Position: Right Back
2021 League Games: 10 games, 3 starts, 375 minutes
2021 Postseason: 4 games, 4 starts, 420 minutes
What went right in 2021:
The numbers above say it all: New York City FC Homegrown Tayvon Gray featured only occasionally during the regular season, but he played every second of every game in the club’s run to the title—even if that meant gimping around with a leg cramp in extra time against New England Revolution.
The Bronx native wasn’t supposed to be the starting right-back in NYCFC’s most important games of the season. Anton Tinnerholm had the position locked down—until an injury in October forced him to miss the remainder of the year. The right back spot was then entrusted to James Sands, but a series of unfortunate events (the blood clot that sidelined Keaton Parks, Geidon Zealam’s rash tackle and straight red card in the 1-1 draw at home against Philadelphia Union), thinned out NYCFC’s once-stacked midfield. It forced manager Ronny Deila to play Sands as a holding mid, and to take a gamble on the 19-year-old Gray.
It paid off. Gray not only held his own against some of the most lethal attackers in MLS, he was easily one of the best players on the field in both the 2-0 defeat of Atlanta United at home and the penalty shootout win over New England at Gillette Stadium. It’s all the more impressive when you keep in mind that Gray spent the season relatively untested and mostly unused: An academy product signed to the senior team in 2019 who spent the 2020 season as an unused substitute, he got his first MLS start in a 1-0 win over Atlanta on June 23, 2022—then remained a benchwarmer until the start of October, playing a total of just 33 minutes over the next 13 games.
But when the postseason began, he looked liked he had been the number-one starter all along. Gray faced off against high-wattage players such as Santiago Sosa and Ezequiel Barco, Adam Buksa and Carles Gil, and he came out on top. Not bad for a player Transfermarkt valued at just $110,000 at the time. Gray is now valued at $220,000, which is low, and which is fine by us—let others keep underestimating a player we know to be developing into one of the best defenders in MLS.
What to improve in 2022:
Gray’s postseason form was exceptional, but he needs to become more technical if he is to reach a truly elite level. No doubt he can do it, especially if Deila once again treats the regular season as if it’s a 34-game preseason. While no right back can be expected to be a goal scorer like Tinnerholm, Gray could contribute by adding more assists like the one Santiago Rodríguez lashed home in the third minute of the game against New England.
Basically, if Gray continues to get minutes he will almost certainly progress as a player, and once again reward Deila’s trust.
Or, as Gray himself put it:
What to expect in 2022
Gray proved himself in the postseason, and he deserves to begin 2022 as the starting right back. But the MLS season is a marathon, not a sprint, and Gray will likely share duties with Tinnerholm once the Swede comes off the disabled list sometime in June. That will suit both of them—Tinnerholm won’t be pressured to rush his rehabilitation, and Gray will be rested when the postseason rolls around again.
Still, when you big-picture the lineup it’s easy to see that there will be a changing of the guard this year, with the 30-year-old Tinnerholm likely closing the season as a backup to the 19-year-old Gray. Sunrise, sunset—swiftly flow the days.
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