New York City FC opens the 2021 season as one of the favorites to win something, maybe many things. The Supporters’ Shield? The CONCACAF Champions League trophy? The MLS Cup—again? One of each? While placing those kinds of expectations on a club can become a curse, NYCFC fans always assume that this is the year their team will win silverware.
But let’s be frank: NYCFC underperformed for much of the 2021 season. The players almost always played dazzling football on the field, creating chances and pulling apart defenses, but they also had a knack for giving away possession at the wrong moment and letting the other team back into the game—just like in that first match against the New Jersey Red Bulls, or in that second match against the New Jersey Red Bulls, or in that third match against the New Jersey Red Bulls. Remember, the 2021 MLS season was NYCFC’s second-poorest showing in the club’s short history—discounting the COVID-shortened 2020 season, only the inaugural 2015 season was worse.
Winning the MLS cup more than makes up for those not-amazing numbers, and there’s good reason to think that 2022 will improve on 2021. Will NYCFC post a regular-season record to match the silverware that the team hopes to lift later this year? It looks promising. While some key starters left the core of the team is largely intact, and the players who were being eased into the squad last year are now ready to take over the show. Just as important, this is a battle-tested team that learned how to grind out playoff wins against tough opponents. That grit should carry NYCFC far this year.
2021 Results: 34 W, 14 L, 9 D, +20 GD; 4th Place in Eastern Conference; MLS Cup winner
Head coach: Ronny Deila
Key additions: Thiago Martins
Projected Best XI:
Best offseason move: The best offseason move is the one that didn’t happen: Despite the widespread expectation that Golden Boot-winner Taty Castellanos would spread his wings and fly to Europe, the striker remains with NYCFC—for now. Top-flight teams continue to turn out grist for the rumor mill (Leeds United seem the most keen on Castellanos right now, and the most in need of a technical striker who has the physicality to tango with Premier League defenders), and there’s a good chance the 23-year-old will play his last game for NYCFC sometime this summer.
The best acquisition NYCFC made was signing 26-year-old center-back Thiago Martins from Yokohama F. Marinos to a Designated Player contract even though the club has a stellar center-back pairing in Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot. The move will strengthen an already solid backline, adding depth to what was already one of the best defenses in MLS.
Best reason to pay attention: NYCFC exhibit the kind of attractive, progressive, technical soccer that all MLS teams aspire to play–and that all MLS fans want to see on the pitch–but that few teams can pull off with any consistency. For years, that on-field elegance was a source of frustration: All those pretty passes, all those missed chances. Aesthetically, NYCFC should have won the MLS Cup several times by now. Winning the title last year wasn't just a thrill, it was a relief. It vindicated the club’s style of play—not only did NYCFC beat four formidable opponents, grabbing three tough away wins on short rest, they did it in style.
Now that the proof-of-concept was a success, expect more of the same in 2022. Just as important, NYCFC will do it largely with players brought up through the club’s academies or scouted and signed when they were young and raw—while other teams are paying record transfer fees for stars you already have in your 2018 Panini album, NYCFC has been investing heavily in developing players with little name recognition outside of the Bronx but whose collective talent could win the MLS Cup once again.
The one glaring weakness: NYCFC has four lethal attackers in Castellanos, Talles Magno, Héber, and Thiago—and they all like to play on the left. As Beyoncé once put it: “To the left, to the left. Everything you own in the box to the left.”
It was simpler last year, when Héber was out with an injury and Castellanos was free to roam the left and make runs without tripping over a teammate. By the time Talles Magno and Thiago were brought into the squad, Castellanos had staked a claim to the left and established himself as the club’s marquee striker. It’s more congested on that side of the field now, with a long list of game-fit goal-scorers trying to get minutes—and it will only get marginally better when Castellanos maybe definitely leaves for Europe in the summer transfer window.
It helps us better understand the value of Jesús Medina, who might have never lived up to his Designated Player status but who worked hard and provided service to Castellanos. And it makes us miss Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, who might have been a few sloppy touches away from excellence but who ran hard at defenders. They balanced the attack, created space. Thiago can play on the right, and he could work in tandem with Castellanos—he's probably the best strike partner for Castellanos currently on the roster. (See Projected Best XI, above.) Still, expect sporting director David Lee to bring in an attacker who’s naturally comfortable on the right sometime this season.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe character who most personifies this team: Shang-Chi: A complicated family story, a few key years spent not living up to his potential, then a sudden and unanticipated sprint to greatness that saw him rise to the occasion.