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Let the kids play

The US Open Cup could showcase NYCFC’s next generation of midfielders

The US Open Cup could put the spotlight on Justin Haak.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

New York City FC are finally back in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup action after the tournament’s two-year absence. New York City’s round of 32 match with the MLS NEXT PRO club Rochester New York FC marks the beginning of the chase for another trophy, and could also represent a golden opportunity for some of NYCFC’s young bench players to make their cases for more playing time.

The club has a largely ugly history with the Open Cup, and squad rotation might be the prime reason for those years of early exits. Year after year, NYC managers rolled out substitute-heavy lineups that were repeatedly not up to the task of knocking off local rivals.

Despite these previous failures fielding “B” teams in the Open Cup, this year’s opening match again begs for rotation. It comes against a third-tier opponent on the turf at Belson Stadium in Queens, and is sandwiched between two MLS matches. Manager Ronny Deila has decisions to make, and a trio of young American midfielders seem like the group most likely to benefit from tweaks to NYCFC’s usual starting XI.

While it seems unlikely Deila will rest all of his starters against Rochester, the American trio of Gedion Zelalem, Justin Haak, and Andres Jasson should warrant a longer look in the Open Cup opener.

Could this be a chance for Gedion Zelalem, the once-heralded Arsenal youth product, to feature in a more advanced attacking role? Maxi Moralez is still working his way back to match fitness from injury, and minutes on turf might not be the best idea for his 35-year-old legs. Santiago Rodriguez has been the default backup in the 10 role during Maxi’s absences, but he too has been busy logging 90 minutes match after match.

The bulk of Zelalem’s NYCFC appearances to date have seen him appear as part of a double pivot, next to either Alfredo Morales or Nicolas Acevedo, and that still could be where Deila thinks he fits best. But asking Zelalem to pull the strings against Rochester might be a worthwhile experiment, given his past reputation as a strong passer and creator. NYCFC has long been on the hunt for someone to consistently back up Maxi as an attacking midfielder, and with loanee Santiago Rodriguez’s long-term future not likely to be in NYC, Zelalem could be worth a look filling that role. Here’s hoping if he does earn a start, it goes a lot smoother than his appearance against the Union on Decision Day 2021 (yikes).

Andres Jasson seems to be the most likely Open Cup starter out of this trio. He’s previously slotted into Deila’s lineups as a right-back, a wide midfielder, and an out-and-out winger. If he’s not given the nod to start on the wing over any of the young South Americans, he could be a replacement for Tayvon Gray at right-back. Gray has put in 90 minutes in six straight matches since returning from injury, thus would seem due for a break. Complicating matters is the fact that there are zero healthy fullbacks on the roster outside of Gray and Chris Gloster. Enter Jasson, whose past (limited, underwhelming) fullback usage could make him the logical replacement. Jasson has shown himself to be great at retaining possession and drawing fouls, but less great at marking wide attackers. Rochester could offer the Homegrown a fresh opportunity to hone his defensive game, which could in theory help solve the club’s glaring depth problems at fullback.

The case of Justin Haak is a trickier one. The Brooklyn-born 20-year-old Homegrown arrived with much hype thanks to a standout, Cavani-nickname-inspiring appearance against Liga MX side Atletico San Luis in a preseason friendly in 2018. Since then, though, his journey to first-team minutes has been rocky. He’s gone on loan twice to USL Championship side Hartford Athletic, and this season has made a number of appearances in MLS NEXT PRO with NYCFC II. The holding midfielder position is a deep one at NYCFC, and he’s not seemed to make inroads on passing anyone ahead of him on the depth chart. While a spot in the starting 11 might still be out of reach even in the Open Cup, a cameo off the bench to rest starter legs could be a prime opportunity for Haak to show what progress he’s made in his time working in the lower divisions.

Finding minutes for Zelalem, Jasson, and Haak should not be viewed as potentially damaging to NYCFC’s Open Cup chances as it might have been a few seasons ago. That’s thanks to the depth sporting director David Lee has accumulated in the attack and in that midfield. And the upside to giving any or all three of these players increased minutes is easy to see. You only have to go back to the 2019 Open Cup round of 32 match against North Carolina FC. That match was Keaton Parks’s first-ever start for NYCFC, after appearing exclusively as a sub, much to the chagrin of many NYCFC and US soccer fans. Parks went on to bag a brace and play a key role in a comfortable 4-0 win, and has never looked back, cementing himself as a regular starter and key contributor.

While there’s no guarantee any of Zelalem, Jasson, or Haak will have that kind of impact against Rochester New York FC or going forward in their NYCFC careers, they all stand out as players with the potential to shine. That would go a long way towards not only kickstarting another Cup run, but could also provide valuable rest for the club’s taxed starters and give Ronny Deila even more confidence to dip into his midfield reserves should injuries or suspensions rear their heads this summer.