Before New York City FC could win the league title, they had to sell their best player.
On December 17, 2020, NYCFC made the surprise announcement that club captain Alexander Ring had been traded to Austin FC for $1.25 million in General Allocation Money. Seventeen days later, defender and starter Ronald Matarrita was traded to FC Cincinnati in exchange for $600,000 in GAM. At the time, the departures of both players came as a shock, especially as their nominal replacements weren’t signed until much later—left-back Malte Amundsen joined NYCFC on February 12, 2021, while midfielder Alfredo Morales was signed on April 17, 2021, just 10 days before the season opener.
A little over one year later, the risky decision to quickly dismantle the club’s core, then slowly rebuild it with a combination of squad players and careful signings, now looks like the well-played opening gambit of a season that ended with NYCFC lifting the MLS Cup—and manager Ronny Deila stripping down to his underwear.
First depth, then signings
Amundsen and Morales didn’t slot into the starting lineup as automatic replacements. Instead, Gudmundur Thorarinsson took over the left-back position, starting 20 games in 2021 versus only seven starts in 2020. Keaton Parks and James Sands both saw their minutes in the midfield increase as well. Parks started 28 games in 2021, while Sands started 26 games. This was a testament to NYCFC’s depth, and to the club’s strategy of developing talent.
That said, both Amundsen and Alfredo Morales saw their share of minutes in 2021. Whether it was replacing injured players or earning games, their presence on the field allowed the departures of Ring and Matarrita to feel less traumatic. Both players were a good fit for the NYCFC system, and as the season progressed their contributions increased.
Just as important, the GAM brought in by the Ring and Matarrita trades were used to add attacking talent in Santiago Rodriguez, Talles Magno, and Thiago Andrade.
“We had to move players out for salary cap/budget reasons, but also to refresh the group. We had a team with limited changes for a prolonged period, we felt it was the right time to refresh plus the salary cap situation necessitated it,” NYCFC sporting director David Lee told MLSsoccer.com last year.
A selling club that wins
As NYCFC continues to evolve as a selling club, roster turnover will become more and more normal. This winter has already seen the departure of former Designated Player Jesús Medina, while bench-spark Ismael Tajouri-Shradi was lost to the expansion draft: That makes two wingers who will need to be replaced. While attacking depth likely will be brought in, we’ll probably see replacements from within the squad along the lines of what happened after the departures of Ring and Matarrita. It would not be surprising if Thiago Andrade, Talles Magno – or even Andres Jasson – have larger roles in 2022.
The most anticipated news among NYCFC supporters is the future of Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos. At the time of writing, Castellanos is the rumored object of a bidding war between South American powerhouses Club Atlético River Plate and Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras. There is also rumored interest from European clubs West Ham United, Everton FC, Juventus, and others. With the likely departure of Castellanos, arguably the single most important player in NYCFC’s title run, a key position will need to be filled. Héber was the main striker before Castellanos, only ceding his position due to an ACL tear. While his recent production and age are not in his favor, he isn’t so far removed from the 15 goals and 3 assists in 2019, and he scored two goals against the New Jersey Red Bulls in a friendly earlier this week. Designated Player Talles Magno could grab the starting spot as he has shown flashes of brilliance for the team in 2021.
With James Sands is on an 18-month loan with perennial Scottish champions Rangers FC, the 22-year-old Nicolás Acevedo is expected to step up and take a starting role. Acevedo started only 15 games in 2021, most of those coming when Sands was on international duty. Morales played almost every single minute in the playoffs, but his advancing age might make it difficult to become an everyday starter. Neither Acevedo nor Morales can comfortably slide into the backline as Sands, but both have flourished in midfield.
The future looks bright?
Going into year eight of existence, NYCFC are solidifying an identity as a selling club that can compete in MLS and win championships. The formula for accomplishing both relies on a mixture of depth, experience, and excellent scouting.
While big departures are usually paired with big arrivals, the NYCFC front office tends to take a different tack. As a fan, it is comforting to know that the risk of losing a familiar player is limited by the talent and depth already signed to NYCFC: Chances are, most of the 2022 starters are already in the squad.
The ease with which City transitioned after selling cornerstones Ring and Matarrita is a promising reminder as potentially bigger pieces will need to be replaced this offseason. The successful strategy used last winter will hopefully remain just that and even grow: A success, and at a larger scale.