First impressions are absolutely everything, especially when talking about sports in the New York market. I cannot stress that enough. Don’t believe me? Just ask Eloi Amagat how his time in the Bronx was after getting sent off in the first half of a Hudson River Derby in his first ever match in blue last summer.
It can easily go the other way, as well. From the second he set foot on the Etihad Pitch, Jack Harrison absolutely thrashed defenders en route to becoming a beloved piece of New York City FC culture and one of the top-rated prospects in MLS before eventually transferring to English giants Manchester City in 2018.
This same standard is now the burden of newest DP signing Alexandru Mitrita.
It’s no secret that the NYCFC faithful were looking for a big name to fill the shoes of the now-departed David Villa. Hell, I published this article about bringing in Daniel Sturridge over the summer just one day before Mitrita was announced as a Designated Player signing. With such inflated expectations, even the greatest of players can falter.
But not in the case of Mitrita. The Romanian — who was celebrating his 24th birthday — had himself a helluva game both on and off the ball against Swedish club AIK, and even had a goal to show for it. And despite the fact that it ended in a 1-1 draw, the game as a whole will definitely seem as a step in the right direction for New York City as a team.
For this preseason friendly, NYCFC lined up as follows:
GK: Sean Johnson
DEF: Anton Tinnerholm, Maxime Chanot, Ben Sweat, Ronald Matarrita
MID: Alexander Ring, Juan Pablo Torres, Maxi Moralez
FWD: Jonathan Lewis, Alexandru Mitrita, Taty Castellanos
As usual in these exhibition games, NYCFC made wholesale changes in the second half with the exception of Lewis, who played all 90 minutes.
Sean Johnson was the star in the early goings of the matchup. Fresh off a stint with the USMNT — which also included Jonathan Lewis, whom we will be talking about in the near future — the NYCFC netminder kept AIK off the board with two stone cold stops within the first ten minutes, both against Tarik Elyounoussi.
The birthday boy Mitrita eyed goal in the 10th minute after some tidy ball-handling, but was denied by AIK keeper Oscar Linner.
Once the early-game madness had settled, NYCFC began doing what they do best: possessing the ball and creating a plethora of chances. Even if the goal didn’t come, it was still refreshing to see City in such good form despite being only two games into their preseason.
NYCFC came out of the gate swinging in the second half and finally got their goal. And who better to score the first City goal of 2019 other than Alexandru Mitrita?
In the 50th minute — following a clinic in buildup passing — the Romanian forward linked up with Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. Despite getting fouled in the process, ITS’s touch was good enough to put the ball into the path of Mitrita who carried it into the box and scored on a dazzling near-post curler that left Linner flat-footed, giving NYCFC a 1-0 advantage.
Unfortunately, the Pigeons would concede to AIK just moments later in the 52nd minute.
Sebastien Ibeagha — a second half substitute — made a foolish tackle in the box that caused the referee to point to the spot for a penalty, which Saku Ylätupa converted past 2019 MLS SuperDraft pick Luis Barraza.
From there, the game would settle into a perpetual state of inactivity until the final whistle.
Of all of the players who took to the field at NYU Abu Dhabi Stadium on Friday, Jonathan Lewis was the only one to put in a full 90-minute shift. The young American has been making a name for himself recently following a string of impressive performances in which he made two assists in as many games. Despite Lewis’ steadily rising reputation, he has struggled for consistent minutes in the past. Hopefully, Friday’s ironman performance is good enough to convince Domé Torrent to give Lewis more time on the field in 2019.
Luis Barraza made his debut for NYCFC on Friday. This year’s first-round pick was shown to be quite proficient with the ball at his feet and also showed signs of shot-stopping brilliance just three minutes into the second half with a big left-footed save. With the trio of Johnson, Stuver, and now Barraza all showing quality early on, things aren’t looking great for 2018 SuperDraft pick Jeff Caldwell.
Something to take into account is that AIK is a really good team. Fresh off of a season where they won the Allsvenskan, there a fewer teams more qualified to give NYCFC a solid test right out of the gate. These past two friendlies against FC Copenhagen — who are currently leading the Danish Superliga — and AIK have given some real insight as to where the Pigeons are as a team. And despite some initial worries, the club’s chemistry seems to be high.
One worry that has yet to be addressed, however, is that of the striker position. On Friday, Taty Castellanos started at the No. 9 position. And though he continues to grow as a player, I’m still skeptical as to whether that’s a role he can viably play. Granted, NYCFC can also opt to play without a traditional striker in the form of a false nine or something similar. But for consistent success against the better teams in MLS, they will need a clinical goal scorer. Let’s see if that role can be played by Mitrita, Tajouri-Shradi, or a combination of both.
Next up: NYCFC return to the States to do battle with “rivals” Orlando City on February 16 at 7:30 PM (EST) in the Sunshine State. This game will mark their first match of the inaugural Orlando City Invitational.