153rd Street Bridge.”
If that address sounds familiar, it’s because NYCFC has been here before. The location—often referred to as the GAL site, after GAL Manufacturing Corporation, whose 100,000-square-foot factory occupies part of the proposed stadium footprint—has been one of the club’s targeted stadium sites since before its inaugural season. An earlier proposal there received outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blessing but fell apart in 2014 after parties failed to come to terms.
The map above outlines properties that could be part of a stadium development at the GAL site. In 2018, the developer Maddd Equities announced a binding agreement to buy GAL’s central parcel with the goal of developing an NYCFC stadium and affordable housing there. The New York City Parks Department owns the triangular property to the east, between 153rd Street and River Avenue, where the parking garages mentioned in Bronx Community Board 4’s meeting minutes have suffered from financial problems. According to public records, other properties outlined in red are owned by BTM Management and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
When Maddd Equities announced its agreement with GAL last summer, NYCFC would confirm only that the proposed development was one of “several options” the club was pursuing. But as planning activity around the GAL site increases, that search appears to be narrowing.
“You’ll Hear it From Me First”
New York City Councilwoman Diana Ayala, whose district includes the GAL site, has publicly downplayed plans for a stadium there. At a May meeting of Bronx Community Board 4, Ayala described the 153rd Street location as just one of three NYCFC was considering in the Bronx and Queens, though she acknowledged that the club appeared to prefer the GAL site.
Ayala assured community board meeting attendees in May that if there was news about a stadium development in their neighborhood, they would hear it from her first. Her office did not respond to recent requests for comment.
Through a public records request filed with Ayala’s city council district, The Outfield learned that Ayala has been discussing Bronx soccer stadium plans since February 2018. In October 2018 she met with a group including Cary Goodman, the executive director of 161 Street Business Improvement District, to navigate community concerns around a plan to combine a soccer stadium with affordable housing and retail developments. Though details of the plan were not yet fleshed out at the time, the named developer was Jorge Madruga, the founder of Maddd Equities.
Following Goodman’s meeting with Ayala, he requested a report from the city’s Independent Budget Office on Ayala’s behalf to assess the prospective impact of a new stadium in the area. Last week, Goodman’s 161 Street Business Improvement District published the results of a survey of local businesses’ attitudes toward a soccer stadium development. According to survey highlights Goodman provided to The Outfield, 67% of respondents said that a stadium was “a good idea” and 36% would like it to be paired with affordable housing, as Maddd Equities has proposed.
At the May community board meeting, Ayala told The Outfield that if Maddd Equities and NYCFC presented a stadium proposal, she “would be happy to hear them out.” She said she knew Madruga’s company by reputation as a good developer that “gets communities,” citing its affordable housing plans.
A public records request returned emails and meeting invitations from January 2019 between Ayala and Charles Samboy, a Bronx representative of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, with the subject line “MADDD Equities – Soccer.” Neither Samboy nor Ayala responded to requests for comment on the content of the meetings.
The Bronx Lobbying Shift
As recently as 2018, NYCFC still appeared intent on pursuing a stadium deal in Queens. New York City records from last year show the club’s lobbyists, Martin Edelman and Geto & de Milly, targeting Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who in 2017 called the possibility of a soccer stadium at Willets Point “very realistic.”
This year, NYCFC abruptly shifted its lobbying efforts to target Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. on the subject of “issues in connection with [a] proposed sports facility.” Diaz was an early proponent of a Bronx soccer stadium and in 2013 wrote a public letter to Don Garber urging MLS to build a home for NYCFC in the borough.
Maddd Equities may have begun its own stadium lobbying push even earlier, around the time it announced its deal with GAL in July 2018. Records from that period show that Maddd brought in two new lobbyists to target officials on the subject of “Affordable Housing and Associated Real Estate in the Bronx.” One of the developer’s new representatives was Stanley K. Schlein, a “heavyweight” longtime lobbyist for the New York Yankees who lobbied Diaz regarding a soccer stadium on the Yankees’ behalf in 2014. (The Yankees are a part owner of NYCFC.)
During the most recent lobbying reporting period of 2019, Maddd Equities paid Tonio Burgos & Associates $20,000 to lobby on the insignificant-sounding subject of an “update of the East 153rd Street ramp.”
One of the most frequent targets of Maddd’s 2018 lobbying efforts was James Patchett, the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. In response to a request by The Outfield for records involving a potential soccer stadium in the South Bronx, NYCEDC withheld documents on grounds that their disclosure “would impair present or imminent contract awards.” The corporation did not describe the contracts.
Stadium Planning Goes Public
This week, stadium planning around the GAL site will receive its most public airing yet at an event conducted by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute. Earlier this year, ULI approached the Bronx Department of City Planning to offer “technical assistance panels” on land use challenges. The department “thought immediately of CB4’s interest in planning work around the Yankee garages/proposed soccer stadium area,” according to a March 13 email from DCP Bronx Borough Director Carol Samol to Paul Philps, the district manager for Bronx Community Board 4.
The technical assistance panel will be a two-day event, starting with a tour of the GAL site and stakeholder interviews on Tuesday, followed by a public meeting on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at 1501 Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, where the panel will present its findings.
Among the panelists is Neil MacOmish of the architecture firm Scott Brownrigg, which released a statement touting MacOmish’s background in sports stadiums and his selection as a panelist “to inform the design and lead the community engagement of the new soccer stadium in New York City.”
“We think ULI would bring a good neutral voice to planning work in the area,” Samol wrote to Philps in her email, “especially as the project becomes more real.” ❧
A conversation with Kieran Doyle, Assistant Coach and Data Analyst, Women’s Soccer, University of Toronto.
Dummy Run: Kudos to the club you follow, Toronto FC, which took its sweet time but eventually found the firehose and blew away D.C. United in extra time, 5-1, to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They’ll face NYCFC in Queens on Wednesday night.
This was not unexpected! Nobody in the league had a stronger homestretch than Toronto, who clawed their way up from the playoff line to a four seed by closing out the regular season on a 10-game unbeaten streak, matched by a sharp upswing in their underlying numbers. (Although as Kevin Minkus at American Soccer Analysis pointed out, the contrast with their summer low probably had something to do with losing key players to international tournaments.)
So maybe a good place for us to start is: how did TFC turn it around? Has Greg Vanney finally fixed whatever’s been ailing this team ever since their 2017 MLS Cup title gave way to a year and a half of mediocrity? Just how nervous should NYCFC fans be about catching this team in the playoffs?
Kieran Doyle: I guess the best answer so far is that they probably haven’t turned it around … yet. Omar Gonzalez made a big difference to this team, as well as Marky Delgado picking up a lot of midfield slack to let Pozuelo be a little bit more free. Richie Laryea has also become the second coming of Dani Alves, but Toronto as a whole is still not as convincing as they could be.
Like you said, TFC didn’t sail smoothly in last weekend’s quarterfinal against D.C. until extra time. The xG was pretty even during regular time, but Quentin Westberg made some huge saves and Bill Hamid didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.
In terms of how nervous NYCFC should be, I’d say the answer is very. TFC has historically been excellent at Yankee Stadium, and even though they’ve been very up and down this year, their up is one of the top three teams in the league. From a Toronto perspective, how much trouble is Michael Bradley in if he’s sitting on his own?
Dummy Run: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about how TFC is a uniquely tough matchup for NYCFC, by which I assume people mean they’re uniquely good at playing this team during weeks when Jesús Medina and Ben Sweat are in the starting lineup and Maxi Moralez and Héber are not (twice this year!). But it’s also true that Toronto’s lineup when these teams met in the Bronx last month looked pretty different from the one they played against D.C. in the first round, so I’m reluctant to suggest the regular season can tell us much of anything about what to expect Wednesday night.
There’s no doubt that Vanney’s team has both the payroll and the talent to be one of the best in the league on a good day (and NYCFC had the misfortune to catch them on a very good day for that 4-0 spanking back in March). What we know will carry over from the September pass network above is that Alejandro Pozuelo’s wallet will continue to be the one that says Bad Motherfucker on it and Michael Bradley will be his trusty Vince. The Outfield’s Kevin Nelson suggested in last week’s playoff preview that Dome’s best bet might be to cut off Toronto’s offense at the base by manmarking Bradley out of the game, and given how easy the Canadian National Team made that look last week (in Toronto, no less) I’m inclined to agree.
Problem is, sitting back and shadowing the opponent’s six isn’t NYCFC’s style. They’re one of the league’s most aggressive pressing teams by any metric, which means that when the forwards jump a press trigger it falls on the midfielders to step up a line. And Keaton Parks, for all his sexy sangfroid on the ball, is not the guy whose tackling ability you want to pin your playoff hopes on.
On the other hand, with Maxi back in the squad NYCFC should look like a different team in possession, and defense isn’t exactly Toronto’s forte: they were shockingly easy to pass through this season and middle of the pack for goals allowed. They are—no offense—a little Berhalterish in their insistence that it’s possible to play possession soccer without an aggressive press to back it up. Why does Vanney prefer to defend that way? If you were tasked with breaking down this team’s defensive block, as the, uh, hosts will probably spend most of their time doing at Citi Field, where would you probe for weak spots?
Kieran Doyle: I think Vanney’s defensive choices come down to personnel up front. When you’re looking at a striker group of Jozy Altidore, Jordan Hamilton (before he left for Columbus), and now Patrick Mullins, you aren’t going to see a whole tonne [This is too cute to convert to house style. —Ed.] of pressing from the front. While all of those guys do a great job of getting shots in good areas (an area of particular focus this year thanks to the analytics department), they’re extreme minus defenders. Combine that with Bradley’s waning mobility and it becomes very difficult to press at all.
But Jozy Altidore is half-fit at best heading into Wednesday night, and TFC’s attack was on point with Pozuelo floating freely as a striker against D.C. Putting Pozuelo up top gives you a lot more mobility, and Delgado and Jonathan Osorio reverted to the shuttling roles they played in 2017, when TFC’s press was significantly more dynamic. Add in TAM winger Nicolas Benezet and Tsubasa Endoh as ultra-mobile wide attacking midfielders and you get whatever that D.C. match was. TFC were much more active defensively in the opposition half than normal, but you still saw moments when the press was broken and Bradley was forced to gamble.
Herein lies the hope for NYCFC: while they may not be a particularly transition-y team, if they can play deep and draw Osorio and Delgado too far forward, it becomes really attractive to catch TFC off balance through your wingers. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Dome is Pep Lite, but that’s something Guardiola’s teams have always been devilishly good at. Bait the overcommitment in the press and all of a sudden it’s Messi-Pedro-Henry or Ribery-Lewandowski-Robben or Sane-Agüero-Sterling running three-on-two with no defensive midfielder in sight.
My guess is Toronto will line up the same way, maybe with Gonzalez or Laryea returning for Laurent Ciman and Auro respectively. But Vanney is no stranger to tactical curve balls, especially for knockout matches. Don’t be shocked if they swap to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 to match up with the NYCFC wingers straight up (which scares the life out of me).
Dummy Run: They wouldn’t be the first opponent to switch to three at the back to mirror NYCFC’s shape (and they’ve certainly got more experience with it than, say, the Galaxy did). But I think Dome’s actually more Guardiolaish than Guardiola when it comes to those fast breaks you just described: his team loves a slow juego de posición buildup but goes direct once they cross the halfway line. The idea is you still control the ball and the tempo and get to pick your moments, but you arrive rapidly enough to catch the opponent’s defense off balance.
Or maybe it’s simpler than that: playing most of the season without wide wingers has basically forced NYCFC to play quickly in the attacking half, since they don’t have that safe outlet on the touchline that can buy the attack time to move forward as a unit. However they arrived at the style, it’s been effective, and it’ll be particularly dangerous if Alexandru Mitriţă can carry his recent form into the playoffs.
A lot of what I just said assumes that NYCFC will play the three-back system that saw them through some of their best stretches this season, but the truth is that with James Sands still working his way back to full fitness it’s possible Dome will decide to roll with the 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 he preferred toward the end of the regular season, sacrificing that third-CB anchor to get more of his talented attackers on the field at once.
Sounds like the big takeaway here is that it’s hard to know what to expect from either coach. So here’s my closing question for you: What does Toronto’s absolute best-case scenario look like for how this game might play out, and what’s the competing timeline where NYCFC just totally steamrolls them?
Kieran Doyle: I think the worst case is TFC rolls out a throwback performance from those mediocre 18 months and gets evaporated by a very good NYCFC team. Something like Ciman, Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta in a back three; USMNT Michael Bradley instead of MLS Michael Bradley; slow, plodding possession for Toronto; and transition after transition for NYCFC. In other words, a reverse of the 5-0 game at Yankee Stadium a few years back. (Conversely if Osorio and Delgado don’t cover the kind of ground they have recently to snuff out transitions, we could see Mitri running one-on-one against Ciman like a re-run of the Omar Browne debacle.)
If TFC come out and really zip the ball about and play with the tempo they have in the past 11 matches, it’s hard to see how they don’t advance. The best case looks something like lots of broken NYCFC presses and Pozuelo and company getting a free run at Sean Johnson through a scrambling back line, especially if Keaton Parks and Alex Ring are off their game.
Ultimately I think a lot of how this game will go comes down to who’s crisper in possession. If Toronto is slow, predictable, and negative, we’re in trouble. But if Bradley is breaking lines and stretching the field, it will become very difficult for NYCFC to find their rhythm on the ball. For New York City, if they can draw Toronto out then break quickly, game over. If they’re off their best and Marky Delgado gets to run around and kick people high up the field, they’re going to have a bad time.
Stylistically, I think this will be the most fun playoff match of the round. Two teams who do similar things in possession, who are absolutely going to punch each other in the mouth. All the best! ❧
Three games. That’s it. Thanks to a first-round bye in the new single-leg playoff format, NYCFC only have three games of soccer standing between them and the club’s first MLS Cup. Here are the most likely opponents they could face along the way (with a lot of conditional statements sprinkled in to keep from jinxing anything).
Eastern Conference Semifinals, Oct. 23
Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: Toronto (75%), D.C. (25%)
Red hot Toronto FC enters the playoffs as the favorite to face NYCFC in the conference semifinals, thanks to a league-best 12 points over the final six matches. Greg Vanney’s tactics are unpredictable—he’s used 10 starting formations this season—but Toronto’s homestretch suggests a 4-2-3-1 has become the preferred shape. They’re a team that looks to control the ball, ranking in the top five for possession both home and away, with a cautious buildup that’s toward the bottom of the league for average vertical distance per pass.
There are two key players in Toronto’s midfield. At the base is Michael Bradley, whose 80.2 passes per 96 minutes were second only to LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta this season. Bradley aims to channel possession in the direction of MLS newcomer of the year candidate Alejandro Pozuelo, whose early season hat trick against NYCFC still causes residual eye twitching among fans. The team is at its most dangerous when Vanney lets Pozuelo roam free in a central attacking mid role, where he’s put up some of the best shot-creating stats in the league. NYCFC’s defensive unit will have a tough task tracking Pozuelo without getting pulled out of shape; Dome Torrent’s best bet may be to man-mark Bradley in hopes of cutting Toronto’s offense off at the source.
All D.C. United needed to do to hang onto home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs was beat a nine-man FC Cincinnati. That they didn’t should tell you all you need to know about how to feel if NYCFC is lucky enough to get them in the semis. D.C. scrapes by on defensive heroics but constantly feels like less than the sum of its parts; there’s not much to suggest a long playoff run from a team that finished in the bottom four in the league for expected goal differential. If they meet NYCFC at Citi Field, expect the hosts to dominate possession while Ben Olsen’s team sits deep and hopes for Lucho Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Wayne Rooney to pull something out on the counter.
Eastern Conference Finals, Oct. 30
Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: Atlanta (54%), Philadelphia (28%), Red Bulls (11%), New England (6%)
If the Pigeons manage to take care of business in the semis, chances are they’ll meet the team that knocked them out last year, Atlanta United, in the Eastern Conference finals. NYCFC’s recent 4-1 drubbing of the reigning champs should give them some confidence, but both teams will look dramatically different than they did a few weeks ago (even if Frank de Boer’s tactics probably won’t). For one thing, Josef Martínez will be back—a name that speaks for itself. And Atlanta should also have Julian Gressel and Justin Meram returning to their all-important outside back roles, where they’re two of the league’s top three at the position for open play expected goals plus assists per 96 minutes.
With Anton Tinnerholm healthy again, it’s fair to question how NYCFC’s back line will handle de Boer’s wingbacks without Sebastien Ibeagha at right back this time—a sentence no one ever thought would be written. The matchup should come down to which side can attack behind the other’s outside backs, although a USMNT-camp injury to Miles Robinson may force de Boer to reconfigure his team.
Also returning to full strength are the Philadelphia Union, Atlanta’s stiffest competition for a finals berth, with striker Kacper Przybylko and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya looking set for their playoff opener. The conduit to Jim Curtin’s attack is Haris Medunjanin, an incisive deep lying playmaker (first among defensive midfielders with 8.3 progressive passes per 96 minutes) whose ability to play accurate balls behind the fullbacks has rattled NYCFC’s defense more than once this season.
Drawing the New York Red Bulls or New England Revolution would be a stroke of luck for NYCFC. Yes, playoff derbies are nuts, but New York has never been bluer and Dome Torrent should be familiar with what to expect from Chris Armas by now. Like the Red Bulls, Bruce Arena’s Revs play aggressively direct soccer, playing fewer and longer passes than just about any team in the league. But NYCFC’s increasing ability to bypass pressure with diagonals from the central defenders has helped mitigate the risks of playing out of the back and better prepared them for hard-pressing opponents like these.
MLS Cup, November 10
Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: LAFC (71%), Seattle (11%), Real Salt Lake (7%), Minnesota (4%), Portland (3%), L.A. Galaxy (3%), Dallas (3%)
If this speedrun gets all the way to the MLS Cup, the likely final boss is LAFC. Bob Bradley’s team is a juggernaut in every way and has a real case for being the best team the league’s ever seen. It’s hard to find flaws in a squad that embarrassed all competition with a goal differential of +48, more than double NYCFC’s second-place total. Their 4-3-3 knifes straight through opposing defenses, moving the ball through the central third a league-high 35% of the time. If you need another sign of how good LAFC is, before a minute of playoff soccer has been played bookies are already giving them coin-flip odds to win the trophy.
Carlos Vela has had an otherworldly season, setting a new MLS record for nonpenalty goals, but Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, and Diego Rossi are all up there with him in the league’s top four for expected goal chain per 96 minutes. Potentially losing Kaye, who suffered a hamstring injury against the USMNT this week, would be a significant blow to LAFC’s midfield but probably wouldn’t change many gamblers’ minds. This team has shown it’s deep enough to cope with absences: when striker Adama Diomande missed the end of the season, Bradley casually slotted his new 19-year-old Uruguayan designated player Brian Rodríguez into the attack.
It’s unfortunate that NYCFC fielded its best team ever during the same season that LAFC became MLS’s version of the Monstars. (There’s always a chance the Supporters’ Shield winners won’t make it to the cup game, but there’s also a reason why we’re not bothering to cover any other team from the Western Conference here.) Could NYCFC pull off a historic upset? Sure, but it’d be just that—historic. Let’s hope that didn’t jinx anything. ❧
A jumbo mailbag on NYCFC’s playoff prospects, season-end awards, next year’s CCL, and … pigeons carrying pineapples?
We asked for mailbag questions. You gave them to us. And since we’re still feeling good about that number one seed and you’ve got a whole first round bye week to read this, The Outfield staff decided to answer Every. Single. Question. The one about our best playoff eleven. The one about who takes a penalty kick with the MLS Cup on the line. The ones about … you know what, honestly, who can say what some of these questions are about. Y’all are weird.
Playoffs, Baby, Playoffs!
Should we be worried about the team having all that time off? And are we all Twins fans now? —Björn Bellenbaum
Yes and no. There are justified concerns that not playing a real match for 17 days might hurt the great form NYCFC has developed over the final stretch of the season. I was hoping that the club would set up a friendly with a USL or Canadian Premier League team for next week to keep the players in rhythm, but with no indication that’ll happen, we may have to settle for intra-squad scrimmages to keep everyone on their A-game.
That said, the time off is looking like more blessing than curse after Héber and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi picked up knocks last weekend. If we all cross our fingers and pray to the god of soft tissue recovery, this break could be just enough to get these two back for the conference semifinals.
And we are Twins fans no longer: they have failed us in spectacular fashion and now our allegiance must shift to the Astros or Rays. Let’s just get behind Houston, actually, since they have a much better chance of beating New York (sorry, Yankees fans, but this website has priorities). Either way, except in the unlikely event that the Yankees lose in the American League Championship Series in four or five games, we’re about to endure the saddest reminder yet that NYCFC doesn’t have its own stadium. —Kevin Nelson
Do you think the bye can actually end up being detrimental because our players will be out of form come their first playoff game? —NycfcFanatic
Like Kevin, put me down for yes and no. I’ve never put much stock in these types of things. If NYCFC loses its first playoff game, the knee-jerk explanation will be that players were rusty. If they win, we’ll say it was because they were well-rested. But this is really a player-by-player thing. Some guys may need the rest, some may need to compete a bit more to stay in form. It’s up to Dome to figure out who needs what.
The bye can be quite an advantage in other ways, however. The winner of Toronto vs. DC United could pick up a red card or lose players to injury. And our potential conference finals opponents on the bottom half of the bracket could lose a player to yellow card accumulation by the third round, whereas NYCFC cannot. —Chris Campbell
What’s the appropriate formula for determining the differences in results probability between playing a playoff game at Yankee Stadium vs. Citi Field? —JayH
For the 2019 season, Citi Field has actually been more favorable for offenses compared to Yankee Stadium. The ballparks are both in the bottom 5 for Ball Park Factor, a stat that compares home and away run-scoring differences in The MLB. So you should bet the under.
Oh, did you mean soccer? —NYCFC Tactics
How does your ideal NYCFC starting eleven compare to the average starting eleven for playoff teams, on a position for position basis? —LionNYC
Everyone knows this NYCFC squad is stacked—I don’t think a single position in the starting eleven is below average for the 14 playoff teams. That’s a testament to how efficiently Claudio Reyna has shifted the team’s budget down the roster, spreading it across a wealth of talented TAM players: only four playoff teams spent less on player salaries this season and only one distributed its salaries more evenly. Just imagine how scary this team would be if Jesús Medina still played professional soccer. —Dummy Run
What’s the ideal lineup and formation for this Audi Cup run? Does that change depending on who we face? How so? —jpena212
If you’re the kind of fan who obsessively watches pre- and post-match content for clues about what to expect from NYCFC—and who am I kidding, you read The Outfield—then you’ve probably heard Dome respond to reporters approximately 68 times now about picking his team based on the opposition, the performance “in the facility,” and the feeling he has before a match.
You’re also probably aware that Dome is a fan of keeping opponents on their toes, and as the season’s gone on we’ve been treated to a whole fruit basket of formations, from 3-4-2-1 to 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-2-2-2 to 4-2-4, often within the same match, based on the state of the game, the condition of the players, and probably whatever Dome had for lunch that day.
Call this response a cop-out, but I’d expect to see whichever set of players allows for the most tactical fluidity. Part of the joy this season has been that trying to guess what shape the list of names in any given lineup will take has become futile, almost irrelevant. We’re as much in the dark as opposition coaches are! Which augurs well for a deep playoff run and maybe even silverware. —Christopher Jee
We’re going to penalty kicks in the playoffs. Everyone is healthy. What’s your order of takers, from 1-11?—LionNYC
Here’s the thing about penalty kicks: they’re such a rare and arbitrary event that it’s extremely hard to know who’s good at them, to the point that the best answer to this question is probably “Whoever feels good about taking one.” (Except for Maxi. Maxi should definitely not feel good about taking one.) —Dummy Run
Who are our best and worst matchups for the MLS Cup playoffs? —ubersloth
NYCFC’s only boogeyman this playoff run is LAFC. The Western Conference Champions are formidable: they’ve got the Supporters’ Shield, the Coach of the Year, the MVP, and the best point total, goal differential, and expected goal differential in league history. Compared to that, the East looks easy. [Disclaimer: The Outfield is not responsible for any bad playoff juju accruing from our writers’ hubris. —Ed.] —NYCFC Tactics
End of BEST NYCFC SEASON EVER Awards
Who is most deserving: Dome for Coach of the Year, Maxime Chanot for Defender of the Year, or Héber for Newcomer of the Year (i.e. what should we be most outraged by if they don’t win their respective award)?—LionNYC
If I can take off my homer hat for a second, Bob Bradley and Matías Almeyda both have strong claims to Coach of the Year, and as good as Chanot’s been, there are other defenders who are just as deserving. Héber, on the other hand, not only put up better numbers than Zlatan and Josef; his arrival also slid NYCFC’s midfielders back into place and helped turn the team’s season around. What more could you want from a Newcomer of the Year? —Dummy Run
Is missing Héber or Maxi really that detrimental to our squad? We’ve won games without both of them. Who’s really our most valuable player?—Shwafta
Hard to argue missing either of those guys doesn’t hurt the team. Maxi finished the season with 20 MLS assists (and the most actual assists from open play) while Héber finished second in non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes played.
But even without Héber’s incredible efficiency in front of the net, NYCFC would have other options to fill the scoring void. Taty Castellanos can play the nine and is an aerial threat in the box. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Alexandru Mitriţǎ can bang in goals.
Minus Maxi, though, this MLS Cup-bound train would be missing its engine. Sure, we can get by playing Keaton Parks a bit higher up the pitch (assuming he’s healthy), but all roads to the final third run through Moralez, who can win a game in all kinds of ways. Maxi is absolutely the club’s most valuable player and critical to any postseason prospects.
As for second place, Héber’s certainly worthy, but I would have to give the edge to Anton Tinnerholm. Tinnerholm’s offensive production is unequaled among MLS right backs, and Dome has figured out how to really unleash him with long switches to his side.
Besides, what would we do without him? NYCFC doesn’t have any comparable options at right back. Eric Miller has been anything but exciting. Scally is still only 16 years old and has yet to play a regular-season minute. And while Ibeagha’s fullback cameo was wonderful, he isn’t exactly a chance-generating machine. It’s no coincidence that while Tinnerholm was out with a concussion, NYCFC’s play up his side dropped dramatically, from a season average of 31% of the team’s touches in the right third to 24% at FC Dallas, 22% against Atlanta, and 24% at New England, according to Whoscored. —Chris Campbell
This Guy vs. That Guy (Sometimes Literally)
Yangel Herrera was considered by many to be NYCFC’s most important player after David Villa last year. How has NYCFC overcome his absence in terms of changing shape, players, or tactics? —LionNYC
Oh man, that’s the kind of question you’d have to re-read a whole season’s worth of The Outfield to get a good answer to (and you should!). But I’ll say this: even though Yangel clearly earned his graduation from MLS to La Liga, NYCFC’s best run in 2018 came while he was out, so this wasn’t impossible to predict.
It helps that Keaton Parks, Tony Rocha, and especially Ebenezer Ofori are safer passers and get caught on the ball less often, leading to fewer dangerous midfield transitions. On the other hand, Herrera’s defensive motor would have come in handy this season for a team that often lined up with just two midfielders. NYCFC still has one of MLS’s best high presses but they’ve dialed the heat down a tad without the indefatigable Venezuelan and these days do a little more defending in their own half. —Dummy Run
Why are we so much better with Parks in the lineup than Ofori even though they have both scored just as many goals this year?—Sabo
Parks is a more offensively talented and ambitious player than Ofori, so his skillset is more useful when partnered with Alex Ring. Ofori’s defensive advantage over Parks is often redundant, since Ring is capable of cleaning up in front of the backline as the lone holding midfielder, and his conservative style sometimes persuades Ring to try to do more than he should offensively. (We all know how much trouble this team can get in when they’re caught on the counter with the captain upfield.) In general, Parks’ slightly softer defense is greatly outweighed by the value of having a second creative midfield presence alongside Maxi.
The stats bear this out, as Parks outperforms Ofori in every attacking metric, setting up twice as many shots per 90 while playing, on average, 12 yards closer to goal. Ofori may raise NYCFC’s floor, but the team looks better with Parks in the lineup because he raises their ceiling. —Kevin Nelson
Would you rather fight one Sean Johnson or five Maxi Moralezes? —mgarbowski
Critically important question but easy to answer. Just think about how this would play out head to head: the five Morali would use their speed to nimbly dodge the strength and power of Sean Johnson, surrounding him like lobos on the prowl. The alpha Maxi, recognizable by its markings being the most platinum blonde, would feign a head-on attack while the other four swarmed the hapless American on all sides, subduing him by each taking a different limb. —Justin Egan
Anton Tinnerholm is second in the team in assists. Is that because he’s a better player than our left-backs and/or because we play more through the right side of the field?—LionNYC
Well for one thing he’s played 700 more minutes than Rónald Matarrita, plus Mata’s teammates have sort of let him down by converting his 2.1 expected assists from open play into exactly zero goals. But Tinnerholm’s got the advantage in rate as well as volume: he generates more open play xA per 96 minutes than Mata or Ben Sweat, which is pretty impressive considering how much of NYCFC’s offense comes up the left.
How does he do it? I’d chalk it up to both Tinnerholm’s quality and his tactical role as the free man when NYCFC overloads the left side of the buildup before switching play to the right in the attacking phase, which has been a regular feature of the team’s style this season. —Dummy Run
Super psyched to be in the CCL! When can we expect the schedule for it to be released?—Marcos Ochoa
Take it away, Dylan Butler:
How much risk will competing in CONCACAF Champions League present for NYCFC’s chances of winning the Supporters’ Shield next season? —Andy Mitchell
Historically, it’s true, playing in the CCL has negatively impacted teams’ regular season performance. We’ve seen a couple extreme cases lately, with 2018 Toronto and 2019 Sporting Kansas City going from top-tier elite teams to missing the playoffs the year they played spring CCL ball.
What’s the deal with the CCL hangover? It’s mostly about the collective bargaining agreement and roster rules. Although some clubs have invested in USL squads, roster rules prevent them from acting as a true reserve squad that could fluidly move players up to and down from the first team. Roster rules also limit clubs from signing more than 30 players to MLS contracts, and most teams don’t even fill that many.
This is the reality of being a salary-capped league: you’re incentivized to invest your cap dollars in the best possible starting eleven, with cheap reserves and homegrowns filling out the roster. Top-heavy squads aren’t built to cope with an overloaded schedule.
The good news is that, apart from wasting a DP slot on Jesús Medina, NYCFC has put together a pretty savvy and deep MLS roster. Dome did a great job this season dealing with injuries and international call-ups, and his decade of UEFA Champions League experience and emphasis on tactical versatility might make him better equipped than your average MLS skipper to deal with CCL rotation.
More importantly, the MLSPA’s CBA is about to be renegotiated, and one of the top items on the players’ agenda will be increasing the cap. The more money MLS allows teams to spend, the more well-run teams will be able to distinguish themselves.
As the Leagues Cup expands in 2020, more MLS teams are going to be playing in secondary competitions. We should be happy NYCFC is playing in one that matters instead of some dumb SUM cash grab.
Of course if the players strike over the CBA and MLS has to forfeit its CCL games, none of this will matter either way. —Justin Egan
“Yup, these are my readers.”
If you could have one NYCFC player show up to your bar mitzvah, who would you choose and why?—adam
I see three viable options on NYCFC’s roster depending on what you’re going for (I’m not Jewish, so apologies to all if I grossly mischaracterize what goes down at a bar mitzvah):
1. If you’re trying to maximize your gift haul, you invite Maxi Moralez. He has the highest salary on the roster and seems like the generous type. Added bonus: his height would make any 14-year-old feel like a man.
2. If you want a hype man, Héber’s your guy. I bet he’s comfortable in a room full of strangers and would be the type of friend who’d exaggerate how cool you are to everyone else there. There’s a good chance that he gets Grandma out on the dance floor, so factor in some hip fracture risk with this pick.
3. If you’re a fan of an innocent prank, you could bring Ring, Tinnerholm, Parks, and Gary Mackay-Steven but only allow one of them to be seen at a time. Make sure they wear the same outfit (maybe those suits the club is always tweeting about?) and keep them in rotation all night to see how many people notice they’re not the same person. To do this on hard mode, don’t even try to disguise their accents. —Kevin Nelson
What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?—FootyLovin
EXT. MLS HEADQUARTERS (WHICH FOR SOME REASON LOOKS LIKE A CASTLE) — DAY
WARSHAW: Halt! Who goes there?
DOME: It is I, Dome, son of Pep Guardiola, from the Pitch at Etihad. King of Catalonia, defeater of the Red Bulls, sovereign of all the East!
WARSHAW: Pull the other one!
DOME: I am. And this is my trusty servant Maxi. We have ridden the length and breadth of the MTA in search of footballers who will join me in my Pitch at Etihad. I must speak with your lord and master, Don.
WARSHAW: What, ridden on a train?
WARSHAW: You’re using pineapples!
WARSHAW: You’ve got two empty halves of pineapples and you’re bangin’ ‘em together.
DOME: So? We have ridden since the snows of winter covered this land, through the kingdom of bodegas, through …
WARSHAW: Where’d you get the pineapples?
DOME: We found them.
WARSHAW: Found them? In the Bronx? The pineapple is tropical!
DOME: What do you mean?
WARSHAW: Well, this is a humid subtropical zone.
DOME: The pigeon may fly south with the sun or the cockroach or the rat may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land?
WARSHAW: Are you suggesting pineapples migrate?
DOME: Not at all. They could be carried.
WARSHAW: What? A pigeon carrying a pineapple?
DOME: It could grip it by the husk.
WARSHAW: It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A thirteen-ounce bird could not carry a two-pound pineapple.
DOME: Well, it doesn’t matter. Will you go and tell your Master Don that Dome from the Pitch at Etihad is here.
WARSHAW: Listen, in order to maintain air-speed velocity, a pigeon needs to beat its wings 43 times every second, right?
WARSHAW: Am I right?
DOME: I’m not interested!
WIEBE: It could be carried by a Staten Island pigeon!
WARSHAW: Oh, yeah, a Staten Island pigeon maybe, but not a Bronx pigeon, that’s my point.
WIEBE: Oh, yeah, I agree with that.
DOME: Will you ask your Master Don if he wants to join my Pitch at Etihad?!
WARSHAW: But then, of course, Staten Island pigeons are not migratory.
WIEBE: Oh, yeah.
WARSHAW: So they couldn’t bring a pineapple back anyway.
WIEBE: Wait a minute—supposing two pigeons carried it together?
What fruit or vegetable most looks like NYCFC’s best shape in terms of formation?—LionNYC
Oh my god …
Is it a pineapple? Is it a pinecone? Does a pinecone count as a vegetable? Has Dome been planning this all along? WE NEED ANSWERS, PEOPLE. —Dummy Run ❧