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What is NYCFC’s best Starting XI?

How should the Blues line up on Saturday?

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Well, the wait is over. Starting tomorrow, New York City FC’s 2019 season will kick off against Orlando City on the road. And what a weird journey it’s been to this point.

Early on in the offseason, David Villa announced his departure from New York after four seasons. Not long after that, NYCFC had a mass exodus of players which included fan favorites such as Yangel Herrera and Tommy McNamara. Needless to say, many of the team’s supporters expected a much different New York City in 2019 by the time the 2019 MLS season rolled around.

Believe it or not, that hasn’t happened. As a matter of fact, apart from Villa and Herrera, NYCFC doesn’t look much different than it did last season. Maxime Chanot was re-signed, Ebenezer Ofori was brought back on loan, and NYCFC exercised their option to buy Taty Castellanos’ from Torque after spending half the season with the Blues on loan. Overall, the club has done well to maintain some continuity between seasons.

But there are a good share of new faces that will be adorning the City Blue kit in 2019.

Keaton Parks — a young American midfielder with good upside — was brought over on loan from Portuguese giants Benfica, Juan Pablo Torres was purchased from Lokeran, Tony Rocha was acquired in a trade with Orlando, and Villa’s vacant Designated Player slot has been given to Romanian winger Alexandru Mitrita.

Not to mention NYCFC also made Justin Haak their third Homegrown Player signing.

So yeah, there are some things to sort out and some questions to be answered. But after a short preseason, this is — in my opinion — the best starting lineup that manager Dome Torrent can put out on Saturday.

For simplicity’s sake, we are using the vanilla 4-3-3 as our baseline. This won’t account for any tactical tinkering Dome decides to do.

GK: Sean Johnson

MLS: Orlando City Invitational-New York City FC at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

SeanJohn has been a fixture in between the pipes for NYCFC since arriving to the five boroughs in 2016, and for good reason. The former Chicago Fire man is blessed with everything you want in a good goalkeeper: size, good reflexes, and leadership abilities. And though he has never been noted for his play with the ball at his feet, Johnson has made leaps and bounds towards improving that part of his game since arriving to the Big Apple.

Honestly, the biggest question regarding the goalkeeper position is who the understudy will be. And that question isn’t easy to answer. Both Brad Stuver and new draft pick Luis Barraza were really solid this preseason and you can make a case for either of them when it comes to being the second-choice keeper.

Jeff Caldwell on the other hand... ehh, sorry man.

RB: Anton Tinnerholm

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Atlanta United FC at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This is a no-brainer.

Tinnerholm has proven to be both a defensive and offensive threat at right back. Blessed with good pace and an even better engine, the Swedish fullback effortlessly glides up and down the right flank and is capable of making great tackles and some spectacular shots on goal as well, earning him the nickname “TinnerBoom”.

Beyond him, the only actual right back on the roster is HGP Joe Scally. And while I’m a huge fan of “playing the kids”, there is one thing to keep in mind: Scally is only 16 years old and has very little first-team experience. Throwing that kind of pressure onto a player who is technically still a child could be tough in a game setting. But, a baptism by fire might not be too bad either.

CB’s: Maxime Chanot & Alexander Callens

MLS: New York City FC at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In a league with an ever-changing landscape such as MLS, you’d be hard pressed to find a core of players that remain together for more than two years or so, especially post-2015. This is what makes the defensive pairing of Chanot and Callens all the more dangerous going into 2019.

Chanot arrived midway through the season in 2016 and quickly solidified himself as not only one of the better center backs in the league due to his size and man-marking, but also due to his ability to lead and control the back line. Callens arrived prior to the 2017 season and quickly established himself as one of MLS’s better defensive options due to his insane work rate and him being almost impervious to injury, missing no minutes in 2017 until being shown a red card in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals that season.

The pairing featured far less prominently in 2018 after Chanot took a leave of absence due to “personal issues” shortly after losing his starting spot following a heartbreaking 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in April. Following that, backup Sebastien Ibeagha began to feature as Callens’ defensive partner.

Should Chanot and Callens both stay healthy, their starting spots should be set in stone long past this Saturday.

Backing them up will be the ever-reliable Ibeagha, who also proved his worth in 2018 with his size and pace. As far as a fourth option is concerned, it isn’t entirely clear who that could be. Obviously, James Sands has experience at the CB position and it seems NYCFC might even favor Tony Rocha as an option.

LB: Ronald Matarrita

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I have to admit that this was a tough one. On one hand, I firmly believe that Matarrita is the best option when it comes to pure talent. On the other, Ben Sweat has been the more reliable (and sturdy) of the two for the past year or so.

But Mata gets it for me. Despite proving to be quite injury prone since arriving in 2016, the Costa Rican is still probably one of the better fullbacks in the league when it comes to his dynamic ability. Like Tinnerholm, Matarrita is blessed with unbelievable pace and good technical ability.

The only issue is staying healthy.

CM (defensive): Alexander Ring

MLS: Knockout Round-Philadelphia Union at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

I mean, who else were we gonna choose?

Not only is Ring one of the league’s best midfield talents, he is also the new captain of the squad. And there’s a good reason for that. Quiet, yet influential, the Finnish No. 6 is definitely one to lead by example, all the while making life absolutely miserable for opposing players with his exceptional ability to get stuck in on tackles and generally cover a ton of ground. And while he will definitely miss at least one game due to yellow card accumulation, there is no one more fit for the Captain Destroyer role than the Ringmaster.

When it comes to backing Ring up, NYCFC have quite a few options, one of whom is the newly acquired Juan Pablo Torres. Fresh off a two-year stint with Belgian club Lokeren — in which he only made two competitive appearances — Torres has been somewhat of a favorite for Dome Torrent this preseason and has featured quite extensively in the 2019 preparations. He has also been a fixture for the United States’ U-20 team with whom he has made 7 appearances and scored 4 goals in under a year.

James Sands is another attractive option for the Blues at the No. 6, as is Ebenezer Ofori. Sands has been with the club since graduating from the academy in 2017 and has only logged 4 games for NYCFC thus far, but has gotten rave reviews from Dome Torrent in the past. Ofori is coming back for a second straight season in New York — on loan from VfB Stuttgart — after featuring plenty in 2018; 27 times to be exact. And given Ring’s disciplinary history, it’s easy to say that any, if not all of these guys will get their chance at some point.

CM (holding): Keaton Parks

Soccer: International Champions Cup-Benfica at Juventus Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Replacing Yangel Herrera at the No. 8 is not gonna be an easy task. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s the second hardest task next to replacing Villa. So it should come as little surprise that this was one of the harder decisions for me to make.

But alas, I’ve made my decision. And it’s Benfica loan Keaton Parks.

Out of everyone available, Parks seems to be the most optimal in a box-to-box role. He’s big (6’4), has decent pace, is competent on both offense and defense, and is good with the ball at his feet in a jam. The Plano, Texas native also has a bite to him and plays in a no-holds barred, physical fashion much like Herrera did.

With that said, Parks isn’t the only viable option for this role.

The aforementioned Ofori and Torres both possess the apropos attributes to be effective as a No. 8, and Ofori has done it in the past. Hell, I made an argument as to why Sands could even be considered for the role not too long ago. Add in the fact that Tony Rocha is primarily a midfielder and that Ring can just as easily slide over from the defensive midfield, and that is six players that can potentially be the midfield engine.

Technically speaking, new HGP signing Justin Haak is also primarily a holding midfielder. But due to his youth and the amount of depth at his preferred position, it isn’t reasonable to expect him to get a lot, if any minutes in 2019.

CM (attacking): Maxi Moralez

MLS: Knockout Round-Philadelphia Union at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Maxi might not have been NYCFC’s best player in 2018, but he damn sure was one of their most important. In a breakout season that solidified his role as a Designated Player, the diminutive Argentinean playmaker contributed 9 goals and 11 assists in 35 matches in 2018 en route to becoming an MLS MVP candidate.

I could go on and on about how vital a role Maxi plays for the Blues. But that would just be white noise considering that everyone and their mother knows that the Blues’ No. 10 can ball.

Unlike much of the corps of central players NYCFC has stockpiled in the past two seasons, Moralez isn’t really suited to play anywhere else in the midfield. We did see him feature in a “false 9” type role when City was missing David Villa due to injury, but I don’t expect that to be a common theme in 2019. Instead, I fully expect for Maxi to stick to his post at the No. 10 and continue to be the architect of NYCFC’s attack.

But, who’s backing him up? Good question.

On paper, there is only one other “attacking midfielder” on the team and that is Daniel Bedoya, a player who — after being picked from PDL side Long Island Rough Riders midway through 2018 — was relegated to being a reserve for much of his stay in 2018 and, so far, has not really seen enough minutes (no minutes, in fact) to warrant any serious look as a viable backup.

Elsewhere, players like Taty Castellanos and even Jesus Medina have featured in central roles for City in the past. And should Moralez be either unavailable or needed elsewhere on the pitch, it isn’t a stretch to see either two of those players playing in the attacking mid.

RW: Jesus Medina

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I have to be honest; I don’t at all think that Medina has done enough since Dome’s takeover to justify getting a starting job. But, if he’s gonna be taking up a DP slot, then he has to play. Otherwise, he’s gotta go or be bought down. And I’m pretty sure the latter option isn’t even possible.

Historically speaking, Medina is best utilized as a left winger who uses his dominant left foot to distribute the ball into and around the 18-yard box. When on the right, the idea is to use him as an inverted winger who can cut in onto his dominant left foot (seriously, he can hardly use his right) and either play-make or even take shots on goal. Medina’s current issue, however, is that he lacks either the skill or confidence (or both) to effectively invert. This flaw in his game has been a huge setback for him. And though he is capable of putting up numbers, he has failed to do so on a consistent basis.

Should something become of the young Paraguayan, the second in line for the right flank is easily Ismael Tajouri-Shradi who was one of NYCFC’s most electrifying forwards in 2018. he can take on defenders and score goals; that’s pretty much all you need. Right behind ITS on the depth chart is Jonathan Lewis. Lewis has had somewhat of a checkered past in the five boroughs. Despite showing signs of brilliance in his limited playing time, the former 2017 MLS SuperDraft pick has consistently been omitted from the team sheet much to the chagrin of supporters. But, after what was an encouraging preseason (minus that flub against Nashville) and an impressive two-game stint with the USMNT, 2019 could very well be the year the former Akron Zip finally gets the minutes he needs to showcase his abilities.

LW: Alexandru Mitrita

Pescara Calcio v FC Torino - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

At left wing is NYCFC’s shiny new toy — and new DP — Alexandru Mitrita. Having yielded the third highest transfer fee in MLS history, the hype and expectations around the Romanian forward are extremely high.

Mitrita (pronounced MEE-TREET-SA) had an impressive preseason for the Blues which fans will be hoping is a small sample of what’s to come. The inverted winger scored two goals in as many games and showed prowess when dribbling at (and around) defenders, in addition to solidifying himself as a viable passing threat. Odds are he won’t produce the same numbers as David Villa especially from a wide position. Still, for NYCFC to succeed in 2019, Mitrita must pull his weight. And I fully expect him to thrive.

The left wing position is not nearly as deep as the right. As previously mentioned, Jesus Medina is primarily a left winger, but he’s really the only one other than Mitrita. Tajouri-Shradi and Lewis have both shown competence when playing the position (Lewis actually scored his debut goal from the left side), but neither are left wingers by default. Taty Castellanos also has a small history on the left flank, but it remains to be seen whether he can actually produce in that role.

Ronald Matarrita is also capable of playing the wing, having done so (albeit sparingly) in the past.

So, if Mitrita could avoid injury this season, that would be great. Thanks.

CF: Ismael Tajouri-Shradi

MLS: New York City FC at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

With no pure striker on the team, the center forward/”false 9” role is given to Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. Out of everyone on the squad, ITS is the only player that is a proven goal-scorer, having scored 11 goals in 27 appearances throughout the 2018 campaign. Armed with pace, strength and a flair for the spectacular, there is little justification for leaving the Libyan off the starting lineup.

As previously stated, NYCFC lacks any actual center forward on the roster. However, given how this preseason went, it’s possible that Taty Castellanos is next (if not first) in line for the spot. Maxi Moralez also has some experience with filling into the No. 9 position and could be called upon in a pinch, but that’s pretty much it.

So, here’s hoping ITS has the skillset to consistently put up numbers in between the wingers.

Do you agree with our list? What would your Starting XI look like? Let us know in the comments!