At the end of the 2020 MLS season, after a playoff defeat to Orlando City that exposed a true lack of cutting edge along the front line, NYCFC fans spent the entire offseason wondering what would come of their once fearful attack.
The only true forward on the roster, Héber, was out indefinitely with a torn ACL. Taty Castellanos had filled in admirably, but there were doubts as to whether or not he was a true striker. On the wings, Gary Mackay-Steven and Jesus Medina struggled for form while Ismael Tajouri-Shradi struggled to remain fit. Maxi Moralez remained a brilliant creator, but the star NYCFC midfielder was not getting any younger at 34.
Fans grew frustrated as the new season drew near, as not much had changed. Homegrown signing Andres Jasson was available to start the season, but beyond that and the departure of Mackay-Steven, things looked eerily similar in a 2-1 defeat to DC United start the season.
Fast forward less than 4 months to the present: Ronny Deila has a selection dilemma on his hands. As Héber inches closer to a comeback after over 10 months out of action, he will add to a front line that can be considered nothing short of stacked.
To start, he will have to battle Castellanos to earn his starting spot back. When Héber came in and scored 15 goals in 22 games in his first season in Blue, the No. 9 spot looked like it was his for years to come. While Taty hasn’t quite mirrored his impact in terms of goal output (6 goals in 17 matches in 2021), there is no denying that he provides a strong impact in terms of pressing, build up play, and energy at the head of the attack, something that may be difficult for Héber to replicate as he regains fitness.
This work was rewarded by NYCFC with a new contract through 2025 amid interest from Brazilian giants Palmeiras that provides him with the earnings of a clear MLS starter. The obvious solution in the past would be to move Castellanos back to his previous position on the left wing, but that has become a crowded part of the NYCFC set-up as well.
Fans had to wait until almost June to see the debut of Thiago, a player that they had signed from Brazilian club Bahia but had to wait to obtain a VISA before he could join the club officially. If anyone had not seen Thiago play prior to him joining the club, it took about 5 seconds for observers to note one thing: he is fast! Thiago has already established himself as a fan favorite after a full field run and goal to win a match against DC United in June, and looks to be a top quality addition to the side after just 9 matches.
The fact that Talles Magno — signed to a deal that reportedly cost the club 8 figures — hasn’t been mentioned yet, shows the extreme depth of the club at these forward positions. Magno has played sparingly since arriving in May due to knee issues, but has been considered one of the most exciting young Brazilian talents. Magno appears to be fit for Wednesday’s game against Pumas UNAM after being named in the preliminary squad, and — despite being just 18 years old — should have a significant part to play for the rest of the season after being signed as a Young Designated Player.
On the right wing, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Jesus Medina have been splitting time so far this season and are tied for the team lead in goals. While some may still have reservations about Medina, he has undeniably improved from his performances in seasons past and the numbers are there to support it. Tajouri-Shradi has appeared in all but one game for the club this season, and appears to have sorted out some of the injuries that have hampered him in the past. His finishing ability with his left foot is among the best in the league and he has consistently performed for the club when fit.
The club even went out and got cover for Moralez, who at 34 will no longer be expected to carry the load creatively in every match. Santi Rodriguez, signed from Montevideo, has looked impressive in limited minutes since arriving in New York. He played well and scored a beautiful goal against Toronto FC in the club’s last match, and could be a long term solution for the club in that role should Moralez move on after the season.
All in all, attacking depth has moved from a significant weakness for NYCFC to an undeniable strength for which the front office should be applauded. With a congested fixture list at present, Deila has been able to rotate the squad and get a look at a variety of players in different roles. As Magno and Héber enter the fray, there will be an even stronger competition for minutes along a loaded front line to see who will have a role to play come the Playoffs.
In my opinion, in an elimination playoff game, that front line should include Thiago, Castellanos, and Tajouri-Shradi with Moralez beneath them. Magno would have to come in and show some special ability to replace Thiago, who has done just that since being inserted into the squad. I see Magno being a major part of the first team next season, but given his injuries, age, and the performances of those playing currently, he has his work cut out for him if he wants to be a starter this season.
Coming off of a long injury, Héber may be better served playing from the bench as a super sub. As he is a natural finisher, it excites me to consider how many goals he could score with the newfound quality around him. His instincts in the box are among the best in the league, and I still think he will score important goals this season. However, advanced metrics consistently show Castellanos as one of the best forwards in MLS and as he starts to score more goals after a long drought, the starting spot is his to lose.
Medina has played more minutes than Tajouri-Shradi this season, and likely will be the starter in a Playoff game on the right side. However, Tajouri-Shradi provides a cutting edge and spark of pace that Medina doesn’t quite possess. While Deila appears to prefer this from the bench, I still believe that the NYCFC attack looks more dangerous with Tajouri-Shradi on the pitch. He has scored big goals and come through in big games for the club in the past, which I believe should be rewarded with a place in the starting XI come playoff time.
Regardless, NYCFC fans can dare to dream about the depth of this attack carrying them deep within the playoffs this season and possibly to their first ever piece of silverware.