This stretch of seven matches in 21 days is putting New York City FC’s depth at fullback through a real-time stress test. A number of injuries and absences at the two shallowest positions on the club’s depth chart have forced Ronny Deila to make some tough decisions. Thus far, the team and the defense’s results have been impossible to quibble with, as the club have notched clean sheets in their last four MLS matches, are unbeaten in eight across all competitions, and once again look like the class of the Eastern Conference.
While the team has thrived and is currently living its best post-CONCACAF Champions League life, the available pool of left- and right-backs still looks like a bit of a mess. The uncertainty that continues to hover over the two fullback positions has the potential to make or break NYCFC’s push for another trophy.
Left- and right-back were once positions of relative stability for NYCFC, as we’re not far removed from the days when Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm gobbled up nearly all the starts at each position. Injuries have left things unsettled at both spots, and while the rotating cast of characters at fullback have held their own, it remains unclear how NYCFC will handle the rest of the season at these two key defensive positions.
The trouble at fullback traces most directly to the awful Achilles rupture Anton Tinnerholm suffered last October. That opened the door for Tayvon Gray, and he has remained the first-choice right-back in Tinnerholm’s continued absence. That absence should not be overlooked, as Tinnerholm had comfortably become one of, if not the best right-back in MLS before his injury. His return is expected later this summer, but Achilles injuries are notoriously tough ones to rehab and get beyond.
Gray has consistently performed in his time filling in for Tinnerholm, most notably starting each of the club’s playoff matches en route to their MLS Cup victory. The 19-year-old more than holds his own on the defensive side of things and is a willing participant in attacks up the right flank, even if his attacking decision-making and deliveries into the box remain inconsistent. This season, though, Gray has been dogged by injuries and unexplained absences. He’s missed eight of the team’s 18 matches, and only lasted 22 minutes in a start against Vancouver before coming off injured. He hasn’t appeared since the goalless draw with Sporting KC on May 7th, and it’s not clear what’s going on with him and when he’ll return to action.
The ripple effect of both Tinnerholm and Gray regularly being out of the lineup has made for some uncomfortable fits at right-back. Andres Jasson, the Homegrown forward, was the first outfield player tasked with covering a position he’s not overly familiar with. Jasson has been serviceable, but he’s also been burned pretty badly by opposing attackers who have tested his pace and exploited his uncertain positioning (see: the first 15 minutes of the second half of the home opener against Montreal). Even in his most recent right-back appearance against lower-division competition in the US Open Cup, Jasson’s shortcomings remained clear, so the prospect of relying on him as the de facto backup-to-the-backup doesn’t fill one with confidence.
That led to Ronny Deila’s most recent experiment, running Nicolas Acevedo out there and seeing if his defensive tendencies and deep-lying distribution can translate to a right-back. Acevedo has looked more comfortable with the defensive side of things than Jasson, though he’s still been prone to lapses of inexperience. In the second minute of NYCFC’s clean-sheet win last night, DC United had a glorious opportunity to open the scoring that was partly at Acevedo’s expense: He decided to go full defensive midfielder, and track the attacking Edison Flores’ run towards goal, leaving DC’s Brad Smith in acres of space at the back post in an area where a right back would, theoretically, be patrolling. Smith’s effort hit the woodwork and NYCFC were let off the hook, but it wasn’t a great look. To Acavedo’s credit, he stayed more disciplined with his positioning as the match went on and DC were unable to really threaten too heavily on his side of the pitch.
Playing the likes of Jasson and Acevedo at right back is a defensive gamble, and it also means sacrificing a key part of NYCFC’s attacking identity. Neither Jasson nor Acevedo can approach Tinnerholm or even Gray when it comes to overlapping with wingers and contributing to the attack. While Jasson has picked up a nice assist from the position, he can’t replicate what Tinnerholm in particular can offer going forward. Acevedo tried to get involved particularly against the Crew, but his delivery into the box leaves a lot to be desired. It’s unrealistic to expect much, as both players are in unfamiliar roles and presumably being asked to focus first and foremost on the defensive side of things. But not having any attacking threat to speak of from the right back makes NYCFC a more predictable attacking team for their opponents to defend.
The left-back looks to be the less glaring of the fullback holes, but even that position has taken a hit. Malte Amundsen was solid in 2021 and has remained so in 2022 upon assuming the role of clear starter following Gudmundur Thorarinsson’s departure. He returned last night from the injury he suffered vs San Jose, but his appearance came at the expense of another fullback: Chris Gloster, who had stepped in for Amundsen, needed to be subbed off injured in the 71st minute at Audi Field.
That could be a big loss, because Gloster appeared to be growing into a solid left-back in Amundsen’s absence. He scored a nice goal against San Jose after subbing on for an injured Amundsen, and had been steadily growing more comfortable in the starter role. He was rock-solid in the second half of the 2-0 victory over Columbus, and provided perfect service to Alexander Callens on the opener in the win over DC. It’s unclear how long he’ll be out, and his injury is offset by the return of Amundsen, but it’s another hit to the club’s fullback depth.
The only other apparent left-back would be MLS SuperDraft second-rounder Kevin O’Toole, who showed promise playing the position against Rochester in the US Open Cup round of 32 despite saying post-match that he hadn’t played left-back in a number of years. O’Toole is yet another non-natural fullback being forced into defensive action, and he’s also now yet another “fullback” that’s unavailable, as he was listed as out for the DC United match due to a head injury. He would have seemed likely to get another chance at Belson Stadium against New England in the Open Cup round of 16, but he and Gloster’s injuries now throw even more of a wrench into Ronny Deila’s plans.
This constant shuffling of the fullback deck has been a bit dizzying to follow, but it has to be said that it hasn’t cost the team. That’s due to the elite play NYCFC regularly gets from its center backs and in the central midfield, with Alexander Callens, Thiago Martins, and company easily pocketing the likes of Golden Boot runner-up Ola Kamara and 2021 boogeyman Lucas Zelarayan.
All that said, these significant questions at left- and right-back are not going away. Ronny Deila has dismissed the idea of adding a right back in the transfer market, but if there was an area of the roster that sporting director David Lee should be zeroing in on for reinforcement when the summer transfer window opens, it should be fullback. The pieces are in place for the club to have another great season, and they are in incredible form at this very moment. But it feels risky to go all summer ignoring what appear to be some glaring holes, even if they expect to get Anton Tinnerholm back. What happens at left- and right-back over the remaining months of the season could have an outsized say in whether or not NYCFC are adding more silverware to their trophy case come season’s end.