On December 5th, 2016 the club announced that it signed USL MVP and Golden Boot winner, Sean Okoli who recently left USL side FC Cincinnati. It may seem like a one-off signing, but it’s part of a story that’s been going on since New York City FC first started building its roster in 2015.
Becoming a brand new franchise in 2015 had its disadvantages, even in relatively young league like Major League Soccer. Unlike teams like Orlando City SC, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers, even the newly added Minnesota United, New York City FC did not work its way from the second or third division, with at least a few players who could make the jump with the club. That also means there was no framework already in place for an Academy for NYCFC to pull young talent from. Everything was, and still is, in the infant stage for the Boys in Blue.
But, cleverly and artfully, Claudio Reyna has found ways to infuse this club with youth to build on. To be frank, this endeavor by Reyna started all the way with one of the club’s first marquee signings, one Mix Diskerud. Despite the returns of this signing being less than positive up to this point, signing Diskerud (who was still just 24 years old at the time) helped paint the picture of Reyna’s vision: surrounding marquee, legendary Designated Players with a young core that would help offset their age. In turn, these young players also could act as “clay” in which the leadership of these legendary, but aging, players could mold with their knowledge, experience, and technical ability.
Continuing in that vein, Reyna and then-manager Jason Kreis seemingly unearthed an NASL gem in Kwadwo Poku, who was plying his trade in obscurity with the Atlanta Silverbacks. Though he has since left the Five Boroughs, you can definitely see the promise that was there and why the team wanted to add him to the roster. Although the Expansion Draft brought to NYC many MLS retreads like Ned Grabavoy, Chris Wingert and the like, Reyna and Kreis also made key acquisitions like Tommy McNamara and Patrick Mullins - young players who had shown promise previously in MLS. McNamara’s legend has only blossomed while playing in the Bronx, and Mullins served as a valuable bench player who also netted a nice return from D.C. United that the club was able to turn into Maxime Chanot.
With the departure of Jason Kreis and entrance of new manager Patrick Vieira, NYCFC began to take on an even younger look and feel. While the midfield still remained very long in the tooth, the rest of the Starting XI featured a much younger squad for most of the season. Out went MLS veterans like Grabavoy and Wingert, and in came young international players such as Ronald Matarrita, Federico Bravo, and Steven Mendoza. And while he didn’t get to see much time on the pitch this season, the club also signed another young player they see a lot of promise in with Shannon Gomez. He’s showing good progress in his knee surgery recovery and Vieira has spoken very highly of him. In addition, the club also made the savvy acquisition of Mikey Lopez from Sporting KC and Ethan White from D.C. United. This led to having a young supporting cast around the older DPs and a midfield in its twilight.
NYCFC has also done very well in making the most of their SuperDraft picks so far in the club’s brief history. While the later rounds have produced very little in terms of productive players, their first round picks have so far become consistent contributors for the club. After an up and down rookie campaign, Khiry Shelton emerged as a creative winger who is still unlocking his potential and may still evolve into a productive goal scorer, while Jack Harrison was truly a revelation this season despite debuting at only 19 years of age. These are not only productive players for the club, but could also one day become star players in this league, and franchise cornerstones for a long time.
We are inching ever closer to the beginning of the 2017 preseason, and while the club has not made many additions, the departures this winter have been given us one piece of information: the team will be even younger than it was in 2016. The famous move to highlight this was Frank Lampard and the club parting ways at the end of the season. Lampard has not officially announced his retirement, yet the club did not offer him a new contract, with the overall assessment being the club wants to get younger. Adding to that, players like Andoni Iraola, Mehdi Ballouchy, and Jason Hernandez have also left the club. The one announced move the club has made so far, trading with Atlanta United for Sean Johnson, is also another step towards solidifying a young core of talented players. Johnson, still only 27 himself, comes in as the most likely front-runner for the starting goalkeeper. At the same time, he and Eirik Johansen will represent a healthy competition at the goalkeeper position between two good but also young players the club can move forward with. And while it has not been announced yet, it looks like club will most likely be signing Miguel Camargo, 23 year old attacking midfielder/winger who is a Panamanian International.
So yeah, it stinks that a club like Atlanta United has its very own Homegrown Player before we do. And its going to stink again when we see the Seattle Sounders use our first round pick this SuperDraft because we traded it to them for the rights to Kwadwo Poku (don’t you just love discovery rights???). But having said that, let’s also remember that this club, in just a few short years, has already shown it has the resources and scouting network to unearth young gems and put them in that oh-so-sky-blue New York City shirt. I, for one, expect more of the same, and you should too!