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The overhaul of NYCFC begins

With a group of core players approaching free agency, sporting director David Lee will soon face some difficult roster decisions.

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New England Revolution v New York City FC
Free agency approaches for NYCFC captain Sean Johnson and a handful of other key contributors.
Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

The other shoe finally dropped. The confirmation of the loan of Taty Castellanos to Girona FC in La Liga brought some much-needed closure to a drawn-out transfer saga.

It’s another key departure from the New York City FC squad that won MLS Cup, and a second jarring midseason disruption that the 2022 team must withstand as they chase dreams of going on a surprise Supporters’ Shield run and repeating as Cup champions.

NYCFC and its supporters have had ample time to prepare for the exit of Castellanos. In the wake of the loan’s finalization, sporting director David Lee even told The Athletic that “we were kind of imagining that Taty was going to leave in January.” The writing had long been on the wall.

The inevitability of it all, and the big-picture good of the move for both Taty and the club, doesn’t make the loss of a player of his caliber any easier to swallow for NYCFC fans. While waiting for that loss to be finalized, even more eye-opening news emerged that makes it seem as though Taty’s move could just be the beginning of a massive overhaul to the core of the NYCFC roster.

The MLS Players Association released its list of players eligible for free agency following the 2022 season, and a staggering number of NYCFC’s long-serving core of players is on it: Alexander Callens, Sean Johnson, Anton Tinnerholm, and Maxi Moralez are all set to become free agents after the season, though there’s a club option in play that could lead to Maxi’s retention.

There is no guarantee this entire group of players walks out the door once the curtain falls on the 2022 season, but their ages, salaries, and the general economics of MLS make it seem unlikely they’ll all be back in Bronx blue in 2023. David Lee will have some hard decisions to make about a group of players that have now been with the club the longest: Johnson, Callens, and Morazlez joined the club prior to the 2017 season, with Tinnerholm arriving for 2018.

Time to break up the band?

Some hints already exist as to what might come next for two of these four players. NYCFC just recruited a Designated Player center back in Thiago Martins who earns $1.5 million, and handed a new contract to Maxime Chanot that sees him earning a $700,000 salary. Callens isn’t far off from Chanot’s salary at $750,000, but has a case to make for a substantial raise on his next deal. Will NYCFC dedicate even more of its space under the salary cap to another high-earning center-back? It seems somewhat unlikely, as painful as it is to consider parting with the club’s Ironman and clutch PK specialist. It might be taken out of the club’s hands if Callens wants to leave to test himself in another country, or if an MLS team is willing to blow him away with a big DP-level payday.

Maxi Moralez has long been linked with a return to Argentina to finish out his career, and hinted that he could have made the move prior to the 2022 season before he re-upped with NYCFC. Another year older and with the team in a state of flux, is this finally the time for him to go? Complicating things with Maxi is the fact that the club’s other attacking midfielder, Santiago Rodríguez, is about to have his loan to NYCFC expire. If Rodríguez isn’t sticking around in New York, that one-year renewal option NYCFC holds for Maxi in 2023 might be too hard to pass up. Either way, major uncertainty lingers for both of NYCFC’s preferred no. 10s heading into 2023.

Anton Tinnerholm’s future with the club feels clouded by his injury struggles and the emergence of Tayvon Gray. Tinnerholm was comfortably one of MLS’s absolute best fullbacks prior to rupturing his Achilles in October 2021, but in his absence, the Homegrown Gray has stepped up and made his claim on the right back position. Given that Tinnerholm earns $625,000 more in salary and is 12 years older than Gray, it could be tempting for Lee to let the Swede walk in favor of reinvesting his salary to fill in other holes on the roster.

With Sean Johnson, there’s no easy way to replace him if he were to leave. Luis Barraza has been serviceable when called upon but does not appear ready to approach Johnson’s level of goalkeeping just yet. Given that he’s the team captain and is still relatively young for a keeper at 33, Johnson seems like the hardest of the pending free agents to replace.

Hard choices for David Lee

What happens with these four pending free agents, plus with the expiring loanee Santi, will be huge issues for David Lee to sort out. The prospect of so much roster turnover still looming not long after the departures of James Sands, Ronny Deila, and Taty Castellanos gives the remainder of this 2022 season a distinct “one last ride for the old gang” vibe.

Roster turnover is nothing new to NYCFC and is not inherently a bad thing, and I’m not aiming to present it as such. David Lee has successfully retooled the NYCFC squad before, e.g. not hesitating to trade former captain Alexander Ring to Austin FC in order to make room for new signings. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deciding the futures of the in-limbo players mentioned here, and when it comes to building NYCFC’s 2023 roster.

The fact remains, however, that so much change is coming very quickly for a team that feels as though it only just hit its stride. The nature of MLS as a selling league and the relatively new advent of free agency within the league has created an agonizingly brief window of together time for the version of NYCFC that made its run to win MLS Cup and looked so dominant at times in the first half of 2022. Saying goodbye to Taty created a gaping hole that needs filling, and it appears as though his situation might just have been the tip of the iceberg.

The version of NYCFC we’ve grown used to watching over the last few seasons could be in its final days–or it could end up being a case of some stay, some go, and the cavalry gets called in via new signings or the emergence of another Homegrown player or two.

Whatever happens, it’s not a given that NYCFC will be made worse by the changes that await. But it sure does seem like there are even more major changes in store in the not-too-distant future for the Pigeons.