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How NYCFC can replace what's lost with Malachi Jones injury

New York City will miss what Jones brought as a two-way winger and impact substitute, but Nick Cushing has some solid options at his disposal to ease the pain of losing the rookie.

Expecting Agustín Ojeda, Julián Fernández to play big parts in replacing Malachi. Photo: New York City FC.

Malachi Jones needed surgery for the broken leg he suffered in a collision with Orlando City goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar (who also required surgery for a broken leg), and now New York City FC faces the prospect of replacing one of its most exciting and effective young attackers.

Jones stood out in the first half of the season, making the most of his 488 MLS minutes by showing the signs of a quality two-way winger who fit perfectly into the pressing system NYCFC has leaned on early this season.

He might have been expanding his role from super-sub to starter, appearing in Nick Cushing's Starting XI in two of three matches before his unfortunate long-term injury.

New York City FC’s Malachi Jones undergoes surgery
The New York City FC winger suffered a broken leg in a collision with Orlando City goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar, who also underwent surgery.

Now that it's clear he will be missing for many months, it's time to consider how NYCFC will replace the dynamic rookie out of Tennessee's Lipscomb University. First, we'll run through exactly what New York City loses in Malachi's absence, then kick around some ideas about what Nick Cushing might—or might not—do to fill the void left by the winger.

What New York City will miss

Jones has made 10 appearances as a substitute, the second most on NYCFC behind Andrés Perea's 11. He wasn't logging tons of minutes. He was 16th on the team in total minutes played, with his average substitute's appearance lasting 25 minutes.

While he had one goal and one assist, his total impact was more significant than those three goal involvements. When Jones entered matches, it was to make things happen on both sides of the ball. On a per-90-minute basis, Jones put up elite numbers as both a disruptive defensive winger and a ball-progressor. Yes, the sample size was under 500 minutes of game time, but the results still stand out.

Among MLS attackers and wingers in 2024, Jones ranked well above the 90th percentile in tackles, clearances, blocks, and ball recoveries, while also being well above the 90th percentile in attacking categories like progressive passes received, touches in the attacking penalty area, and carries into the final third.

His work as a member of the NYCFC press also paid off: Jones was in the 99th percentile of attacking players in MLS for defensive actions leading to shots, producing a shot-creating action from a defensive act at a rate of 0.37 per 90 minutes.

That type of spark off the bench, and that type of all-out effort in and out of possession, might be hard to replicate, but New York City has a few routes it can take.

Lean on Ojeda

Agustín Ojeda and Malachi Jones seemed to each be vying for the starting left-winger role in Nick Cushing's attack. Ojeda has twice the number of starts as Jones, but his performances have been something of a mixed bag.

Ojeda scored in his first MLS start, against the New England Revolution on April 13, then was without a goal or assist in seven straight appearances, which included five starts. That streak was snapped when he scored in the controversial Columbus loss, and the 20-year-old they call "Trapito" has now scored in two of his last three appearances after netting in the win over Orlando.

All three of his goals have come on the friendly Yankee Soccer Stadium pitch, though Ojeda also has yet to play more than 71 minutes in any appearance. The loss of Jones might give him more chances to turn into a 90-minute, locked-in starter.

Ojeda's offensive game overlaps with Jones's in some key ways: They both excel when dribbling, and both are adept at carrying and receiving the ball from teammates in progressive positions in the attacking third.

To go back to those per-90-minute MLS player percentiles from mentioned above for Jones, Ojeda is comparable in the attack, ranking in the 96th percentile for touches in the attacking penalty area; the 82nd percentile for progressive passes received; and the 79th percentile for carries into the final third. Ojeda's game differs in that he's a more accurate passer (82.3% pass completion rate, compared to Malachi's 68.1%), and less of a force on the defensive side.

Julián Fernández to step up?

Ojeda might now be a more consistent starter, but who then becomes the "next man up" off the bench when Cushing needs to give his team fresh legs or an attacking spark?

Might that come in the form of a resurgent Julián Fernández? The winger, who arrived last summer from Vélez Sarsfield for a reported $5 million transfer fee, has faded from the picture, appearing in just two of NYCFC's nine most recent matches.

He's still the third-most-used substitute on the New York City squad with eight appearances off the bench, and his total 2024 minutes are almost identical to those of the now-injured Jones (496 minutes for Julián, 488 for Malachi).

Jones's emergence pushed Andres Jasson — who recently left to sign with Danish club Aalborg — off the New York City roster, and now Jones's injury absence might open the door for Fernández to reassert himself as an important part of the squad.

Fernández showed a knack for scoring late and scoring off the bench during New York City's recent five-match homestand, and he has also shown that he can pick out a key pass, like when he dropped a pinpoint cross into the path of Kevin O'Toole for his match-winning header at home vs. Toronto FC in March.

He's also a slightly more disruptive defensive presence out wide than his Argentine counterpart Ojeda. In 2024, Fernández ranks in the 99th percentile of MLS wingers and attackers with 2.18 blocks per 90 minutes, and he's in the 96th percentile for ball recoveries (5.81 per 90 minutes).

In his limited 2024 time, Fernández has proved to be effective in helping on the non-attacking side, and could now be poised for even more chances with Jones out.

Wild cards: Maxi, Martínez, Magno

Maxi Moralez rounds out the trio of attack-minded Argentines who could fill the Malachi-sized hole at the center of NYCFC. He is still in the early stages of getting back up to game speed after his September 2023 ACL tear and earned his first 2024 start in Nashville.

That trip to Tennessee saw Cushing line Maxi up centrally while asking Santiago Rodríguez to vacate his usual No. 10 role in favor of a spot out wide. That's another option in the toolbox for Cushing, though it might be the least practical rearrangement following the Jones injury.

Moralez is 37, and it's a gamble to disrupt what has worked so well with Santi Rodríguez, who has been the team's clear creative outlet in the central midfield. Maxi still has plenty to offer this year's New York City team, but as a sub in 2024, he's not a natural replacement for what Jones brought off the bench.

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Alonso Martínez has been getting starts and appearances as a striker, but he's mostly been a wide player in his pre-NYCFC career. He could slide out to the wing to fill in for Jones while Mounsef Bakrar or Jovan Mijatović plays as the No. 9, but at the moment, we're guessing he keeps competing for minutes at striker.

It's even harder to see the team's mercurial, missing-in-action Designated Player, Talles Magno, becoming the Malachi Jones replacement. The Talles Magno saga has been well-chronicled: He has played just six minutes as a sub this season, recently spoke out to the press in frustration over his lack of minutes and uncertain club future, and has now been linked with a summer transfer to two different clubs in his native Brazil.

It currently feels more likely that we'll see "Obrigado, Talles!" posts from the club announcing his departure than we see him suddenly back in Nick Cushing's rotations, though stranger things have happened.

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