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New York City FC isn't a puppet state

It's not a farm team either. It's a team in search of itself, and a plan for sustained success.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

If you're a New York City fan, you've heard the dig way too many times over the last two years: New York City's a farm team. It's a colony club. It's Chivas USA 2.0. I mention it because Will Parchman wrote a fantastic article about that earlier this week. I don't agree with all of it, but he made some great points, and it's worth reading. At heart, it comes down to the team's image.

I don't think that's quite accurate, though.

The image problem that New York City has isn't that it's a "farm team", whatever that means. It's that City Football Group don't quite know what to do what they want to do with New York City. I'll explain.

Ferran Soriano, who's the CEO for both Manchester City and New York City, has been quite explicit about wanting New York City FC to be a world-class team. Which, okay. That's great. But that's easier said than done. The tricky part is the how. And the conundrum is this: which is more important — the short-term or the long-term?

It's a question worth asking. New York City's ability to tap CFG's vast resources is a massive advantage. We've already seen the team use it, whether it's by acquiring loanees like Shay Facey and Angelino, or leveraging a worldwide scouting network. That's how the team wound up with Javier Calle, for instance.

Turning New York City into a "world-class" team, however you define that, is most certainly a long-term play. But no one in soccer is judged on the long-term. Everyone is judged on the short-term. That's particularly true in the Premier League. The flip side to New York City being Manchester City's sister club is that maintaining Manchester City's status as an elite Premiership club is expressly a short-term endeavour.

Where MLS coaches enjoy extraordinary longevity — see Pablo Mastroeni's and Frank Yallop's continued employment in Colorado and Chicago for proof of that — Premier League coaches face the chop for the slightest dip in form. Michael Laudrup went from being Real Madrid's next manager to fired from Swansea over the course of a few months. Roberto di Matteo went from winning the European Cup with Chelsea to sacked over a summer.

That's just the way it is. That's where the money is, right now. Twenty-five years ago, it was in Italy. Twenty-five years from now, it's probably going to be here in the U.S. But right now? It's in England. And the jewel of the CFG empire is in Manchester. That money, that pursuit of glory, distorts the incentives for clubs.

Faced with those conundrums, is it any surprise that Soriano, who's interested in holding on to his job, is going to privilege doing what benefits Manchester City? Or at least going with the safe, default choice? It's not to me. It would take an astonishingly patient owner to condone Soriano doing something other than that. That's not a quality often associated with either Khaldoon al-Mubarak or Sheikh Mansour. Soriano's only responding to the rational incentives here. You can't fault him for that. But you have to acknowledge it.

That's where the "farm team" thing comes in. Making the jerseys sky blue and the shirt sponsor Etihad was the safe, default choice. Having Lampard stick around with Manchester City still in contention for a repeat Premier League title and Lampard in excellent form was a safe, default choice. There's nothing wrong with these choices, in and of themselves. But they help reify that tired "farm league" crack. They certainly don't help quash it. You could even argue that getting loanees like Angelino and Facey furthers it. But then you'll have to tell me how that's different from the arrangement that Chelsea have with Vitesse Arnhem, except that it's more readily apparent.

Let's be clear: signing players like Pirlo and Lampard, or even Iraola and Mix, isn't what a "farm team" does. Real talk: every fanbase in MLS would love for their players to be linked with that quartet, let alone sign them. Ask the Timbers Army how they feel about seeing Mix rocking sky blue instead of forest green.

The problem New York City has is that there's a pretty well-defined template for success in MLS, and it's basically the opposite of what Manchester City does, which is throw money at the problem until it's either solved or ameliorated.

There's nothing wrong with spending, in and of itself. If you've got the money to spend on players, it can be a brutally effective tool. The question is: what's the purpose of that spending? In other words: is CFG spending that money in a purposeful manner, in order to really make it count as the overwhelming advantage it could be?

This is where a lot of fans point to the signings of Pirlo and Lampard, not to mention Villa, Mix, Iraola, and others. I'm happy that they signed Pirlo! He's one of my favorite players ever. If you can get Pirlo, you get him. Even if you have to pay him way more than he made last year. At $8 million per year, supposedly, he's the highest paid player in the league.

But he's not the only one. There's Villa and Lampard, at $6 and $5 million apiece per year, reportedly. I'm guessing Iraola didn't come cheap; Mix didn't. In short, it's a pretty open secret that New York City's roster is the most expensive in MLS. It's also the second-oldest in the league, and that's before Lampard and Pirlo take the field. In short: this roster is the epitome of a "win-now" roster.

And yet, it's going to have a real fight to make the playoffs, even in a weakened Eastern Conference. It's all well and good that New York City is within three points of third place, with 15 games to go in the season. Credit for that comes from a fantastic fight back over the last few games, as the team's jelled together at last. But there's two reasons that New York City still inhabits the basement of the Eastern Conference. One is that abysmal 11-game winless streak earlier in the season.

The other is New York City's maddening inability to close games out once they take the lead. We saw the latest episode on Sunday, as the Blues took a 2-0, only to blow it in spectacular fashion over nine minutes, leaving them to scrap for a 4-4 tie. As the games left grow fewer in number, the need for New York City to win, not just draw, becomes more and more necessary. At this point, New York City really can't afford to drop many more points. Every point dropped makes it that much harder for New York City to make the playoffs.

The point that Parchman makes in his piece — and I agree with him — is that if CFG wants New York City to succeed, then the best way to ensure that success is to do what other successful teams in MLS do. Namely: actually build a coherent roster from top to bottom. Look at the LA Galaxy, or the Seattle Sounders, for instance. Seattle's 3 DPs — Martins, Dempsey, and Alonso — are nowhere near on the level of Pirlo, Villa, and Lampard. But they each fill critical roles. Same with LA's DPs.

So how do New York City's three DPs match up? Villa, we know; he's a fantastic striker. With eight goals in the last seven games, he's staked a claim to the MVP award; without him, New York City would be hopelessly out of contention. But Villa can't do it all, which is why reinforcements were needed. Lampard was the second designated player signed. Despite his checkered voyage to Gotham, he's finally set to contribute. And then there's Pirlo, whose ability to distribute the ball and orchestrate the game from deep is legendary.

But what's the need that Pirlo addresses that Lampard doesn't for New York City? In what way are those two complementary of each other, instead of cancelling each other out? Same with Mix — what's the hole that he fills for New York City? In what ways will he augment what Lampard and Pirlo and Villa do, instead of forcing them to compensate for him? These signings scream of short-term fixes, not the kind of long-term planning that's led other teams to consistent success in MLS.

Guess what: that's exactly what Manchester City does. Safe, default choice. We spend the money, not because we should, but because we could. Sign enough players, you'll have an 18-man roster that's world class. Manchester City's not the only club that does this; a certain west London club pioneered the strategy.

This isn't a bad thing, or a good thing. Ascribing value judgments clouds the ability to see whether it works or not. It works for Manchester City; can you blame them for trying it here in New York City?

I ask these questions because I look at things critically, as a way of making sense of the world. I'm trying to make sense of how this team is set up to win — not just this season, but two, three, four seasons from now. I'm not hating on the team. The more I look at this team, the more two things become apparent:

  • One, this isn't a normal expansion team. A lot of people are content to excuse the team's performance on the field — and its potential to miss the MLS Cup playoffs — by saying that all expansion teams are similarly poor. I once held that to be true, but no longer. This doesn't explain Orlando City's performance, for instance. And can we say that a team featuring not just players like Villa, Lampard, and Pirlo, but Iraola and Mix is the same as, say, 2005 RSL? Or '07 Toronto? Or 2011 Vancouver? I don't think we can.
  • Two, what happens if the team doesn't "win now"? What happens if they miss the playoffs this year? What happens if they miss the playoffs next year? In other words, what's CFG's plan to deal with failure?

This is a hugely meaningful question. Unlike other MLS coaches, Jason Kreis is operating under relentless pressure. CFG has demonstrated little patience with managers at Manchester City. We can expect that Kreis is in similar danger here in New York City. Should he be? That's a different question altogether.

New York City has used up its three DP slots. From everything I can gather, the team either isn't eligible for that "targeted allocation money", or it's already used it on signing Andoni Iraola. Mix Diskerud is likely the other DP-lite. That means that the team's hands are tied. The remainder of its roster has to be constructed under MLS' Alice-in-Wonderland-like roster rules.

But what about cutting players, man? What about it? Even if you cut players, that still carries a cap hit. Let's say you cut Josh Williams, who's spent most of the season out injured. That's a $125,000 cap hit. Cut enough players, that money adds up, and keeps you from signing more expensive, presumably better players. Presumably, given that it's an open secret that New York City's roster is the most expensive in MLS, there's a surfeit of players making six figures.

Given that reality: how do Kreis and Reyna improve the roster? Fans are fond of saying that there's "other" players coming. But how do they sign a player without busting the cap? A guy like Tefu Mashamaite, for instance, reputedly has a market value of $450,000 — just over the MLS max. Jefferson Mena is at $400,000 — just under. Where do they fit? Can they afford to carry someone like George John, who isn't close to playing for the team, if it means they can't sign someone like Mena?

That's the problem that comes from careless roster construction. New York City wound up essentially piecing its roster from what was available in the Expansion Draft. It had to do that because CFG insisted that Kreis serve a glorified coaching internship under Patrick Vieira, presumably so that he could become familiar with the "Manchester City style". Those were nine months that Kreis could've spent working with Reyna — who has no experience building a MLS roster, remember — finding MLS players to sign. Players that had actually contributed, in meaningful ways, to their teams' success in the league.

Instead, we wound up with players like Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Jeb Brovsky, and Josh Williams. We wound up drafting Daniel Lovitz, then swapping him back for allocation money. Maybe that would've happened no matter what. But I have a hard time thinking that an actual planned player acquisition process that was familiar with MLS would've made the same decisions.

That's the issue with CFG's close control of the team. They're not familiar with MLS. But rather than defer to Kreis, or to hire someone like Garth Lagerwey or Tim Leiweke, they've instead hired a technical director with no experience in building MLS rosters and a team president with no MLS experience whatsoever. And instead of pausing to think and iterate differently, they've doubled down on what they know how to do.

Maybe it'll work out. But there's every chance that it could also implode. If it does, I'm not certain that CFG will learn from these mistakes. It's entirely possible that they'll simply double down. And instead of New York City being MLS's version of the Yankees, they'll become MLS's version of the Knicks.