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Maxime Chanot was the heart and soul of NYCFC

Another legendary NYCFC player who hoisted MLS Cup departs. Photo by Katie Cahalin of NYCFC.com.

New York City FC have said goodbye to many legendary club figures since winning MLS Cup in 2021, but Maxime Chanot’s abrupt, unexpected exit might sting the most. 

The defender’s now-confirmed departure for AC Ajaccio in France’s second division is a bitter exclamation point on an 18-month period of extreme turnover at NYCFC that has seen many of the players involved in the club’s recent trophy triumphs head for the exits.

Chanot’s loss should not be underestimated: He was the beating heart of NYCFC on the pitch. He was vocal and passionate, the kind of leader who frequently inspired use of the phrase “I’d run through a brick wall for him.”

Every one of his performances for the club featured Chanot giving maximum effort, defending desperately when necessary and never shying away from tackles, conflicts, or any other hardships that presented themselves during the course of a match. He was willing to suffer for his team and genuinely looked to be invested and hell-bent on winning during each and every one of his NYCFC appearances.

Chanot leaves NYCFC for FC Ajaccio

A legacy of success

The longest-tenured NYCFC player in club history, Chanot’s 199 appearances and over 17,000 minutes played both rank second all-time on the team. The Luxembourg international worked with every manager save for New York City’s first, experiencing each phase of club’s development: From the late expansion days of Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, through the forging of a team identity under Patrick Vieira, Domé Torrent, and Ronny Deila, to this ongoing, painful post-MLS Cup roster rebuild. 

Chanot deserves better than to leave his longtime team as it suffers through a stretch that’s seen NYCFC earn only two wins out of the last 21 matches, all but confirming the club’s first season without a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs since 2015. Chanot was outspoken about his desire to ensure NYCFC extended its playoff qualification streak this season. Since he moved to New York from K.V. Kortrijk in Belgium, he never experienced an MLS season without a playoff appearance.

That streak exists in large part thanks to the defensive partnership formed by Chanot and Alexander Callens, a duo that grew into one of the best center back pairings in MLS during their six seasons together. They were critical to New York City becoming one of the top teams in all of MLS, turning a leaky NYCFC defense into a stout unit that consistently protected Sean Johnson’s goal.

Now both defenders and long-time goalkeeper Johnson are all gone, with NYCFC now trying to move ahead with an entirely remade defensive spine. The early returns aren’t positive, and now the learning curve grows steeper with the elder statesman of the defense heading back to France.

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Leadership lost

Losing Chanot also means the younger members of the NYCFC squad lose an on- and off-field mentor. Chanot is a player who wants to get into coaching after his playing days and one who, memorably, acted as an unofficial and particularly expressive member of Nick Cushing’s coaching staff during NYCFC’s Eastern Conference semifinal win over CF Montréal after he was forced to leave the game with an injury.

He aggressively coached up and urged his teammates on, with that habit notably leading to an on-field, middle-finger-flipping clash with Talles Magno during an especially uninspired loss on the road against Toronto FC earlier this season. Might that public feud have been a turning point for Chanot and his relationship with NYCFC and his current teammates?

Fans and observers have referred to Chanot as “NYCFC’s captain,” but he was never officially given that title. The captaincy in 2023 has rotated mostly among Chanot, James Sands, and Thiago Martins, and never been addressed straightforwardly by the club or its coaches. Even though most outsiders view Chanot as the team’s veteran leader, he never had the official billing of Captain.

The club’s vague handling of the captaincy doesn’t change the fact that Chanot leaving creates a leadership vacuum that will need to be filled by an increasingly young and inexperienced group of players who are also suffering through a season full of losses and player departures.

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The pain of parting

That Chanot is the latest casualty of NYCFC sporting director David Lee’s extensive, slow-motion roster overhaul hurts more because it also comes during what is shaping into the worst season in New York City’s history

Chanot has been through it all with NYCFC, and longtime fans of the team view him as a constant, a source of security at the back who could be counted on to do whatever it took to help get his team positive results.

Even as recently as last Wednesday, Chanot was taking time after training to greet fans and sign autographs as part of a Third Rail visit to the team’s training facility. He was a beloved part of the “NYCFC Family,” and now joins Callens, Johnson, Taty Castellanos, Anton Tinnerholm, and Maxi Moralez (kinda, since he did randomly come back just months after saying goodbye) as long-serving, foundational players who left New York not long after the club hit the heights of MLS success.

The cold logic of the sport says that, at age 33, Chanot’s best playing days are behind him. His individual performances in 2023, though, were nowhere near one of the reasons why the team has fallen on hard times and sits in 13th place in the Eastern Conference. Chanot didn’t look like a player on his last legs, and that’s obviously a view shared by a French club that harbors aspirations to earn promotion back to Ligue 1.

Now that Big Max is gone, it remains to be seen who will step into the void created in his absence. Thiago Martins and Birk Risa are by all appearances being groomed as the new defensive duo meant to recreate the magic of Chanot and Callens. Their partnership has only gotten two run-outs so far, though each match has ended in a multi-goal NYCFC loss.

Change and departures are an inevitable part of professional sports and sports fandom, but the scale of NYCFC player changes in such a short window of time remains staggering and hard to digest.

The pain is more pronounced around the parting with Maxime Chanot because he seemed like a player who would end his career here at NYCFC, and perhaps one who might stick around after his playing days, maybe following the Mehdi Ballouchy path from player to first-team coach.

Instead, Chanot has left abruptly, with his move to France the latest seismic upheaval to NYCFC’s roster.

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