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Gabriel Pereira dos Santos: Starter, or super-sub?

The understated 20-year-old has changed games coming off the bench since joining NYCFC in March for a reported $5.5 million fee

“He’s a smooth operator.” —Sade
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy NYCFC.com

Rarely has a new player fit as quickly and seamlessly into the New York City FC attack as Gabriel Pereira dos Santos. The club announced signing the 20-year-old forward from Corinthians on March 17 for a reported $5.5 million fee; a little more than two weeks later he took the field when New York City faced Toronto FC in Canada, and Delia brought him on in the 46th minute to replace Talles Magno.

He has featured in every league game since then, making four appearances. Pereira has been used exclusively as a substitute so far, and to great effect: He has scored two goals in just 116 minutes played, which works out to an astonishing 58 minutes per goal. If he keeps it up, Pereira will be the greatest goal-scorer who ever lived.

In all seriousness, Pereira’s two goals were technically adept, pleasing to watch, and vital to NYCFC’s current run of form.

But before we dissect his goals, let’s spend a moment assessing his play. The Pereira we’ve seen in these 116 minutes is composed, aware, silky-smooth. He’s not flashy. Instead, he sticks to the fundamentals, and his fundamental skills are so well-honed that he makes a Murderer’s Row of attackers even more dangerous. He makes crisp passes, smart dribbles. He hugs the right sideline, and rarely roams inside the box. His first touch is deft.

Standing at 5’ 9” and slightly built, Pereira uses his positioning, technical ability, and linkup play to open up space and disorient an opposition already stretched by Castellanos, Talles Magno, Santiago Rodríguez, and Thiago: When he comes on, he overwhelms a defense that was already overloaded. No wonder his market value jumped 50 percent to $3.3 million since joining NYCFC.

Now for Pereira’s goals. The first came in New York City’s 5-4 win over Toronto at Citi Field, a come-from-behind bare-bottom-spanking that turned into a nail-biter. Pereira came on in the 74th minute, then scored in his first passage of play one minute later. The goal was elegant as it was ruthless: Pereira received the ball, carried it into the top of the box, then calmly nutmegged a defender to tuck it inside the far post.

At the time it felt little more than a feel-good goal that padded NYCFC’s lead, an extra scoop of ice cream for a slice of pie that was already delicious. Ten minutes later, the NYCFC defense imploded and gave up two goals in rapid succession: It turns out that Pereira’s fun-time goal was the game-winner.

Pereira’s second goal came last Saturday, when NYCFC scored late to beat San Jose Earthquakes 3-0. This time it took Pereira a full 13 minutes to score. The winger came on in the 65th minute to help jump-start an attack that couldn’t break down a stubborn San Jose. Keaton Parks scored the first goal of the game nine minutes later—then Pereira scored four minutes after that, sealing a win that had eluded the team for more than 70 minutes.

Once again, the goal was efficient and understated. Once again, Pereira took his shot from the top of the box, this time sending the ball between three defenders and past the outstretched arms of the goalkeeper. Once again, he tucked it just inside the far post. That's what you get when you sign a left-footed right-winger who keeps his cool.

Rather, that’s what you get when you sign a left-footed right-winger who not only keeps his cool, but who can handle the physicality of MLS, and who quickly develops the on-field chemistry that’s so important to a fluid, flowing attack like that of NYCFC: His teammates clearly trust his skills and decision-making. In other words, that's what you get when you sign exactly the left-footed right-winger you need.

Is it too early to declare that Pereira is the best right-winger to play for NYCFC? His positioning is better than Jack Harrison’s, a Tasmanian devil of a player who ran harder than anybody on the field, but whose inexperience could let him get caught out by savvy opponents. His technical ability is better than Jesús Medina’s, a Designated Player who graciously took on the role of sideman to an ascendent Taty Castellanos, but who was always just a little too slow to pull off the moves he tried to make. His link-up play is better than Ismael Tajouri-Shradi’s, a forward who could change games and who will always be loved by the NYCFC faithful, but who could hold on to the ball for too long and try for the greatness of a baroque dribble than make the simple, smart pass.

All of which leads us to the question: Is Pereira a starter, or a super-sub?

Pereira’s current role as a substitute seems to be as much about NYCFC’s abundance of attackers as it is about trusting him to go the full 90 minutes. Who do you bench in his place? Thiago, who has four goals and one assist, and does the dirty work in the attacking third? Rodríguez, who has two goals and four assists, and runs the midfield? Talles Magno, the club’s next-big-thing, and feels poised for a breakout year?

Gabriel Pereira heat map for Corinthians, Série A, 2021

There's also an argument to be made that Pereira is the perfect super-sub along the lines of what you find in top-flight clubs in Europe, a quality player who can snatch a win or seal a victory against a vulnerable defense tenderized by the hard-running Thiago, and Rodríguez, and Talles Magno. Delia is one of the few managers in MLS with a legitimate scoring threat warming up on the sideline and ready to play, rather than a second-string attacker who maybe has a goal in him, fingers-crossed.

In the coming weeks, we’re likely to see Pereira start some games, and come on a super-sub in others. Yesterday, Deila noted in his weekly press conference that the team’s schedule is about to become congested: NYCFC will play five games in 15 days between league games and the US Open Cup. Deila will need to rotate the squad to get the results expected of the club, and he said that means we’ll see Pereira make the starting XI.

Which role suits Pereira best? We’ll have a better idea 16 days from now, after NYCFC plays Sporting Kansas City, Rochester NY FC, Columbus Crew, DC United, and Chicago Fire. Any conclusions we make now are pure speculation.

So, let’s have some fun and speculate:

Poll

Gabriel Pereira is a...

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Super-sub: Keep your powder dry, bring him off the bench
    (10 votes)
  • 12%
    Starter: That much quality deserves 90 minutes on the field
    (5 votes)
  • 63%
    Both: It’s a long season, not gonna commit now babe
    (26 votes)
41 votes total Vote Now