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2024 NYCFC Player Preview: Mitja Ilenič

The 19-year-old right-back offers outstanding attacking support up the wing, but will he start over Tayvon Gray?

NYCFC right-back Mitja Ilenič in 2024 preseason training | Courtesy
Name: Mitja Ilenič
Position: Right-back
Age: 19
Key Stat: 2 – that’s the number of assists the Slovenian had last season

Mitja Ilenič, who turned 19 in December, was the youngest regular starter on the New York City FC roster last season. But the Slovenian already has an impressive amount of Senior Team experience under his belt: Ilenič made 33 appearances for NK Domžale in the PrvaLiga before joining NYCFC, then another 24 for New York City in all competitions. 

Last month, he earned his first cap for the Slovenian national team senior side after making multiple appearances for the U21, U19, U18, and U17 teams. In that game, he came on as a second-half substitute and played 45 minutes in a friendly win over the US Men’s National Team. 

Competing for minutes

Last season, Ilenič and Tayvon Gray battled for the starting spot at right-back. Gray started on opening day, but then Ilenič was named to the Starting XI in the following game. The back-and-forth continued until Matchday 27, when Gray was given the start and remained in the Starting XI through the end of the season. Ilenič made two substitute appearances in that run of games. 

Ilenič played more as an attacking right-back when he was on the field. The Slovenian provided two assists over the course of the season, and had an expected assisted goals ratio (xAG) of 1.1 per game. 

Although Ilenič finished the year as a substitute, he still amassed 728 touches over the 2023 season. He completed 76.1% of his passes, completed 59.4% of his tackles, and had 7 interceptions. 

But those don’t come close to Gray’s stats. Gray made 74 clearances, 27 interceptions, and zero errors leading to an opponent’s shot. He had a 71.4 percent tackle succession rate, and recovered 131 loose balls. It is clear to see that the Gray is the stronger defender. 

Ilenič flourishes in a back-three

Ilenič plays better when New York City line up a 3-4-2-1 formation. It allows Ilenič to play a more advanced role as a right-wing back, and not be relied on as much to contribute defensively. In the club’s impressive 1-0 road win against CF Montréal, Ilenič started as a right-wing back and Gray started as a right center-back. This helped lead NYCFC earn a clean sheet victory in what was a strong defensive performance. 

It was head coach Nick Cushing‘s decision at the end of the season to play a back-four with Thiago Martins and Birk Risa that sent Ilenič to the bench. He simply didn’t fit in that system. 

But the MLS season is long. Cushing might prefer a back-four, but he is likely to use a back-three when the situation arises because of injuries or tactics. When that happens, Ilenič will probably get the start. 

And when Cushing lines up the team in a back-four, expect to see Ilenič on the bench — and come on as a late substitute when the NYCFC attack needs a boost.