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2024 NYCFC Player Preview: Thiago Martins

It's time for the 28-year-old to show us why he's the best-paid defender in MLS.

NYCFC center-back Thiago Martins in training | Courtesy
Name: Thiago Martins
Position: Center-back
Age: 28
Key Stat: 89.9% – that’s the defender’s pass completion rate, which puts him in the 94th percentile per FBref

This could be the year that Thiago Martins steps up and leads New York City FC out of the wilderness which was the team’s 11th place finish in the Eastern Conference last year. 

Rather, this should be the year that Thiago Martins leads NYCFC. This past season, the 28-year-old anchored a back line that was among the league’s best despite New York City regularly fielding an attack with no bite: If a strong offense is the best defense, the 2023 NYCFC squad regularly left their defenders exposed and vulnerable. 

But this 2024 NYCFC is a different beast. For one, an attack that was reinforced during the summer transfer window is getting more additions this offseason. Last year’s anemic goal tally will almost surely improve.

For another, Thiago Martins will line up alongside Birk Risa. The two quickly developed that oh-so-important center-back chemistry, and they combined with goalkeeper Matt Freese to hold their opponents to just four goals in their final eight games. The two central defenders were regal during that run of matches, and if Thiago Martins picks up where he left off he could become the leader that this team desperately needs.

Thiago Martins: Elite in possession…

According to the soccerball analysts at FBref, Thiago Martins rates among the league’s best defenders when it comes to passing and possessing the ball.

He is in the 92nd percentile for passes completed, 95th percentile for long passes completed, and 93rd percentile for total passing distance. He is comfortable in possession, and is in the 98th percentile for touches in the defensive third, and 90th percentile for passes received. Thiago Martins has an astonishing 100% record for Successful Take-Ons: When he’s in possession and takes on his opponent, he has never lost the ball. 

These numbers speak as much to the NYCFC system as they do to Thiago Martins as a player. This is a team that is trained to play the ball out of the back, and keep possession until they can create opportunities to move the ball upfield. It also speaks to a season in which New York City were often pinned back by opponents who were comfortable playing a high line against a poor attack: When NYCFC had the ball, it was usually in the defensive third. 

…but defensive numbers tell a different story

Thiago Martins might be elite in possession, but his defensive numbers aren’t quite as stellar. He ranks among MLS leaders only in one category: Thiago Martins is in the 95th percentile when it comes to dribblers tackled, and the 92nd percentile in successful challenges. 

Other defensive stats are maybe better left ignored. He’s in the second percentile when it comes to interceptions. He’s in the eighth percentile in shots blocked. 

And yet Thiago Martins isn’t a dumpster fire. He’s increasingly solid on the field, and proving himself to be worthy of his Designated Player status. It raises the question: Exactly what kind of defender is Thiago Martins? 

When he’s at his best, Thiago Martins is more about positional intelligence than defensive heroics: He’d rather dispossess his opponent and make a simple square pass to his teammate than lunge into the kind of grass-ripping slide tackle that puts you on a highlight reel. 

You saw that during those final eight games of the 2023 season, when Risa and Thiago Martins imposed themselves in the defensive third. They used each other to recover the ball, keep it, and progress it upfield. They weren’t dramatic, they were composed and professional, and because of that, it was sometimes easy to overlook just how well they played. 

There’s every reason to expect to see more of that in 2024. Even better for NYCFC fans, the cohesion they displayed in that 10-game run will likely become even more solid after they have a full preseason to train together. 

Is he worth the salary?

This year, the 28-year-old will be in the third year of a Designated Player contract that will likely make him once again the highest-paid player on the squad, and the highest-paid defender in the entire league. Take that, Matt Miazga. 

Is he worth it? The jury is still out. Thiago Martins didn’t make the best impression when he joined the club in 2022, and didn’t seem like he was a noticeable improvement over Maxime Chanot. It didn’t help that Alexander Callens, his center-back partner, was having the best year of his career and was easily the best left-footed central defender in MLS. 

But there’s a reason NYCFC sporting director David Lee reportedly paid a $3 million fee to sign Thiago Martins from Yokohama F. Marinos, and agreed to a contract that had a guaranteed salary of $2.1 million last year. Remember, Yokohama won the J1 League in 2019 under head coach Ange Postecoglou, and with Thiago Martins as captain. Will he become the general this young (and getting younger) NYCFC squad so desperately needs? In a recent press conference, head coach Nick Cushing praised the leadership qualities of Thiago Martins — shortly after explaining that he’s not going to name a team captain. 

More to the point, will Thiago Martins fulfill his promise and perform like the Designated Player he’s paid to be? To go by what we saw at the end of last year, the answer could be “yes.”

Rather, it should be “yes.”