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NYCFC 2019 Season Preview: After David Villa, now what?

Saturday marks the start of the team’s fifth season — and the beginning of answers to a lot of questions. Here’s your preview of New York City FC’s 2019 season.

New York City FC v Atlanta United FC: Eastern Conference Semifinals - Leg 2
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi — one of the many players New York City FC hope will step into David Villa’s massive boots.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe, but this Saturday kicks off the fifth season for the New York City Football Club. So it’s weirdly appropriate that it looks like the team is starting with a bit of a blank slate and mystery around them.

Let’s dispel some of that mystery with this, your 2019 season preview. I’m your host through this magical journey of discovery.

What’s new in 2019? What’s the biggest change from last year?

Gone is the talismanic David Villa, now playing for J-League stalwarts Vissel Kobe. Villa wasn’t just the team’s surest source of scoring; he was NYCFC. He was the first player ever signed by the team, and by the time the curtain fell on his time in Gotham, Villa had become the nuclear center of the franchise, and arguably one of the best Designated Players in MLS history

In place of Villa — and other splashy, headline-grabbing signings like Andrea Pirlo (a bust), Frank Lampard (meant to be The Face of NYCFC™, and instead became a fraught symbol of the team’s relationship with majority owners CFG), and Mix Diskerud (last seen scoring two admittedly nice goals for Ulsan Hyundai in the AFC Champions League) — we have instead a commitment to playing young players. Midfielders Justin Haak, James Sands, Juan Pablo Torres, and Keaton Parks (on loan from fabled Benfica!) are 17, 18, 19, and 21, respectively. Jesus Medina, who had a lackluster season after Patrick Vieira left to manage in France, is still only 21!

In turn, those young players are buttressed by veteran leadership from the likes of 31-year-old Maxi Moralez — set to inherit Villa’s role as the offensive creator — and the tireless Scandinavian duo of Alex Ring, 27, and Anton Tinnerholm, 28. They’re not alone — Maxim Chanot and Alexander Callens will anchor the defense, but the team’s gotten decidedly younger.

Bottom line: if you’re a New York City fan, it’s OK to mourn Villa’s departure, but the future’s potentially even brighter still. Get some shades.

Who’s out?

Obviously, Villa. He’s not the only significant loss, though: Yangel Herrera, who missed most of the season after being brutally tackled by Houston’s Alejandro Fuenmayor last May, is back in Europe after his loan from parent club Manchester City expired. Where Villa paced the offense, Herrera was an absolute force of nature as a defensive midfielder, winning the ball, shielding the defense, and disrupting opponent’s offenses. Herrera’s gift, particularly, is a preternatural ability to anticipate how an attack was building, and to then place himself in position to prevent it from building.

We’ll miss the last NYCFC Original — Tommy McNamara, affectionally nicknamed “Tubby Messi”, is gone south to Houston. Also departed: Rodney Wallace, Eloi Amagat, Kwame Awuah, Andre Rawls, Saad Abdul-Salaam, and Cedric Hountondji. Finally, Jo-Inge Berget became the latest in a sad list of strikers to arrive in New York City to plaudits, only to leave having disappointed.

Who’s in?

Well, for starters, Romanian midfielder/forward Alexandru Mitriță (that’s pronounced MEE-TREET-ZA), who becomes the team’s third Designated Player. NYCFC paid $8.5 million to acquire him from Romania’s Universitatea Craiova, and his scoring prowess there was the reason; 12 goals and four assists in 16 league games for them this season, and 16 goals in 38 games across all competitions in the 2017-18 season. Mitriță can play as an attacking midfielder, winger, or forward, but New York City have him featured as a forward.

Also joining the squad: Valentin ‘Taty’ Castellanos, who got picked up permanently after joining on a loan from Uruguay’s Torque midseason. We’ve already talked about Keaton Parks and Juan Pablo Torres, who look like they’ll be exciting additions to the midfield. Justin Haak got promoted from the team’s academy. Finally, Tony Rocha and Ebenezer Ofori add depth and veteran grit to the midfield.

Is there a new jersey?

The 2019 New York City FC home jersey — mostly sky blue with a navy blue & orange vertical stripe running down the left-front of the jersey
The 2019 New York City FC home jersey

Of course there is! This year, it’s a new home jersey, and you can see it above. Having seen the replicas (what most fans end up buying) and the authentics (what the players wear), the authentics look a lot better than the replicas. Up to you whether you want to spend the extra money on it, though. The stripe motif you see in the jersey isn’t exactly original, though; the 2014-15 Melbourne City home jersey featured a similar stripe design, as did the 2013-14 Manchester City third jersey. Synergy!

Who’s the new coach?

Introducing…Domènec Torrent! Did you know he was Pep Guardiola’s sidekick? If you didn’t, you do now, and he won’t let you forget it, either.

Domenec Torrent (R) with Pep Guardiola
Domè and Pep, in better, happier times (at least for Domè?)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

OK, this one is kind of a trick question. Domè Torrent took over from Patrick Vieira mid-season, after the Frenchman left to manage OGC Nice in Ligue 1. When Vieira left, the team was playing at the height of its potential: they’d started the season on a seven-game unbeaten streak, before coming down to earth a bit, but were widely considered championship contenders.

That continued to be the case for the first few games under Torrent’s leadership, but as the season wore on, New York City became more and more discombobulated. In contrast to Vieira’s ideological — some would say fanatical — devotion to building from the back and not changing a game plan to fit circumstances, Torrent refused to stop tinkering with how he approached games. Towards the end, you could clearly see players becoming frustrated on the field: they would approach the game one way tactically for the first 20-25 minutes, then give up and try to come up with something on the fly for the remainder of the game.

That worked out about as well as you’d expect: from August onward, the Pigeons won just three games in the last three months of the season, while losing five and drawing four times. They very nearly collapsed down to the sixth and final spot in the playoffs, but wins at home against Chicago and Philadelphia allayed that, and ensured they’d finish in third place. A victory over Philadelphia gave New York City their second playoff win and first-ever playoff progression, but they were summarily dispatched by the eventual MLS champions, Atlanta United, in the conference semifinals.

So, what now? That’s the question. Was the tailspin the inevitable result of a team changing coaches — and really, how they approach a game both tactically and strategically — in midseason? Or is Torrent just not cut out to be a head coach? It’s worth noting that virtually his entire career, he’s been the sidekick to The Man (and there aren’t much bigger men in soccer management than Pep). Torrent’s managerial resume when he took over last year consisted of a season apiece managing Palamos and Girona in Spain.

(sidebar: supposedly, he managed CF Palafrugell from 1994 to 2000, but they’re in the fifth tier of the Spanish football pyramid; the equivalent level in England is the National League, and it’s composed of amateur teams.)

Regardless: this is conclusively his team now. These are the players he wanted, he’s had an entire off-season to prepare, and it’s now on him to prove whether he can manage a team. And, in the context of New York City, not just manage, but win championships, because this is now the team’s fifth season, and with no stadium of their own in sight, New York City fans are restless at best, and downright disenchanted at worst.

One last note: looming over his shoulder is none other than Patrick Vieira. In a bizarre quirk of contractual neglect, OGC Nice’s owners left a clause in his contract that allows Vieira to walk away with no penalty to him should Nice’s football director and chairman be replaced. Which, as a matter of fact, they have.

If Torrent gets off to the kind of start that he finished the season with, well…you never know what might happen.

So…how about the stadium?

There’s no news. NYCFC will continue playing in Yankee Stadium, and the less said about that, the better for everyone concerned. We’ve said everything that needs to be said about it.

Projected Starting XI

It should look something like this:

New York City Projected Starting XI - Football tactics and formations

However, Torrent being the stone tinkerer that he is, expect things to change up if things get wonky. The default formation for NYCFC (and, indeed, for Manchester City as well) is a 4-3-3, but don’t be surprised to see a 4-2-3-1 double pivot with Ebenezer Ofori and Alex Ring, or even stranger things (a 3-3-4? a 3-2-2-3? Who knows?).

The challenge is that, absent Villa, there’s no lock at the center forward position. Plus, given that it’s the Pigeons’ default formation, opponents can and have game-planned the hell out of it. But the upside is that with lots of versatile pieces in the lineup, both the defensive and offensive responsibilities are spread out across the team.

Based on the preseason, it looks like Mitriță will start at left wing, and last season’s offensive revelation Ismael Tajouri-Shradi will be on the right, leaving center forward wide open for Jonathan Lewis or Taty Castellanos. Expect Castellanos to get the start and Lewis to come off the bench.

Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?

Maxi Moralez. Last year, he had an MVP-caliber season, as he basically stepped in for an injury-plagued Villa playing what turned out to be his final MLS season, and single-handedly sparked the offense (and scored a few goals himself). The Argentine playmaker scored 8 goals and finished fourth in MLS with 16 assists on the season. This season, Moralez will hopefully have much more effective offensive counterparts up top, and having Keaton Parks in the midfield (instead of the serviceable-at-best Ofori) should mean that opponents won’t have the luxury of forcing him to drop deeper and deeper in games in search of the ball.

Who’s the player fans will learn to love?

It should be Alexandru Mitriță. I asked a sharp observer of Romanian soccer, Emanuel Rosu, about Mitriță’s ceiling in MLS and whom he’d compare him to. His response? Sebastian Giovinco.

Yes, you read that right. Which would explain why CFG laid out one of the highest transfer fees in MLS history for this guy. And he’s only 24, which means he’s coming into his prime years as a striker and attacking midfielder. From everything we’ve seen, Mitriță has the kind of skills to make fans fall in love; in the last preseason game against Nashville SC, Mitriță scored a banger from distance that was all kinds of smoking. Here, look:

Expect more stuff like that from the Romanian this season. If he delivers, fans will have no problems singing his name and his praises every week this season.

Will this team care about CCL/U.S. Open Cup/Canadian Championship?

No, they won’t. New York City haven’t in the past, and in fact, they’ve never won an Open Cup game. Don’t expect that to change this season, even though the Open Cup has history associated with it (the oldest ongoing American soccer competition, and the second oldest cup competition of its kind, period), and it’s probably one of the easier trophies to win if you’re a MLS team. It’s a shame, because a long Open Cup run — or even winning it — would allay a lot of the restlessness that Pigeons’ fans feel.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

Whether Domè Torrent can really manage this team. It really did look last season as if he lost the locker room, as evidenced by how frustrated players were at the end of games, and how poorly a team that was supposed to contend for a Shield/Cup double finished their season. As I wrote above: this is now his team. He has the players he wants. It’s on him to find a strategic and tactical game plan and to stick with it, especially if things start going awry.

I mentioned this to people as I watched him manage more games, and I still think it’s true: Torrent’s tinkering with formations and tactical plans and lineups and all the rest is low-key a sign of his insecurity and inexperience in managing a team. And there’s nothing wrong with that; managing a team in MLS, let alone a team that’s supposed to be a marquee team*, is a massive step up for a guy who’s only managed two teams for a year apiece.

To quote a certain musical set in these streets: this is Domè Torrent’s shot at managing a team in ways that managing Palamos and Girona weren’t, and he’s not going to throw away his shot. So it only makes sense that he wants to get things just right. Hence the tinkering and experimentation.

But if he can’t settle into the role now, after an off-season of preparation, after the front office essentially cleared out the team and stocked it up the way he wanted it, then it’s fair to ask whether he can, at all. And it would be tragic, in the classical sense, to see him throw away his shot at management just because he couldn’t find the inner peace and confidence to leave well enough alone.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

It shouldn’t change much. All three DP spots are set with the Three Ms — Moralez, Medina, and Mitriță. The Pigeons could use a true center forward, but seem set on rotating Jonathan Lewis and Valentin Castellanos at that role. They could also use a backup right back, because while it’s cool that 16-year-old Joe Scally is on the roster as a defender, it’s also terrifying that Tinnerholm’s backups are a teenager and Tony Rocha, who’s not a defender.

Expectations for this season

Nervous and fretful. Let me explain.

For one, as I’ve mentioned earlier, this is the team’s first season without David Villa. Even when the team sucked in 2015 and 2016, you could still count on Villa to provide excitement with the way he played and scored goals, and encouragement with his all-out dedication to the team. There was something to look forward to, in other words.

For another, though, fans are restless. The novelty of watching a team play in Yankee Stadium has long since worn off; attendance has declined every year since the inaugural season in 2015. It’s safe to say that fans are beyond desperate for the team’s leadership to announce anything related to the stadium. Every single scrap of news, every single rumor and stadium rendering gets combed over by fans with the kind of intensity you see in Jesuitical or rabbinical students.

On top of that, the team’s three Designated Players — Moralez, Medina, and Mitriță — aren’t what you’d call stars. While fans are cautiously optimistic about Mitriță, they’re not wildly over the moon they way they’d be had CFG signed, say, a Pity Martinez. Or, given the Premier League orientations of much of New York City’s fanbase, a Daniel Sturridge, a Danny Welbeck, or even a Mario Balotelli.

Basically, the expectation is this: playoffs, and hopefully, a title of some kind. This is a playoff team on paper, and frankly, it should be a contender, given that it’s gotten younger and more talented across the board. But it all depends on how the season starts for the team; any kind of struggle, and the nerves will be on full display. Torrent’s seat isn’t exactly warm, but it could go from room-temperature to furnace hot with a quickness.

*Whether or not NYCFC is such a team is a discussion for another day. I’m of the opinion that they are not a marquee team, as long as CFG treats them as a subsidiary team to Manchester City, and not the way that Arthur Blank treats Atlanta United. Obviously, the lack of a stadium plays a huge part in this. But this is really a whole other discussion, and Pigeons’ fans are very sensitive to any suggestion that NYCFC is a farm team.