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Young talent could be the key for NYCFC in 2017

Will some extra spring in their step propel the Sky Blues to new heights?

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Looking to build on a strong showing in 2016, New York City FC brought in a bevy of talented players this preseason, and youth is the common theme. Last year, the team’s average age was 27.66. This time around, its all the way down to a chipper 25.77, the sixth-youngest mark in Major League Soccer.

In 2016, the play of second-year man Khiry Shelton (4 goals, 9 assists) and rookie Jack Harrison (4 goals, 7 assists), both college products brought in through the SuperDraft, pointed to an exciting future in the Five Boroughs. Harrison missed out on the first third of the season with a hip injury, but came to embrace the role on the unknown quantity. “Being a bit unpredictable really helped me out a lot,” Harrison told me after a recent preseason match in Tucson, Arizona.

NYCFC drafted five players in this year’s SuperDraft, including United States Under-20 international Jonathan Lewis, who could challenge for playing time wing, and Kwame Awuah, an attacking-minded fullback who can also bring some spark to the midfield.

While Lewis will miss the first portion of the season as his youth national team fights for a shot at the U-20 World Cup, he has the pace to get behind defenses and the on-the-ball skill to unlock them. And he’s still a teenager.

Former Seattle Sounder and 2016 USL Golden Boot winner Sean Okoli, age 24, joined New York in December, and will hope to pair with David Villa to boost the attack. Goals were not a problem for NYCFC in 2016, however, as Villa led the club to a league-topping 62 tallies. A number of MLS clubs hoped to secure the services of “Ugo” after a smashing campaign with FC Cincinnati last year; even if only provides depth at center forward in 2017, he bolsters the foundation for the next generation of NYCFC attackers.

On the defensive end, unfortunately, questions still remain, with a batch of new signings poised to pick up a significant portion of the load.

Patrick Vieira’s men let in a frustrating 57 goals in 2016, good enough for the fourth-worst mark in all of Major League Soccer. Worse, the Boys in Blue dropped points in six matches in which they scored at least two goals.

New York looks to shore things up by bringing in goalkeeper Sean Johnson, formerly of the Chicago Fire. Johnson, who will turn 28 in May, ought to be entering his prime, and figures to be the first-choice this year over Andre Rawls and Eirik Johansen.

NYCFC original Josh Saunders, 35, was dealt to Orlando in January.

Additional defensive reinforcements have arrived in the form of Alexander Callens, as well as recent Manchester City signing and NYCFC loanee Yangel Herrera. Herrera is an exciting 19-year-old Venezuelan international who can slot in at defensive midfielder. Upon Herrera’s arrival, Vieira said, “He’s a tactically intelligent midfielder who is strong in the tackle and reads the game well.” He’s already developed a reputation for his ability to play the ball, as well as the occasional sniper shot:

Callens, 24, is a tall, pacey center back who was on Peru’s preliminary Copa America Centenario roster, and put in 39 appearances for Numancia in Spain’s Segunda División.

“I think we have a great squad, to be honest,” Jack Harrison said. “We’ve had a lot of new guys coming in and it’s not always easy gelling together. But we’ve got guys from all over, and we’re bonding really well. We’re all getting along really well, buying into the style of play.”

Indeed, if enough of this year’s new faces can hit the ground running, the Five Boroughs may be dreaming of MLS Cup glory sooner rather than later.