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The Left Back Dilemma

NYCFC’s nearly completed roster still lacks depth at left back

NYCFC v Toronto FC: MLS Cup Eastern Conference Semifinal Match Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

The CONCACAF Champions League and the new MLS season are fast approaching for New York City FC. I’ve talked about in the past how the current roster is still one of the best in MLS, outside of some depth in the midfield and a couple of other spots. Since my article calling for some midfield depth, City has gone out and gotten Keaton Parks on a permanent deal, signed Gedion Zelalem from Sporting Kansas City, and drafted Jesus Perez in the first round of the MLS Superdraft. With the depth in the midfield now seemingly sorted out, it now means David Lee and the NYCFC front office need to turn their attention to another area of need, the left back position.

The last couple of years for City have seen a constant rotation at the position between Ben Sweat and Ronald Matarrita. Sweat was a diamond in the rough for NYCFC, having signed for the club back in 2017 after a successful trial during the preseason. Sweat’s two seasons at the club saw him make 61 appearances and earn a call up to the USMNT in October 2018. Following the 2019 season, Sweat was drafted by Inter Miami 1st overall in the 2020 Expansion Draft.

The loss of Sweat means that Ronald Matarrita is the only natural left-back remaining on the roster. Mataritta is entering his fifth season for the club, where he has proven to be one of the best fullbacks in MLS when healthy. Outside of some of his defensive flaws, Mataritta’s main concern is how injury prone he is. He has not played more than 25 games in a season, which came during his first season with the club back in 2016. The Costa Rican international has not only missed games for club, but also country, where he missed out on the 2018 World Cup with a leg injury. The 25-year-old is a solid player when he’s on the field and is a net positive when he’s on the field for City (except the playoffs last year).

Having a good but injury-prone left back as the only option on your roster is a recipe for disaster. What’s made City so good in that position over the years is that when you had Sweat or Matarrita in, both were starting-caliber left-backs. So the question is now passed to NYCFC: what level player are you looking to bring in? Is it going to be someone who will push Mataritta for a starting spot or a player who can be his perennial understudy?

Looking around the league, specifically in free agency, not many names stand out. MLS veteran Brek Shea may be a player worth taking a flyer on. Shea, a former MLS MVP candidate, is coming off an injury that sidelined him for the whole 2019 season. Shea has been cut by Atlanta United and is now without a club. The 29-year-old attack-minded left back can be the sort of player to put a solid shift from time to time, as he attempts to rejuvenate his career before time runs out.

No players other than Shea stand out in the free-agent pool. Maybe a move for like a veteran like Jordan Harvey of LAFC or Jonathan Bornstein of the Chicago Fire could be in the cards, but it’s something I highly doubt is going to happen.

Outside of the league, solutions definitely exist. But who that piece may be is a guessing game that’s impossible when City Football Group is in charge. Maybe a loan move for a Manchester City youngster is in the books. Or a permanent move for someone from the Bulgarian 2nd division may also be possible. Who knows?

Internally, solutions may exist for the club. Sebastian Ibeagha made an appearance at right back for City back in September and put in a solid shift. Maybe the club can see if Ibeagha’s versatility can move over to the left side of the defense, where he can slot into that position if need be. Tony Rocha is a Swiss Army knife-like player, who can slide into that left back role if need be. My concern with him is if he can play that position at an MLS quality level. Recent homegrown signing Tayvon Gray has also proven to be versatile across the backline in his youth days, so maybe NYCFC can try and mold him to play on the left side, even though his experience is on the right side.

Another solution may be found in MLS SuperDraft pick, Felicien Dumas. The former Notre Dame star played primarily left-back in college, while also playing center back and central defensive midfielder. This solution is kind of a long stretch because I doubt Dumas can play at the MLS level, but crazier things have happened out of the SuperDraft.

The jury is still out on where a solution for this problem will come from, but one can not deny the depth at left-back is something that should be addressed. It’s a good idea to at least be two-deep at a position, especially when one of those two players are injury-prone. City may not even see this as an issue. Last season, the Club did not have a natural right back backing up Anton Tinnerholm for much of the season.

The issue is there and solutions are out there. The willingness of the club to address this issue will be the biggest question going forward.