Welcome to the latest edition of Hot Take, in which a Hudson River Blue contributor takes a highly subjective stand on a topic and gives you their deeply biased opinion.
With Nick Cushing now officially in as the full-on manager, re-signing Alexander Callens should be the first item on sporting director David Lee’s agenda. NYCFC faces a number of big roster decisions this offseason. Callens, Sean Johnson, and Anton Tinnerholm are three of their longest-tenured players and all are free agents, and it already appears Tinnerholm is headed back home to rejoin Malmö FF in Sweden.
Both Callens and Johnson are out of contract, and free to sign for any team. MLSsoccer.com’s Tom Bogert thinks Callens and Johnson are “two of the three most-coveted free agents on the market within MLS.”
It might not be possible to retain both players, and if David Lee is forced to make a difficult choice, he should do all he can to retain Callens — even if it means saying goodbye to Johnson, team captain and MVP of the 2021 MLS Cup final.
There are multiple factors that make Callens NYCFC’s most important player to re-sign. NYCFC had its brightest stretch under Cushing when he deployed a fluid 3-4-3 formation, and that system worked best when it had Callens as one of three center backs, and the one with license to get forward and join in on the attack.
Depth at the position is razor thin, as underscored by the fact that it was midfielder Justin Haak who replaced an injured Maxime Chanot at center back for the bulk of the team’s final two postseason matches. Vuk Latinovich is out of contract and didn’t seem up to snuff as a starter in MLS. Tayvon Gray theoretically could slot in at CB, but with Anton Tinnerholm’s departure, he’s still desperately needed at right back.
Along with a striker, new signings across the back line would seem to be NYCFC’s biggest need heading into the offseason. Subtracting Callens right now feels like it would be too costly. For years, the team has performed at their best with him as part of their back line, and it feels unlikely they’d sign a player that could immediately replace his defensive solidity, penchant for a goal on a set piece, and clutch penalty kick prowess.
Conversely, NYCFC does seem to have a promising young goalkeeper in Luis Barraza whom they drafted in 2019 and have thus far mostly just asked to start in cup competitions. He also recently signed a contract extension that keeps him here through 2023, with two additional option years.
Losing a keeper who has been as good for NYCFC for as long as Sean Johnson has is not ideal, but his free agency also coincides with another factor that might make him even more valuable and costly on the open market: His trip to Qatar with the USMNT. Great keepers are at a premium in the league and he’s one of the best, and the bonus of signing him on the heels of a World Cup roster appearance might make him seem extra valuable to one of the other MLS teams.
Callens’s 2022 compensation was significantly higher than Johnson’s ($814,000 for Callens, $550,000 for Johnson) and he similarly could end up getting priced out of NYCFC’s range, given he has long been one of the best center backs in MLS.
In a best-case scenario, NYCFC could retain both Johnson and Callens and add a few other promising young defenders to rotate in when injuries and fixture congestion arrive. But if an ultimate choice has to be made, I think it makes the most sense to do whatever it takes to keep the Peruvian Ironman around for a few more seasons.