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Ronny Deila Roundtable: Reactions to his sudden departure from NYCFC

Hudson River Blue’s panel of writers discuss the former head coach’s legacy at New York City FC, and how things will play out under Nick Cushing

You go do you.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy NYCFC.com

Welcome to the latest edition of the Hudson River Blue Roundtable, in which Calvin Daniel, Andrew Leigh, Noah Kassell-Yung, Raf Noboa y Rivera, and Derian Trahan try to process the sudden and unexpected departure of Ronny Deila. We talk ups, downs, legacy, and who are the best and worst head coaches in the history of New York City FC.

First off, what’s your initial reaction to Deila leaving NYCFC?

Andrew Leigh: We’re really doing this again?

Noah Kassell-Yung: Slightly unexpected but not really surprised.

Raf Noboa y Rivera: Ah, well, nevertheless. What are you going to do?

Derian Trahan: A bittersweet end to a refreshing, fun, almost-three seasons at NYCFC.

Calvin Daniel: I’m sad to see him go. He turned out to be a great manager.

Rumors about Ronny Deila leaving NYCFC first started circling two weeks ago, but they didn’t seem substantive until late last week. Did you see this coming?

NKY: Nope. The initial rumor wasn’t followed up for a while until the reports began flooding in last week.

CD: Not at all. With Vieira, you always knew this was a waystation for him to move to his next coaching job. No one would’ve batted an eye at Torrent going gack to Europe. But Deila I could’ve seen sticking around for another 5 years.

RNR: This particular move? No. A move to Europe? Yes. At some point, some European team was going to look at the work he’d done here, and make a move to sign him. It was only a matter of time.

DT: I can’t be shocked that the manager, who defied some steep odds to win NYCFC the MLS Cup, is being poached by a Belgium side.

AL: Once the rumors were swirling and there were no denials or rebuttals to emerge from the NYCFC and Deila side of things, it seemed increasingly inevitable.

How do you feel about Deila departing after just 13 games into a 34-game season, and when the team are on an eight-game unbeaten run?

DT: It makes me extremely frustrated because he found the formula this season: Eight games unbeaten, seven wins, one draw, and all those clean sheets. I had hoped he was duty-bound to see it through, but you gotta do you at the end of the day.

AL: I’m personally very tired of the endless revolving door at manager, but I don’t hold it against Ronny Deila, who is nearing the end of his contract with NYCFC and clearly still holds ambitions of climbing up the European coaching ladder. This is the time of the year when European hires get made, and it’s logical that he’d be tempted by a more lucrative, higher-visibility – at least in Belgium – move back overseas. Huge disruption to the NYCFC season but it’s also just a side effect of the unique MLS calendar.

CD: It’s obviously not ideal. I feel like Deila is leaving at a point in time where he really had the pulse of the team in a way perhaps no other NYCFC manager was able to achieve. But I am hopeful that the club will not unravel with this latest move.

RNR: Obviously, on a certain level, it’s...not great. Two things, though: First, this is a business. Second, Ronny more than earned this move. I think the team will be fine. Will it be disruptive? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be, and CFG would be well-advised not to bring in a permanent choice until the off-season in order to minimize that. I’m not going to begrudge the man a chance to do what he loves at a team — Standard Liège is one of Belgium’s most successful but has fallen on hard times. If Ronny succeeds there, we can take pride in that just like we can take pride in how well Patrick Vieira has done at Palace.

NKY: It’s disappointing just given the run of form and overall success he’s had in New York City, although it’s hard to fault him for wanting to return to Europe, especially since he’ll leave after bringing the club their first piece of silverware.

What was Deila’s greatest strength at NYCFC?

RNR: If I’m limiting it to one, it was his flexibility when it came to the team. I mean, let’s take a moment here: Deila actually turned Jesus Medina – whom everyone considered a bust, more or less – into a dependable two-way threat. And even if he didn't get Medina to fulfill his promise, he at least made him into an asset CFG could move on for money. Neither Vieira nor Torrent – especially not Torrent – possessed the kind of “let’s throw everything at the wall and see what works” mentality that Deila had.

NKY: His leadership and development of young players. Taty Castellanos blossomed into the player he is right now through Ronny’s system.

AL: Getting the team past their tendency to fold when the stakes were the highest. He also embraced the young domestic and international talent on the roster and seemed to contribute to a number of young players making leaps with the first team.

CD: Extracting the most out of the talent he was given. I would say he had a strong roster to begin with, but I believe it can also be said that those players found themselves playing the best soccer of their careers while Deila has been at the helm: Recovering Medina, bringing Chanot and Callens to the peak of their powers, and Taty emerging as one of the best attacking talents in MLS — and becoming a hot name in Europe as well. I think you have to give Deila credit for getting the most out of so many players.

What about his greatest weakness?

CD: It’s always going to be his substitution choices, or lack thereof. I would say he improved as time went on, but there were still a lot of moments where you wished he brought in someone sooner to help change the flow of the game.

AL: Being slow and a bit stubborn when it came to making in-game personnel and tactical changes. He got better at this during the later stages of last season and has done a good job rotating the squad through a busy start to this year, but it feels like his unwillingness to make subs or deviate from his preferred shape let points slip a number of times in 2020 and the early portion of 2021.

NKY: Substitutions! He’s definitely improved this year, however there have been two scares — against Communiciones and Toronto— where the opposition have made late runs after Ronny has cleared the bench.

RNR: Deila will never be considered a defensive guru, and boy howdy, his teams didn’t defend well early on, but even there, he managed to improve New York City’s defensive play considerably. But yeah, that’s definitely a weakness of his. One thing that trailed him – particularly since leaving Celtic under humiliating circumstances – was that his football philosophy was too simplistic if not naive. That was certainly a concern for me when he was first hired, and I’m glad that he proved me wrong there.

What is his legacy?

AL: He’ll always be the first manager in club history to deliver a trophy. He also deserves major credit for bringing the best out of Taty Castellanos, who really blossomed beyond what I thought was possible when he first arrived.

CD: Simply put, it’s a champion legacy. Ronny came in here and delivered on championship aspirations. None of the other more heralded New York City hires were able to pull that off. He brought a competitive fire to this club that helped them overcome the hurdle of playing winning soccer in elimination scenarios.

DT: Being the manager that brought the MLS Cup to New York City.

NKY: Underwear and a trophy.

RNR: So here’s the thing: Ronny Deila was very clearly not the top choice when CFG hired him in January of 2020 — that would’ve been Gio van Bronckhorst, who’s done an excellent job at Rangers in Scotland. In fact, when I spoke with several folks around the organization, he was probably closer to their fourth or fifth choice — they essentially hired him because he was available, and by that point New York City was about two weeks away from the opening of training camp.

Then the pandemic happened, which turned the season upside down. Between that and how late he was hired, Deila simply never had a chance to instill his training or tactical philosophies into the team. It showed: They finished fifth in the Eastern Conference in 2020, then lost in a sad penalty shootout to Orlando City 6-5 in the first round of the playoffs.

Did NYCFC still stumble a bit last year? Sure, but by the time the playoffs came, the Pigeons found their groove. They were unbeaten in six of their last seven games, and, of course, they won MLS Cup. Until he arrived, New York City FC had a reputation as a soft team. Sure, they’ll play amazing during the regular season, but during the playoffs? And that’s the thing: Deila made sure that New York City beat the Red Bulls organization to winning the Cup. Nothing else matters. That’s his legacy.

This is the second time the head coach of NYCFC left during the summer transfer window in their third to take over a club in Europe — Patrick Vieira left in June of 2018 for OGC Nice. Is that a sign that the front office gets it wrong, or that they hire desirable coaches capable of competing in Europe?

NKY: Yes,NYCFC are establishing themselves as a developer of both coaches and players.

RNR: Nope, not even a little bit. Real talk: MLS is not a destination league, either for players or managers, and New York City, specifically, isn’t a top destination in MLS, for reasons I will mention shortly. It’s a bridge league - players and managers come here, burnish their reps, then go to better leagues. If you’re a Tata Martino or a Ronny Deila, you come here after a bad spell, work out what’s gone sideways, then go to a better gig after.

CD: I don’t think this is a sign of mismanagement. I would say it’s the opposite, really, if you are acquiring managers that are going to be sought after by clubs in Europe. And pursued because they see the level of success they’ve found coaching at NYCFC. And the reality remains MLS plays a schedule where the middle of the season falls right in line with the top-tier leagues’ offseason. It’s an understood risk hazard.

AL: Deila leaving midseason feels less like mismanagement and more like apathy on the club’s part. In Vieira’s case, it always seemed clear he would be a short-term fit due to his ambitions and the early stage he was in in his coaching career. Deila, though, has already had some big chances in Europe but his star was on the wane over there. He seemed to exceed expectations here considering the lack of hype surrounding his hire, and the strong Ronny Out sentiment that bubbled up late last summer, so I’m personally surprised the club didn’t try to extend his contract to keep him here to try to win more trophies and guide a group of players he seemed to get the best from.

DT: I think a byproduct of the status of the MLS is that promising talent, at any level, will have the potential of being transfixed with a move to Europe. Given NYCFC’s ties to Europe and, I would call it, an inherent prominence given its association with City Football Group, someone who shines in New York at this level will certainly be European-bound in some capacity.

How will the rest of the season unfold?

RNR: CFG made Cushing the manager so it should be fine, because it will be minimally disruptive, or at least as minimally disruptive as losing a manager mid-season might be. They should finish on top of the East, or no worse than second or third. They should get past the Red Bulls in the Open Cup quarters, and if they do that, they’ll have a solid shot at winning the thing. And honestly, they should be in contention for the Shield. I don’t know if they repeat as MLS Cup winners because it’s a tournament and anything happens, but they’re definitely favorites.

NKY: As long as the transition is at all better than Viera to Dome, NYCFC should remain a playoff team with at least one home game.

DT: After Cushing takes over, I see a new-manager bounce followed by a dip of form — one that won’t see NYCFC fighting for a playoff spot, but from there we’re knocked out in the second round of the playoffs due to a wonder strike from so-and-so on the team that goes on to win the cup.

AL: It feels inevitable that there will be a rocky stretch on the horizon as a new manager attempts to make their mark after taking over. To me that makes an early US Open Cup exit feel increasingly likely, so that will be one trophy out of reach. Thankfully the MLS regular season and playoff format are very forgiving so I think the team will re-stabilize and still finish pretty high up the table in the East — within the top three, I’d wager, though I think Supporters Shield dreams are dashed. But I struggle to see them replicating last year’s MLS Cup run, particularly if Taty follows Ronny out the door before the summer’s over. We’ll have to hope the manager role is stabilized heading into 2023 and a proper Taty replacement at striker gets signed, then resume trophy hunting next season.

CD: Losing Ronny will be a tough blow, but with Cushing slotting into the manager position I think the club will keep rolling with the momentum they’ve built. I wouldn’t say a repeat of winning MLS Cup is in store, but perhaps they can set their eyes on some other hardware like the Supporters Shield.

Let’s get petty and rank NYCFC’s four head coaches: Jason Kreis, Patrick Vieira, Domé Torrent, and Ronny Deila.

AL: 1) Ronny Deila, 2) Patrick Vieira, 3) Domé Torrent, 4) Whoever replaces Ronny Deila, 5) Whoever replaces Ronny Deila’s replacement, 6) Jason Kreis.

CD: At the risk of sounding repetitive, 1) Ronny Deila, 2) Patrick Vieira, 3) Domé Torrent, 4) Whoever coaches NYCFC next, 5) Whoever is coach after that, 6) Jason Kreis.

DT: From best to worse, Deila, Vieira, Torrent, Kreis.

NKY: Kreis is unsurprisingly in last. Dome’s third, and while that 2019 team is one of the best in club history, that was it for him. Deila is in second only because a month and a half before he lifted silverware, the fans were holding Ronny Out signs. Viera is at one since he created the identity of the club by instilling the play out of the back system and bringing in the likes of Callens, Chanot, and Maxi — the players who have spearheaded the perennial success of NYCFC.

RNR: That’s easy: Deila, he won the Cup, and he turned New York City from a potential juggernaut into an actual one.

Vieira: more than anyone, Vieira made NYCFC into what they are. He’s the man who instilled their ethos, and had Vieira managed to win any kind of trophy, he’d rank ahead of Deila.

Torrent: Man, that dude was an enigma. Let’s talk about him for a minute.

I think his tenure in New York City benefits from the fact that it started well, and that he basically left Deila an extremely strong foundation to build on. But everything else...man, it was rough. People forget, but he was on the hottest of seats in September of 2018, after going winless in nine of ten games, with New York City on the outside looking in. The 2019 season – and how imperious the team was – means a lot of people forget that, but Torrent was struggling early on. Plus, he left in a huff, after complaining that CFG weren’t listening to him on player transactions.

Kreis: Yeah, easily the worst. And since it’s been eight years since he got hired, we should take a minute to break it down. It’s hard to imagine now, but when Jason Kreis got the job at New York City, he was Jesse Marsch before Jesse Marsch was a thing. Most folks would’ve tipped Kreis – not Bob Bradley, or Marsch – to be the first American manager of a Premier League team. He was widely considered a future USMNT manager, and it wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when. When CFG tapped him after the 2013 season everyone was thinking, Here we go! Then it all fell apart.

It’s easy to see in hindsight. Before the inaugural season started, CFG commissioned a behind-the-scenes documentary titled “Win!” and it’s incredibly revealing in lots of unintentional ways. One of those was that Kreis was entirely unsuited for the role he was hired to do by CFG. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that CFG screwed up by picking him instead of just making Patrick Vieira the manager from the start. I think, though, that CFG fell victim to the idea that they “had” to hire an American manager. You can see why CFG let him go after the 2015 season, making him the only Pigeons manager ever fired.