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5 Things to watch for during the NYCFC preseason

New York City have a few boxes to check on their to-do list these next few weeks.

NYCFC players training in warmer climes | Courtesy

NYCFC preseason preparations have begun in Florida. 

The club fled frigid New York City to travel south on Monday, January 15, and released the roster of players who made the training camp trip on Thursday evening. 

Fret not if you notice a few important names missing: James Sands is with the USMNT and newly-signed Hannes Wolf is waiting for his visa. 

More intriguingly, in the official NYCFC announcement of the preseason roster, the club confirmed that goalkeeper Cody Mizell, plus returning loan players Thiago Andrade and Nicolás Acevedo, are not with the team “​​as the Club is negotiating potential transfers for each player.” 

Mizell’s impending transfer explains the presence of the preseason roster’s lone trialist, goalkeeper Will Meyer, a one-time Nashville SC SuperDraft pick who played most recently for Red Bulls II in MLS NEXT Pro. 

Meyer is joined as a first-team outsider by five other non-roster invitees: Academy youngster Adam Basse, NYCFC II players Rio Hope-Gund and Jacob Arroyave, and 2024 MLS SuperDraft picks Malachi Jones and Taylor Calheira.

To round out the preseason housekeeping, we also now know the details for all friendlies Nick Cushing’s squad will play during their ramp-up to the new MLS season. Here are those: 

• Wednesday, Jan 24 – Friendly vs Barcelona S.C. (Behind Closed Doors)

• Saturday, Jan 27 – Friendly vs Philadelphia Union (Behind Closed Doors)

• Wednesday, Feb 7 – Coachella Valley Invitational Match vs San Jose Earthquakes, 3pm ET

• Saturday, Feb 10 – Coachella Valley Invitational Match vs Portland Timbers, 4pm ET

• Wednesday, Feb 14 – Coachella Valley Invitational Match vs LA Galaxy, 3pm ET

• Saturday, Feb 17 – Friendly vs Austin FC (Behind Closed Doors)

There was a late and somewhat unexpected change to that preseason fixture list. NYCFC announced their preseason match schedule two weeks ago on January 5, but then a week later, Barcelona S.C. from Ecuador announced that they’d be facing NYCFC at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fl. 

That fixture is now confirmed and will officially kick off the NYCFC preseason, but it’s behind closed doors, so we will collectively be at the mercy of the clubs while looking for any information about what actually happens during the match. 

Really, that applies to the entirety of the NYCFC preseason. Unless you are attending the Coachella Valley Invitational, there will not be a way to watch any of the team’s preseason matches. 

Unlike MLS golden goose Inter Miami CF, which the league announced Thursday night will have all of its seven preseason matches streamed, there are no such plans in place to broadcast any New York City games.

That will make it near impossible to glean many, or any, insights from the almost month-long prep period that stretches between now and the first MLS match of 2024 on February 24 in Charlotte. 

While watching first-hand will be a challenge, there will still be some notable things to keep an eye on or monitor as the NYCFC preseason unfolds. Let’s run through five of those things as a sort of preseason primer.

Signing integration

We know Hannes Wolf is inbound, and lots of seemingly reputable reports say the same about teen wunderkinds Agustín Ojeda and Jovan Mijatović. How long will it take these players to get their visas sorted, arrive in camp, and then work their ways into Nick Cushing’s lineups?

Once the winter class of reinforcements are actually in place and with the team, attention then turns to how the new players get deployed. Already there’s talk of Hannes Wolf’s versatility and visions of him functioning as a left-wingback, while Ojeda has spent time on either wing and in the midfield during his limited professional minutes with Racing Club in Argentina. Where they actually line up for Nick Cushing will be something to watch, given how it effects our next topic of interest.

Depth chart decisions

NYCFC has a largely set first-choice Starting XI, but there are some areas of the roster that look to have more competition for minutes than others. Right back remains a position of intrigue thanks to the presences of both Tayvon Gray and Mitja Ilenič, while the team also looks to have a glut of wingers. If the aforementioned Agustín Ojeda arrives, he joins Julián Fernández, Andres Jasson, Talles Magno, and Alonso Martinez on the list of wide attacking players—though Talles Magno could, of course, be on the way out of the team. Backup goalkeeper looked to be a competitive spot this preseason, but news of Cody Mizell’s impending transfer (to become DC United’s goalkeeper coach?) make the ‘keeper picture clearer.

Less clear is who is backing up the first-choice center back pairing of Thiago Martins and Birk Risa. They can’t play every single minute of the season ahead, and NYCFC currently don’t have a third true center back on the roster, so preseason might provide an indication of who would be next up if one of Risa or Thiago Martins were unavailable. That might mean more CB minutes for Justin Haak, or Tayvon Gray, or James Sands—or a new player who might still arrive before the season begins.

What’s the deal at LB?

The defense is one of NYCFC’s strengths, but the club’s plan for left black is slightly unclear. Yes, Kevin O’Toole signed a contract extension this offseason that keeps him with NYCFC through the 2025 season. Does that mean he’s entrenched as the starting left back from the get-go this preseason? There is no real senior competition for him at the position, as Homegrown signing Christian McFarlane is the only clear-cut left back currently on the first-team roster.

McFarlane is still only 16 years old and has yet to see a minute above the MLS NEXT Pro level, so it’s hard to see him truly competing for the starting job with O’Toole. O’Toole, meanwhile, has only been an occasional member of the NYCFC Starting XI in his two seasons with the team, though each of those seasons saw him taking over as a starter right at the tail-end of the year.

Preseason might make it a bit clearer if O’Toole is the out-and-out starter for 2024—or, if a new fullback still arrives as a new signing, if we’re in for a third straight season of O’Toole Time arriving sometime in September.

Homegrown progress

Christian McFarlane is one of five teenaged Homegrown players participating in NYCFC’s preseason camp. He’s joined by Maximo Carrizo, Drew Baiera, Jonny Shore, and recently-signed Zidane Yañez—all not yet of legal age, yet all with senior-team contracts and likely with chances to impress Cushing and his staff.

Last preseason, when NYCFC was still piecing itself back together after a heavy wave of roster departures, Maximo Carrizo saw lots of preseason action, leading some to speculate he was on the cusp of making his first-team breakthrough. That never materialized in 2023, but it’s possible one or more of this bumper crop of Homegrowns could end up getting a long look from the coaching staff.

It’ll be hard to judge any of their readiness or progress without actually watching them face up against MLS-caliber competition, but it’s always enticing to see if any of the next wave of promising Pigeons is ready to start to spread their wings at the next competitive level.

Non-roster aspirants

It’s possible, but it also doesn’t seem likely that any of the non-roster players participating in the preseason will break through to become members of the NYCFC first-team during this preseason.

Both players selected in the 2024 MLS SuperDraft are in camp and vying for professional contracts from NYCFC, but are either Malachi Jones or Taylor Calheira ready to contribute at the MLS level right now?

The same would go for the trialist goalkeeper Will Meyer, who faces an extra challenge in that Alex Rando’s recent signing on a Homegrown contract seems to give him the inside track on being the new No 3 goalkeeper on the NYCFC depth chart.

Jones, Calheira, or Meyer might end up shining during their time working in Florida and California. The existence of NYCFC II means it’s not a “first-team-contract-or-bust” scenario anymore for players like them, but their progress during camp is still worth gauging.