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What’s the plan for Christian McFarlane?

It’s unclear what path NYCFC’s latest super-hyped Homegrown teenager will follow, and if that path will include any time playing for NYCFC’s first team.

He looks older than his years.
Photograph courtesy

It’s been departure after departure this offseason for NYCFC, a winter that’s forced supporters to say goodbye to some of the most important figures in the club’s short history. Positive news for fans has been hard to come by, and signs increasingly point to a rebuild in 2023, and a youth-centric rebuild at that. As the roster continues to turn over by the day, what better time than now to ponder the future of the club’s latest super-hyped Homegrown teenager?

I refer to the soon-to-be-16-year-old defender Christian McFarlane, whose profile has risen significantly since signing as NYCFC’s sixth Homegrown back in September 2021.

His fame levels skyrocketed around his December call-up to England’s Under-16 squad, where he featured in two wins over Turkey. Transfer guru Fabrizio Romano made a rare appearance in the world of MLS, tweeting that McFarlane had extended his contract with City Football Group despite interest from German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

A tweet Fabrizio Romano sent on December 23, 2022 that has since been deleted.

That was just the beginning of the intrigue in what became a full-blown teen transfer rumor saga. Next came a report that McFarlane had visited the Manchester City training grounds and that there were discussions over a potential 2024 move to the club at the top of the City Football Group food chain.

The final twist, though, would again come from the person who seems to have started all this McFarlane-related hubbub: Fabrizio Romano. That tweet about McFarlane extending his contract with CFG?

It’s unclear what, exactly, went on here. Romano has provided no further reports or clarifications about the McFarlane situation since deleting that initial tweet. Regardless of the backroom club and agent maneuverings at play, one thing seems true: Christian McFarlane is in demand. He seems likely to soon join the growing ranks of NYCFC Homegrown signings who leave to go test themselves at European clubs.

The big question from the NYCFC perspective is: How soon will McFarlane make that jump to Europe, and will the first team in New York get to see any glimpses of him before he goes?

When McFarlane signed his first professional contract with NYCFC back in 2021, sporting director David Lee was quoted in the official announcement as saying “There is a development plan in place for him over the coming years and we are looking forward to supporting his development to maximize his potential.” Part of that plan included time in MLS NEXT Pro with NYCFC II, as McFarlane made his debut at this level and ultimately logged 235 minutes spread over two starts and five appearances as a sub in NYCFC II’s inaugural 2022 season. He notably went 90 minutes in a 0-0 draw at Belson Stadium against New England Revolution II in September, starting at the back alongside fellow Homegrown Nico Benalcazar. It might have been only a tiny bit of game experience overall, but it still marks a significant step for a 15-year-old breaking into the professional game.

With playing time already in hand at the MLS NEXT Pro level, what’s next in that development plan touted by Lee? Considering that McFarlane is the third-youngest player to ever sign a pro contract in MLS history, he’s always seemed to be on something of an accelerated timeline to professional play. The first-team depth chart is relatively thin at left back and left wingback. Could we see a 16-year-old McFarlane make his debut for NYCFC at some point in 2023?

It’s one potential path. McFarlane could also follow a version of the path laid by Gio Reyna, who spent time in the NYCFC youth ranks but didn’t stick around long enough to sign with or feature for the first team (which may have been a blessing in disguise, considering his New Jersey Soccer Parents from Hell) before joining Borussia Dortmund.

Perhaps McFarlane’s NYCFC tenure will more closely resemble that of Joe Scally. Scally made just six appearances for NYCFC in the 2020 season—though by that point he’d already been sold to Borussia Mönchengladbach and was spending a season in MLS on loan (stuck behind Anton Tinnerholm on the right-back depth chart) before his January 2021 move to Germany. Scally notably went just 18 months between signing his Homegrown deal and agreeing to that German transfer, going for what the club at the time said was the highest fee paid for a 16-year-old MLS player in league history.

If you’re an NYCFC supporter, you selfishly might hope that McFarlane’s experience with the club mirrors that of James Sands. The first-ever NYCFC Homegrown played his first three full professional seasons in the Big Apple, maturing significantly as a player while eventually helping NYCFC lift its first major trophy, then attempted to make the leap straight into Europa and Champions League football with Rangers FC in Scotland.

Which of these three test cases will Christian McFarlane’s time with NYCFC resemble the most? While there was a stated plan for the teen when he signed in 2021, how different is that plan now, here in 2023, as his 16th birthday approaches, transfer talk swirls, and both England and the United States show continued interest in securing the young left back’s international services?

2023 looks poised to be a more youth-centric season for NYCFC’s first team, as their only significant incoming signing to date has been 18-year-old Slovenian right back Mitja Ilenič. Even McFarlane’s fellow much-hyped Homegrown, the 14-year-old Maximo Carrizo, is starting preseason matches as the club retools following a winter of exits.

Christian McFarlane might not be ready for the leap to MLS game action now or at any point in 2023, and may leave for another European club before he even gets the chance with NYCFC. But when you consider all that’s gone on around the player and the team, the odds seem better than ever that McFarlane, along with Carrizo, could be the next Homegrowns handed their full debut at some point in the season ahead.