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David Lee: We built a roster with depth and competition

New York City FC's sporting director sat down with the media to explain the current state of the roster, what the future might hold for Talles Magno, and how the team will approach this summer transfer window.

New York City FC Sporting Director David Lee hard at work | Courtesy

Yesterday, New York City FC Sporting Director David Lee met with members of the press and answered questions about his team at just about the halfway point of its season.

Lee is in his fifth full season as NYCFC's leader on the soccer side and has been busy in the transfer game of late. The team has undergone a nearly complete rebuild since the final days of its trophy-winning era in 2022, and now sits in 5th place in the Eastern Conference after 22 games played.

The interview with Lee touched on a number of topics, including but not limited to how he feels about the current state of his roster, what the future might hold for Talles Magno, and how the team might approach the Secondary Transfer Window, which opens for MLS teams on July 18.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The current game plan

Question: Going back to the beginning of 2023, there's been a lot of changeover in the roster. What's the game plan been, and how do you feel now, being in a playoff spot midway through the season with such a young team?

David Lee: If I reflect back sort of 18 months ago, and going into the preseason of 2023, we obviously had a huge amount of work to do in our roster with all the departures after the 2022 season. So I think across the three transfer windows that we've had since then, so the winter window 2023, the summer window 2023, and then the winter window 2024, I think we've now built a roster and a squad that has depth and competition across as many positions as we possibly can.

I think we feel really happy with where we've got to, we've got a number of really high-quality players. We're extremely young, so hopefully that gives us a lot of signs that there's good potential for growth in the group, as well.

It was a huge amount of work to get to where we are, but I think we're happy, pleased with the results of this season and where we sit after 22 games, acknowledging we haven't achieved anything yet. We just put ourselves in a good position with 12 games to go. I think there's always more to achieve, and the nature of competitive sports, we want to achieve more, and it also feels like we've left some points on the table this year. But I think we're pleased with where we've positioned ourselves after 22 games and now we've got 12 games left to hopefully put ourselves as high up in the table as we possibly can.

Summer transfers incoming?

Q: How active will NYCFC be in this approaching Secondary Transfer Window?

DL: The starting point for any transfer window in MLS is how much flexibility you have in the roster and so how many roster spots you have, how much salary cap you have, how many international spots you have, and we don't have a lot heading into this window.

We made a purposeful decision in the off-season that we didn't want to wait until the summer window, and we didn't want to hold flexibility back for the summer, given the results that we saw last season, and we wanted to go into the season with as strong and as complete roster as we possibly can.

So as we head into the summer, we've got all of our senior roster spots filled, all of our international spots filled, and so if we want to make additions, they're either in the supplementary roster, or it will require a player on our senior roster exiting that would free up the space to potentially bring a player in.

So I certainly expect it to be quieter than the last three, which is I think a good thing, I think we've done a huge amount of work across the last three transfer windows and it's put the squad in a good position. The injuries over the last couple of weeks don't really change the plan. They're all, other than Malachi, they're all quite minor and quite small and hopefully we'll see some of those players back even this weekend, so it hasn't really changed much.

I think a transfer window is a transfer window. It's an opportunity to improve our team and we'll explore every avenue that we can within the rules that we have to try to see if there's a possibility to bring a player in who can improve our group, but I definitely would expect it to be quieter certainly than the last three that we've had.

Do New York City need defenders?

Q: Will the back line be an area of focus for reinforcement during this transfer window, given injuries to defenders and the recent influx of new forwards?

DL: For us to be able to bring any players in, we'll need to move a player out of our senior roster in order to do so. We do have slightly more depth up front in our attacking positions, that was a decision that we made given the season that we had in 2023. We knew we needed to score a lot more goals and we needed more competition in our front line.

So I think if we're able to free up some space to bring a player in, it probably would be looking to add some depth somewhere in that area of the pitch. But I think we've shown, you know, I think as I mentioned, none of the injuries that we've received other than Malachi's are particularly serious, so hopefully we'll see some of those players back right now.

I think one of the biggest challenges that we have with injuries right now is, you know, if we had the same number of injuries, but they were spread out throughout the team, you probably don't feel it. It's difficult for any team in MLS in any position when you get all these injuries and they all seem to be impacting one position on our squad.

I think we've done a good job to try to manage that, but yeah, if there's a possibility to add players, then that's probably an area that we would focus on.

What about a striker?

Q: The striker position, Alonso Martínez has taken over, but you brought in Mounsef Bakrar and Jovan Mijatović to take that No 9 spot. Any concerns those two haven't grown into the players they were expected to be?

DL: No concerns. I think sort of natural ups and downs through any season or even over a couple of seasons, normal. Mounsef came in and made a big impact for us at the tail end of last season, he certainly improved the way our team played, gave us a threat in behind that we really needed.

I think Mounsef played really well at the start of this season. Obviously it didn't come with goals, but I think he was a real threat for our team, though we need him to score more consistently in order for us to achieve our ambitions.

Alonso's come into the team recently and I think he's performed at a high level, even without his goals. His movement, his sharpness up front, has caused a lot of danger for teams. So I don't think there's any concern.

On Jovan, we've been through this quite a few times now, signing some of the younger players, even some more experienced players, in their first move away from home. There's adaptation stuff and you have to be there to support, help them through some of those moments that are not easy.

Huge belief and faith in Jovan and that he'll prove to be what a fantastic player that we saw when we were scouting him. I think it's a good thing that we've got a lot of competition in that No 9 position. Whoever does have that shirt knows they have to perform because there are two players in training that are really fighting to play, and they all want to play, and it makes Nick's job pretty difficult on a weekly basis to determine what's going to be right for the team.

But if we look across the three strikers, I think we've got 10 goals in 22 games from them. That's an okay return from our No 9 position, normally that would be from one player, but for us, it's across two or three. We've been okay with our production there right now, and I'm looking forward to seeing the competition between the three of them, to see who will play the most games in the next 12 that will help us finish as high in the league as we possibly can.

On Hannes Wolf

Q: What went into the signing of Hannes Wolf?

DL: Hannes has been one of our most important acquisitions in the offseason. No, we didn't have any available DP spots to be able to sign a player, so when Hannes became available, we were definitely looking. We had Julián [Fernández] as a right-winger, we knew Maxi [Moralez] was injured, and we wanted to find a player who could be versatile to play inside or on the wings.

We were in discussions with a number of players when Hannes became available. Hannes was in a good situation at Mönchengladbach, he was under contract and had interest from a number of clubs in Europe.

I think as we did more and more work on watching him play, you know, he's in a difficult situation in Mönchengladbach, from a personal standpoint, he wasn't playing. I think the club was looking to try to exit him. As we looked back and we saw his loan spell at Swansea in a different position, he played really consistently at Swansea and did a really good job.

The references we had from that loan spell were outstanding. We spent a lot of time, both Nick [Cushing] and I, and our scouting team, getting to know Hannes over a period of time. And I think what was really interesting for us is he was just as interested in a move to MLS as we were interested in acquiring him.

You know, it is unusual to get a player who's moved for $20 million in transfer fees at the age of 24, that wants to come to MLS on a non-Designated Player contract. We probably spent more in that position than we had originally planned, but we felt like Hannes was a really important piece of what we wanted to do and would add versatility and competition across all of the front line.

He can play on the right or the left, or inside, he's also played as a second striker, so we felt like that was a worthy investment. The analytics rate him really highly, I think his chance creation numbers are excellent, probably should have a few more assists than he does this season.

He's been an outstanding addition for us, and is also a player that I think can grow and improve as well. This is his first six-months in a while of playing really consistent football, and I think he's only going to get better and better and better as he continues to develop and play, and speaking with him, I think he's enjoyed his experience so far in New York and in MLS. We're looking to continue to take the next steps together in his career and get him performing, continually performing at the highest level he possibly can.

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Talles Magno's future

Q: Talles Magno's future with the club, where does it stand?

DL: I think the season hasn't been what probably we or Talles expected. I think he had a really strong end to 2023. So I think we came in with expectations that Talles would play more than he has this year.

Obviously, he had an injury in pre-season, he missed most of pre-season, played the first game off the bench but wasn't quite right with his knee, then I think missed the next nine games, so it has been a bit of a stop-start for Talles this season, and like I say, it hasn't been probably what he would want or what we expected coming in.

So I think we're now with the transfer window opening, we've sat with Talles and his agents, and we'll see what happens. Talles is under contract, we're happy with him, he's part of our squad, he's part of our team, and if that remains, we'll be happy. I know he would like to play more, I think that's obvious, so if there's a situation that exists in the market that makes sense for both Talles, but importantly us as well, then we'll explore that.

But we're still early in the transfer window, particularly in Europe, and so we've had no offers for Talles yet, and so we'll assess those as and when they come in, and if something makes sense for us and Talles, then we'll consider it. Otherwise, we're really happy with Talles in the squad, he's now fit, he's training, he's been on the bench, and so hopefully we see him impact the team as we thought he would do at the beginning of the season.

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How to predict player impact

Q: What informs your player personnel and roster-building decisions?

DL: As we're making any player decision, a retention or a new signing, ultimately we're trying to predict an impact, or predict what impact that player will have on our team's success. Success comes from winning more games than you lose, and to win more games than you lose, you need to score more goals than you concede, and so we're definitely trying to make decisions through that lens and try to improve our team.

I think the other additional caveat is we want to play a certain style of football, and so players that we recruit need to be able to play in our style and the style that we want to see, or if we're trying to add something to our game.

We really wanted to improve our ability out of possession this year, we wanted to press higher, to be better in transitions. We felt like we didn't have as many opportunities last season in that regard, and so somebody like Hannes Wolf coming into the team, that was a real strength of his, and one of the reasons why we brought him in, because we felt like he would add that to the team, as well as Nick and the coaching staff obviously working heavily on that through pre-season.

It is complex trying to sign players within all the rules that we have and making those decisions, but yes, ultimately we want to try and sign players that are going to help us score more goals than we concede, and that's what we're trying to do.

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The importance of Homegrown players

Q: Homegrown players, one has debuted this season in Christian McFarlane, one has left the team in Andres Jasson. How do you approach integrating Homegrown signings to the First Team, and has that strategy changed at all recently?

DL: Andres versus Christian, you know, really different pathways. Andres goes to college for a semester. We would have liked to assign Andres before he went to college, but he signed after his first semester at college in the middle of COVID. He was coming to us, I think, 18, maybe 18, 19, Christian signs at 14 and a half.

I think what we have learned is that we are producing players consistently from our Academy that attract interest from many European clubs. It's critical for us that, for as many of those as we possibly can, that we convince them that playing for New York City FC and signing for us is the right step in their career.

If I look back at speaking to Christian and his family when he was first starting out, so a potential first contract conversation, was right when he turned 14. That's a really early time to try to make those judgment calls of what these players can project into in the next years, and then having to make a contract commitment to those players over the long term.

I think it's natural when we sign players at that age that it's going to take them some time before they are ready to compete in our First Team. I was delighted to see Christian's debut, I think he's got huge potential. His performances for the England U-17s have been consistently excellent. I receive unbelievable feedback from when he's there and what they think of him as a potential player for the future.

But I think there are different strategies within our Academy. Our main goal is to sign as many of our high-potential players as we possibly can, and give them a route into our First Team, and then help them achieve their ambitions and, you know, beyond.

For somebody like Andres, who is coming to the end of his contract, we had a conversation with him and, you know, it may have been difficult to keep him on a contract for next season. One of his ambitions was to play in Europe, so we worked together to try to find a solution that could fit all parties.

I'm really looking forward to seeing Andres, I'll hopefully be able to travel to Denmark on one of my scouting trips and be able to see him and watch him play to see how he's doing. Will be following his career with great interest, he was a fantastic, fantastic ambassador for us and played a real big impact in the season we won MLS Cup.

The importance of the MLS SuperDraft

Q: How did you determine Kevin O'Toole would be the starter at left-back, and where does the MLS SuperDraft fit into how you build the roster?

DL: Kevin had proven and performed at a really high level. If we go back to 2022, he came into the season late as a left-wing-back, but I think we all felt like he performed outstandingly well in that role.

Then as we moved to play a back-four last season, it took him a while to, I think, get adjusted to the position of playing in a back-four. We had Braian Cufré in that role, but I think Kevin performed so well in training, he took that spot at the end of the season. We felt he was going to be a high-level left back that could play consistently across the season and help a team that wants to go and win MLS Cup.

We felt like Kevin was able to do that, and I think so far, Kevin's been a really good performer for us. I mentioned it a little bit in the previous answer around the young Homegrowns, and I think we also have a huge amount of belief in Christian McFarlane.

One of my challenges is, I have to build a team that is competitive to achieve our targets right now, while also providing pathways and opportunities for some of our young talent. If we want to convince some of our highest potential young players from our Academy to sign like Christian absolutely is, then we have to show him that there's an opportunity to earn minutes.

If you continually block a young player's pathway, it makes it really hard for them to get into the team and show how good they are. I think it was a combination of our belief in Kevin and his ability to step up and be sort of a regular starter in our First Team, and then huge amount of belief in Christian and his potential of what he is able to do.

In terms of the SuperDraft, I think it might be recency bias with Malachi and what a fantastic addition we felt he is to our team, but I think the SuperDraft has a huge role in building a really successful MLS team. For us, I think it was maybe the only silver lining of the season that we had at the end of last year, was that we ended up with a high draft pick, and that allowed us the possibility to hopefully acquire Malachi.

Then that turned into reality, and we were able to actually select him and then convince him that he should leave school to sign with us. So I think the SuperDraft will continue to be a critical avenue, and I think teams that do really good scouting, it's hard scouting, there's a huge amount of competition, huge amount of players, all in a very condensed time period. It's sort of a really heavy lift to be able to scout that effectively, but I believe there are a number of players that come from college that make an impact.

And when I look at our team, we've got players that we've acquired via trades, we've acquired from international markets, we've acquired from the SuperDraft. I think we've really tried to maximize as many avenues as we can to be able to build as competitive a roster as possible.

Where does MLS stand in global soccer?

Q: Conventional wisdom is that MLS is evolving from a retirement league, to put it kindly, into being a selling league. Where do you see MLS in terms of global soccer? And where do you see NYCFC in terms of that?

DL: I think there has been a shift. I think you still see some teams and some players coming at older ages and having a big impact. Obviously, you know, Inter Miami being one of the major examples of that recently.

But I do think the league, over the last five to eight years in particular, has trended younger with Designated Player signings, obviously bringing initiatives like the U22 to encourage teams to sign younger players, and equally, the investments that all teams are making in academies and player development with MLS Next Pro. And so I think there has been a focus to try to make sure that we're developing young players.

I think one really good outcome of that is to participate more often in the transfer market. There are huge revenue sources that you can participate in if you're able to develop young talent. I know that's been a focus from the league.

I do get this question quite a lot from lots of people I speak to, of where MLS places in the global rankings. I think we're improving, I think we are growing, getting better. I think it's hard to place an entire league in one particular place in sort of the world ecosystem of leagues, because there are some very good teams in MLS that may be able to play at one level, and there are some teams in MLS that may not be able to compete at the same level if you just translated the whole league into Liga MX, for example. And so I'd say the same for Liga MX.

So I think it's hard to place it, but I think we have been getting better. I think the natural way that we improve is to have more money to spend on players, and the more that we can invest in our rosters and in our player development system produces better players. And that has definitely increased over the last five to eight years.

So I think we're going in the right direction, but I still think there's an opportunity ahead of us, particularly with 2026 World Cup coming, to really drive and improve the league again and get more eyeballs, more attention, and have a better product on the field.

How to navigate Europe's transfer windows

Q: What are the challenges of having MLS transfer windows not aligned with Europe's?

DL: I think one of the biggest challenges that we face is that when you look at the amount of money that gets spent by the European teams, I think it's 10x, maybe slightly more, of what they spend in the summer, versus what they spend in January.

So if we are looking to sell our players, or you want to develop a player that maybe is at the right time to sell, that typically, or is more likely to happen in the summer transfer market, where it's less beneficial for us to sell because we're in the middle of our season, and usually you're selling a player that is making a big impact in your team.

The other challenge that exists is that our transfer window closes before the European transfer windows. So if we were to receive an offer for a player after our transfer window closed, then not only are we potentially needing to look at accepting that offer, we have to add the calculus in that we won't be able to replace that player because our window is then closed.

Probably the third challenge is, typically, European contracts end in the summer for the most part, so if we're looking to acquire players at the best possible time, sometimes you want to be active in the market in the summer, because teams will ask for a fee to get that player out in January, whereas if you were able to acquire them in July, then they might be free.

So that's something that we look at, and we'll look at players maybe that we want to acquire in January, but given the cost to pay a transfer fee to get that player out of contract, we might then wait until the summer where we can get that player for free.

But it definitely creates some challenges to really participate in the global transfer market as much as we might like to, and I do know the league is looking at a possibility to extend our secondary window, or do some small changes to be able to participate a little bit easier in that transfer market.