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New York City FC and the Designated Player

City has had a “colorful” history when it comes to their Designated Player signings.

MLS: New York City FC at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a problem in the Bronx. In reality, the problem started even before New York City FC played a single game. That problem is City Football Group (CFG) — the parenting arm that governs New York City FC (as well as Premier League powerhouse Manchester City, among others) — and its handling, thought process, and usage of Major League Soccer’s coveted Designated Players slots. You may ask, “why are you bringing this up now?” Well...

Fresh off the heels of Andrea Pirlo’s retirement, the club is already beginning to look at potential Designated Player replacements. Now, recent reports indicate that perhaps Yaya Toure would not be coming in as a DP. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen, but given how much he is making at Manchester City, it’s hard to imagine Toure taking a pay cut that would bring him down to at least the level of a Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) signing. And even if it’s possible, the question remains: Does NYCFC need a mid-30s midfielder — who is playing sparingly on his current club — to come in as a central figure of this team? You can answer that for yourself in the comments below.

For now, let’s move forward using this latest rumor to tackle a more systemic problem for City: The quality (or lack thereof) of their Designated Player acquisitions.

The comparative production of NYCFC’s DP signings.

Since 2015, NYCFC’s Designated Players (David Villa, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, and Maxi Moralez) have contributed to roughly 50 percent of the team’s total goals, and close to 32 percent of their total assists. That seems...pretty good actually. However, let’s remove David Villa, arguably on his way to becoming one of the best (if not the best) DP signings in MLS history. Without Villa, it looks a bit different:

The comparative production of DP signings not named David Villa.

Without Villa’s gaudy 63 goals and 21 assists throughout his tenure with NYCFC, the DP production looks much less impressive over the last three years. The non-Villa DP trio have only accounted for roughly 13 percent of the team’s overall goals, and 19 percent of the team’s overall assist numbers since 2015. Given the amount of salary these players have made during their time here, production like that just isn’t getting the job done. Along with the lack of production, there’s also been the issue of time spent on the pitch. Even when combining Lampard and Pirlo’s games played in City Blue, they still fall five games short of Villa alone. So not only has there been a lack of impact on the field, there’s been a lack of actual presence as well — whether that can be attributed to injury (Lampard) or simply because they were not the best option for the squad (Pirlo).

And then there’s Maxi Moralez. Maxi had a pretty good season in 2017 (5 goals, 9 assists), but it’s hard to call it DP-worthy, even if he was more impactful than Pirlo and able to stay on the field more than Lampard. The fact of the matter is that a player like Maxi should be more equivalent to what is expected out of a TAM signing rather than a DP signing — at least when considering the club’s aspirations of winning MLS Cup. To wit, juxtapose Maxi’s production with Toronto FC and their key TAM signing this season, Victor Vazquez. Vazquez nearly doubled Maxi’s production with 8 goals and 16 assists. (And once again, that is not as a DP signing, but as a TAM player for Toronto.) Maxi’s efforts doubling as a box-to-box midfielder for so many games this season can be applauded, and his willingness to track back has been helpful to the defense, but his performance was just not DP-level. Especially not for the type of club that NYCFC aspires to be.

While production wise the outcomes have not been stellar three seasons in, you could say that signing players like Villa, Lampard, and Pirlo were about more than just production on the field. Bringing in these living legends with World Cup and Champions League experience was also meant to be about building a brand. And they definitely struck oil by signing David Villa. Not only has Villa been a stellar contributor to the club, he’s been an amazing person off the pitch as well. He’s been a great captain, putting in the work to learn English so that he can be a vocal leader for the club, both on the field and in front of the media. He was last season’s MVP, could be in line to win again this season (though probably going to Diego Valeri), and at 35-years-old has been — quite frankly — even better than anyone could have expected. Lampard and Pirlo’s tenure — to put it bluntly — has been a different story.

MLS: New York City FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Frank Lampard brought a lot of eyes and attention to New York City FC, but for all the wrong reasons. The debacle of his signing and loan stint with Manchester City brought all of the wrong attention to NYCFC and CFG. City Supporters and MLS fans in general took the club to task for the greater part of two years because of this signing. Not to mention that his time spent on the pitch was minimal, playing a total of 29 games over two seasons. Between his extended stay with Manchester City and battling a few serious injuries, Lampard was not able to give more than a brief glimpse into what could have been. But let’s be fair, it could’ve been very good. In those 29 games, he scored 15 goals and added 4 assists. He netted the club’s first ever hat-trick, and Jack Harrison contributes a lot of his growth and success to the time he’s spent with Frank Lampard while they were both recovering from injury. Fans were teased and frustrated with not getting a true meaningful sample of the Lampard experience, and it brought more negative than positive publicity overall. It could even be said that the Lampard fiasco had a direct relation to other moves, including he who shall not be named and the club’s third-ever Designated Player Andrea Pirlo.

Categorized as a “luxury player” by many, Pirlo’s impact on New York City FC was very mixed, to put it lightly. To put it more bluntly, Pirlo may go down as one of the worse DP signings in MLS history. Pirlo finished his two and a half seasons in the Bronx having netted only one goal. Now, he did chip in with 18 assists over that span, but that is not going to cut it for a team with title aspirations. On top of that, his defense (or more specifically, the lack thereof) got to the point where he literally became unplayable, leading to Patrick Vieira benching him in favor of Yangel Herrera (who definitely deserved to be playing over Pirlo). Unlike with Lampard, who just simply couldn’t get on the pitch for various reasons, Pirlo was available but reached a point where he could no longer be included in the Starting XI, a damning point in anyone’s career, let alone a Designated Player. With the exception of Maxi, who is still only 31-years-old, NYCFC have targeted Designated Players in their mid- to late-30s, truthfully only finding success in one of those signings: David Villa. Which brings us back to Yaya Toure.

Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Yaya fits a similar mold as the Designated Players that NYCFC have brought in before. He is in his mid-30s (34 to be exact), has had an illustrious career in Europe, but is also at a point where it’s clear he cannot make the cut as an every week fixture in the Starting XI of a big name club. His coming to MLS — and specifically to New York City FC — would only continue to perpetuate the “retirement league” stigma that is still unfairly associated with the league, just as it was when Lampard and Pirlo came aboard. Additionally, Yaya would be heading this way amid rumors of tension and uneasiness in the locker room at his present club, Manchester City. While Villa has been the model citizen, and Lampard showed his leadership in his brief stint with the club, there has not been a DP to this point who had the potential to be a disgruntled influence to the club. Could you imagine Yaya accepting a benching with the same class that Andrea Pirlo demonstrated? It’s never safe to assume, but Yaya has definitely been a more outspoken than our previous Designated Players, to say the least.

There’s also his position and style of play. Outside of a few eye-popping seasons statistically, Yaya’s value has never truly materialized in the end product, namely goals and assists. He has that ability, for sure, but his strengths have always lied in being an elite box-to-box midfielder, as a marauding glue that links the defense and attack flawlessly. At 34 and only playing sporadic minutes in Manchester, it is hard to simply assume he will be able to bring that level of physicality and intensity right away in MLS, which is a very fast and physical league. This is something Lampard and Pirlo learned the hard way. And while he could also work in an advanced position, that would encroach on Maxi’s area, who is essentially the club’s no. 10, or attacking midfielder. And quite frankly, this team needs goalscorers. Yaya has his strengths, but he would not be the level of attacker that is necessary to help David Villa up top, especially with the potential of a Jack Harrison sale.

Perhaps what hits home the most for supporters is the idea that NYCFC would be used to help CFG solve a problem with a big name player at their flagship club. Handing the big brother’s problems down to the little brother does nothing to assuage the fears of New York City FC being Manchester City’s “farm team”. It is something the club has struggled to handle properly since the club’s inception, starting with the Lampard signing and compounded by the Pirlo signing. It lives on with every rumor NYCFC is ever involved in, including this one. Fans who hoped that the Maxi Moralez signing —regardless of how you feel about his performance — was a step in the right direction will now have those hopes dashed once again. It’s understandable to want to see this club go after players more along the lines of Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, like Atlanta United has done. Rumors like this one only prove to further the gap from that ever being a reality for our Boys in Blue.

Once again, this is still just a rumor. However, New York City FC — and more specifically City Football Group — should be reminded about the perils of trying to get by on bringing in players based on their past performance as opposed to finding players who are ready and looking for their chance to perform on the next big stage in their career. It would benefit the club’s performance and CFG’s business model alike to bring in players who could net quite a hefty transfer fee in Europe after making a name for themselves in MLS. Should they only sign unheard-of 20-somethings from South America moving forward? Hardly. If they can find more players of David Villa’s ilk, regardless of age, then so be it. But as we’ve learned more and more, players coming in at his age and performing this well are more the exception than the norm in Major League Soccer.

So, who should the club use their available Designated Player slot on? Stay tuned for that in another article soon to come.