New York City FC, the making of a champion

New York City FC debuted with a splash in 2015, signing two former World Cup champions, Italian Andrea Pirlo and Spaniard David Villa, and one of the greatest English players of his generation, Frank Lampard.

There was only one problem. NYCFC was lousy, finishing with a record of 10-17-7. Every year since then, NYCFC has made the playoffs, culminating in Saturday's MLS Cup title.

City Football Group, majority owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, has not signed a player of the stature of the initial three stars since then, but it has invested heavily in every aspect of NYCFC except perhaps the most visible -- building a stadium.

NYCFC ranked only sixth in MLS in terms of its 2021 payroll, but it has one of the deepest teams to ever win MLS Cup with a league-high 12 players on its roster making the 2021 maximum salary budget charge of $612,500 or more in guaranteed compensation. (Seattle had 10 players on its roster making the then-maximum of $530,000 in 2019.)

That depth was tested when right back Anton Tinnerholm and midfielder Keaton Parks were lost for the season with injuries and 2021 Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos was suspended for the Eastern Conference final at Philadelphia.

NYCFC is the first to start two Homegrown Players out of its own academy program and win MLS Cup: James Sands, who started for the USA when it won the 2021 Gold Cup, and 19-year-old Tayvon Gray, who stepped in for Tinnerholm and started all four playoff games. (Columbus won MLS Cup 2020 with three Homegrown Players in its lineup, two of them products of other MLS clubs.) Two other former NYCFC academy players moved to Germany, where they almost immediately broke into Bundesliga first teams: Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund at Joe Scally at Borussia Moenchengladbach.

After Saturday's shootout win over the Portland Timbers, Coach Ronny Deila said he was convinced NYCFC had the best team in MLS even when it dropped below the playoff zone in October after a slide that saw it win just once in nine games. The season turned on Oct. 20 when NYCFC tied Atlanta United, 1-1, on the road thanks to Gudmundur Thorarinsson's free-kick goal in the 90th minute. It didn't lose a match after that.

"In my opinion, it was very, very clear the reasons why we were not gonna have our best," said Deila. "We had no consistency in the team. Our central defenders were out with national teams. We get red cards. We had a lot of tough away games, and we played a lot of games in a short period. So it's hard to turn things around, but I knew if we just get the consistency into defense and get everybody ready to play that we can beat anybody. The goal in Atlanta was important because you get a little bit of belief and confidence back again. And after that, we didn't look backwards and we just go and go and go."

NYCFC was also one of the most veteran teams to win MLS Cup with seven starters having spent four or more years at the club's first team. But City Football Group continued to invest in the team.

In April, 21-year-old Brazilian Thiago Andrade was signed from Bahia. In May, 19-year-old Brazilian Talles Magno was acquired from Vasco da Gama for a reported $8 million as a young DP.  In June, 21-year-old Uruguayan Santiago Rodriguez arrived on loan as part of the new U22 Initiative.

"We have a young team, that's very important to understand," insisted Deila. "Except for Alfredo Morales, we have added young players that have their career in front of them. And when you are struggling with consistency in the team because of different things, then it's a lot of pressure on the young players. But having said that, there's no team in the [38] games that outplayed us."

The season statistics support Deila's assertion. NYCFC finished the regular season with the best xGD -- expected goal difference -- in MLS: +22.7.

"I can't remember one time that one team has caused us a lot of trouble," he said. "We have lost our games ourselves. And that gives a lot of confidence in the team. Even though we haven't played well, nobody has created more chances than us in a game, so we knew that when we get things right, we are very hard to play against. It's easy to talk about that now, but in the end, if you keep believing, keep working hard and want to improve you, get what you deserve in the end."

Deila signaled out the veterans on the team for their leadership -- captain Sean Johnson, the shootout hero, central defenders Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens and playmaker Maxi Moralez -- as well as Sands and Morales, the two midfield anchors.

"This team, what they have done, they deserve to win MLS this year and they did it," added Deila. "And I'm unbelievably proud and grateful to be a part of it."

NYCFC's 2021 core
32 Sean Johnson
(2017, trade from Chicago Fire) $510,000
29 Gudmundur Thorarinsson
(2020, free agent from Norrkoping, Sweden) $400,000
32 Maxime Chanot (2016, transfer from Kortrijk, Belgium) $785,000
29 Alexander Callens (2017, free agent from Numancia, Spain) $764,000
19 Tayvon Gray (2019, Homegrown signing) $114,788 (HG)
23 Malte Amundsen (2021, transfer from Vejle, Denmark) $278,700.00
30 *Anton Tinnerholm  (2018, free agent from Malmo, Sweden) $650,000.00
21 James Sands
(2017, Homegrown signing) $200,000 (HG)
31 Alfredo Morales (2021, transfer from Fortuna Dusseldorf, Germany) $662,250
34 Maxi Moralez (2017, transfer from Leon, Mexico) $3,285,000 (DP)
24 *Keaton Parks (2019, transfer from Benfica, Portugal) $350,000
24 Jesus Medina (2018, transfer from Libertad, Paraguay) $1,170,833 (DP)
21 Santiago Rodriguez (2021, loan from Montevideo City, Uruguay) $612,500 (U22 Initiative)
23 Valentin Castellanos (2018, transfer from Torque, Uruguay) $776,000
27 Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (2018, transfer from Austria Wien, Austria) $618,985
19 Talles Magno (2021, transfer from Vasco da Gama, Brazil) $1,198,000 (Young DP)
30 Heber (2019, transfer from Rijeka, Croatia) $788,750
26 **Alexandru Mitrita (2019, transfer from Univ. Craiova, Romania) $700,000
*Injured. **On loan to Greece's PAOK.
Note: MLS Cup 2021 starters in bold.

Photo: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

7 comments about "New York City FC, the making of a champion".
  1. Kent James, December 12, 2021 at 11:31 a.m.

    I beg to differ on the statement "no team outplayed us."  I watched them play Phila and Portland, and thought they got outplayed both times.  But credit to them for developing their academy players and paying their players well.  Now about that stadium...

  2. Kent James, December 12, 2021 at 11:55 a.m.

    Can we please not decide games by "kicks from the mark"?  It's basically like flipping a coin 5x, and seeing which team calls it right; no, actually it's worse, because the most likely thing to make a difference is for one of the kickers to make an error, so there can be a player who played well for 2 hours and then loses the game by not scoring.  In this case, one of the most important players in Portland's history (Valeri) didn't score, so the last thing he'll do as a Timber is be responsible for their loss in the final.  And Valeri's shot was almost as good as anyone else's, so he's unlucky to be put in that position.

    I have a few suggestions, any of which would be preferable.  

    Kick from the top of the arc (22 yds out; or you could let them shoot from anywhere outside the 18, to allow for angled shots).  These kicks would be far enough out that unless the kicker hit an excellent shot, the keeper should make the save.  Keeper's would not have to guess, so you'd see a lot of good shots and good saves, with the excellent shots wining the game (rather than someone screwing up to lose the game).  This would be the most like the current system.

    Alternatively, you could essentially have a skills contest; put a 1'x1' flag in the upper corner (each side) of the goal, and any player who hits it gets a point.  Simple, and at least the winning team wins because they did well, rather than because the other team screwed up.

    A more soccer like way to decide would be to play a half field game until someone scores (moving one goal to the midfield line).  It would require adding markings (for the penalty area and 6 yd box, but that could be done in a few minutes.  Theoretically there would be lots of shots, with the first team to score winning. You could also reduce the number of players as time went on (if teams were having difficulty scoring).  

    These would need to be adjusted for teams of lesser skill (youth teams) but they'd be much better than the current system, which is terrible.  

  3. beautiful game replied, December 12, 2021 at 1:09 p.m.

    Typical ML Cup final when in the first 20 minutes, referee was derelict in not carding three offenses by Portland for blatant thuggery. That set the usual tone to the game. Bottom line KJ, is that both teams lacked efficacy to score and you're hyping a micky mouse resolution to the PKs. Why not have overtime played with up to 5-additional substitutes who did not play and see what happens.

  4. stewart hayes replied, December 12, 2021 at 2:06 p.m.

    I happen to like ending the game with penalties.  As a fan it is like goijng to a 3 act play.  You get your monies worth.  As an aficcionado, the game has to have a limit otherwise the youngest fittest team wins.  Is that in the spirit of the game?  The game is about scoring goals and denying them as well, so when two teams cannot achieve a result during normal play give them a chance to save face and score in a fair way without alien exo rules.  One on one, goalie vs kicker.  What could be more fitting than that?  I don't agree Kent that the goalie cannot read the intentions of the kickers.  I believe some can learn to do so which accounts in part for their success in these moments.  The PSO is mentally, technically and even physicall demanding coming at the end of 120 minutes of exhaustive work.  

    It is much more than a flip of a coin it is a test.  There is a winner and the loser comes away not feeling so bad because they could not be beaten in regulation time.  'We took it to penalties'.  What more can a team do?

  5. Anthony Petgrave, December 12, 2021 at 12:02 p.m.

    CONGRATULATIONS, NYCFC...that said, 5 qualified Americans? How can this team, not to mention the league survive with teams having so few players they can funnel to the National Team...and, yes I know that that's not their job, but I would answer by saying...see THE NASL, old and new.

    OBTW, I'm a RedBull's fan.

  6. frank schoon, December 12, 2021 at 1:31 p.m.

    I was favoring NY to win only because Portland has won it before, besides any team that wears dark green and black ,depresssing colors, on a green astro turf field deserve to lose...  

    This championship game could have been called the WWF of soccer, or a 'chinese firedrill',whatever. I've never seen so many bodies continually falling on the field every 20 seconds. Just think that after 50years of soccer this is the best we have to offer for a championship game in the MLS... This game teaches you what happens when the passes made are basically 50/50 balls...

    The total soccer IQ displayed in this game was horrifying.  I have no idea how Portland ever , I mean ever, got to the Championship finals. The  level of soccer displayed by the Portland, is no doubt, laughable, as far as individual performance goes. The level of Intelligence displayed by  Portland shows why soccer has really got to be played with the mind FIRST and not the with the feet. This game is a reflection of the  low level of soccer we are still at.

    I kept asking myself after a pass was made, 'why there or why to him', or why was the pass made in that manner, or why did you try to beat this guy 1v1 when you have an opponent teammate wide open to pass to?.

    If there was a way to ask player at the moment he makes an action whether it be a pass, a run or a dribble with the ball, like, 'why did you do that', I would guarantee the player would have to think about before answering....

    Watching this game makes me miss Zlatan even more,for this league obviously went down hill ,quality-wise, after his absence..It also reminded me when I was teaching 12 year olds in order to brake their turbo intentions, that particular mindset, is whenever you receive the ball, your weren't allowed to run with it in the first three steps, or you have to touch the ball at least 3 times before you can pass it; the former you develop more the spatial sense and in the latter the sense of speed of thinking....

  7. beautiful game replied, December 12, 2021 at 6:38 p.m.

    Good points Frank. Totally agree that the pitch looked more like a dodge-ball spectacle.

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