It’s hard to build a new brand in the Big Apple. Not only does New York demand success from their sports teams, but you need to look damn fine in the process. It’s because of this inherent desire that you can’t really blame New York City FC for bringing in the aged Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo to supplement David Villa in 2015. If you’re trying to build a sports team from scratch in one of the most legendary cities in the world, it isn’t good enough to just say “trust us, we have good football.” You have to bring in big name players in order to put the asses in the seats first.
And to their credit, NYCFC did just that in 2015. Despite a subpar product on the field, the people came in droves and the Bronx Blues averaged just north of 29,000 fans per game, the third best in MLS that year. And though those numbers have seemingly leveled off in the following two seasons, NYCFC is still doing quite well for themselves — they averaged 22,643 fans per game in 2017, still within the league’s top five.
But the time has come for the Boys in Blue to turn the pages on seasons past and write a new chapter. Big names and big checks aren’t good enough anymore. Now, they need to win.
After Frank Lampard’s departure and subsequent retirement following the 2016 season, NYCFC opted not to replace the former Chelsea legend with another aging superstar on the backstretch of their career. Instead, they signed the relatively low-key midfielder Maxi Moralez to a Designated Player contract. Though not quite in the infancy of his career, Moralez was 29 upon signing with club and took to the Etihad Pitch when he was 30, an age where the average footballer is widely considered to be in their prime.
And the moves didn’t stop there.
Gone was the journeyman netminder Josh Saunders, and in his place came 27-year-old Sean Johnson. Then it was the drafting of the 19-year-old Jonathan Lewis. Then the temporary acquisition of 19-year-old Manchester City prodigy Yangel Herrera. Then Alexander Ring. Then Alex Callens...
By the time they had completed preseason pleasantries, NYCFC headed into the 2017 MLS season with an average age of 25.77 years old, good for sixth youngest in the league.
Not only was this a new NYCFC, this was a better NYCFC than had ever been seen before. When the 2017 season came to a close, New York City finished with 57 points, their best finish to date and good for second best in both the Eastern Conference and MLS at large. They finished with a franchise low goals conceded (43) and a franchise high goal differential (+13).
And despite being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by Columbus Crew SC by a 4-3 aggregate, the future had never looked brighter for New York City FC.
As we head into 2018, NYCFC has doubled down on their desire for youth.
On New Year’s Eve, the Boys in Blue announced the signing of 20-year-old midfielder Jesus Medina to a four-year Designated Player deal, replacing the retired Andrea Pirlo.
It is important to note that this isn’t a loan deal from the Manchester City mothership like some early reports suggested it would be. Medina is our player who is expected to be one of the torchbearers for New York City for at least the next four years.
With the signing of Medina — their first ever “Young Designated Player” — NYCFC has not only turned the page on recruiting superstars from yesteryear, they are taking pages out of the playbooks of clubs like Atlanta United. Despite not being the best MLS side in 2017, Atlanta set the league on fire and became the hottest new club in North America. Their youthful energy (their DPs Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector “Tito” Villalba are all under the age of 25) and affinity for scoring lots and lots of goals captivated fans both locally and nationwide.
The genesis of MLS was predicated upon establishing a viable top American soccer division first and foremost; quality of play was an afterthought. Following David Beckham’s high-profile arrival to the LA Galaxy, the league became based around yesterday’s heroes giving the sport more national appeal. However, this new era of Major League Soccer has shifted dramatically toward creating the sport’s future premier players.
Following their 2017 campaign, Atlanta became the face of “MLS 3.0.”
NYCFC can be all of that and more. Given their resources via City Football Group and the fact they are managed by Patrick Vieira — a bona fide legend in the sport — New York City has both the infrastructure and guidance to be an elite side.
In order for that potential to materialize into something tangible, City can no longer afford to bank on yesterday’s stars. They must have young, hungry talent that can lead them into the future and set a new standard.
“We have shifted a little bit in terms of our philosophies and bringing players in,” NYCFC Sporting Director Claudio Reyna told the New York Post. “We want players who want to be here and every player we’ve brought in to the club has wanted to come to NYCFC.”
Reyna added: “[Young] players interest us more than players who are sort of running out of options and don’t have other places to go, so MLS is their last type of option. Those aren’t the players that are of interest to us.”
Signing Jesus Medina is that first big step for New York City. And it could very well be the spark that propels NYCFC into the future and establishes the club as the new face of the ever-evolving Major League Soccer.