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HRB Roundtable: Will NYCFC be a contender in 2023?

New York City are undergoing the biggest rebuild in club history — are the kids ready to lead the way? Or will NYCFC miss the postseason for the first time in seven years?

Is this the NYCFC Starting XI?
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

Welcome to the latest edition of the Hudson River Blue Roundtable, in which Calvin Daniel, Noah Kassell-Yung, Andrew Leigh, Anthony McKenna, and Raf Noboa y Rivera try to get a handle on the new-look New York City FC, and handicap how this season is going to unfold.

1. NYCFC are not only undergoing the biggest rebuild in club history, they’re replacing an exodus of talent that’s unprecedented since the founding of MLS. How do you feel about the offseason transfers overall?

Andrew Leigh: I had a feeling significant roster turnover was a possibility this offseason, but I didn’t think it would be this extreme. It’s been the most painful offseason in NYCFC’s existence from a roster turnover perspective. That said, there is still a good amount of talent in place and I think it would be foolish to write off the 2023 season because of all the personnel losses. I do like the look of the few new signings to arrive as reinforcements, and think that David Lee will lean on that crucial City Football Group scouting network to find the right players to address the roster’s multiple areas of need.

Raf Noboya y Rivera: Right now? Massively underwhelmed. As of February 15, the Pigeons have brought in five players: three defenders (one on loan), a goalkeeper, and a striker. Only one of them — Matt Freese, the aforementioned goalkeeper — is expected to make an immediate impact, and frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if Freese loses out to Luis Barraza, given that Barraza was Sean Johnson’s backup.

But I’ll give this an incomplete for now because City Football Group is notorious for taking their time with signing players, and I just cannot imagine that they’re done adding to the roster. The primary transfer window for MLS lasts until April 24, and the secondary window runs from July 5 until August 2. I fully expect additions to come until then.

Anthony McKenna: Pretty awful if we’re being honest. After having massive talent after massive talent leave, it seems like only depth pieces have come in, and so far they haven’t really replaced what’s left. The striker issue still hasn’t been resolved, and that’s been brewing since the start of last season.

Calvin Daniel: I can’t say that any of the new signings have given me cause to expect big things. They seemed more like solid moves more than anything. The retention of Santi Rodríguez almost feels like the biggest “acquisition” even though he is a returning player. Braian Cufré and Mitja Ilenič could be upgrades at the wingback spots, but they are more enigmas than anything at this point.

Noah Kassell-Yung: NYCFC’s roster going into the opening weekend in Nashville is significantly weaker than in previous years. Sean Johnson, one of the best goalkeepers in the league, was replaced with the signing of Freese, Philadelphia Union’s backup, which means that NYCFC’s goalie depth consists of three keepers who played in MLSNextPro last year. Tony Alfaro is a depth piece, nowhere near the defender of the year quality player that Alexander Callens was, and both Cufré and Ilenič are promising signings who still have a lot to prove.

Looking at the roster as it stands, it’s difficult to identify any positions that have been upgraded. The additions NYCFC made don’t compare to the departures of Anton Tinnerholm, Callens, Johnson, and Maxi Moralez, so overall this offseason has been disappointing.

2. Who was the biggest loss?

AM: Alex Callens. He was an absolute monster and someone you could rely on. Not only was his play off the charts as one of the best center-backs in MLS, but there was always something about his presence that would get me fired up watching him. As much as I loved Maxi, Tinnerholm, and Sean John, they ultimately feel replaceable. That’s not true with Callens.

AL: Alexander Callens. I thought he was the most important player for NYCFC to retain this winter, and feel it even more so now that he’s returned to Spain. Callens brought something unique as a central defender, always willing to join in the attack and a constant threat to score off set pieces. It goes without saying that he scored some vital goals for NYCFC. His loss is extra costly when you consider that Maxime Chanot isn’t getting any younger and the only new center-back to arrive is career MLS backup Tony Alfaro.

RNR: Alex Callens, no doubt. He was widely considered the best defender in MLS, but NYCFC won’t just miss his defensive contributions — he was the quintessential “glue” guy whose leadership basically held the team together. Other players might’ve worn the actual captain’s armband, but it was Callens who did the gritty work of firing up his fellow teammates when they needed it, and holding them accountable when they fell short.

NKY: Sean Johnson will be the biggest loss, assuming that Santi Rodríguez comes back. My argument for Johnson over Alex Callens or Maxi Moralez is due to who will be playing in their absence this upcoming season. Alex Callens was NYCFC’s best player last season, and while he’ll leave a big hole in our backline, his departure means that Chanot can return to the starting lineup — he took a slight step back last year, but he was NYCFC’s best defender from 2016-2021, and should be our captain this season. A Freese or Barraza is the biggest positional downgrade on the club, which is why Sean John will be the biggest loss.

CD: I was torn between Moralez and Johnson for this one, but I’m going to say Johnson. No disrespect to Barraza and Freese, but it’s never an easy thing to assume that a backup keeper can step up to the starting role and run with the job. Johnson was the team’s anchor and captain, so there is also the leadership component that needs to be filled in addition to his stellar play between the sticks. It’ll take two players to fill his shoes, and he feels like the biggest loss.

3. Who is the biggest gain?

CD: I am going to go out on a limb and say Mitja Ilenič. Still only an 18-year-old but commanding a rather pricey transfer fee for a fullback, there is a very good chance NYCFC have gotten in early on a prime talent here. While I wouldn’t call him a gain in terms of filling our biggest needs, I would call him our biggest gain as potentially our most talented player added this offseason.

NKY: Ilenič for two reasons. One, he is a promising fullback with loads of potential who will have the chance to fight for minutes with Tayvon Gray. Two, the front office identified that right-back was an area of weakness last year with Gray and Tinnerholm only contributing one assist. We need more production from a system that thrives off of fullbacks adding width in the attack.

AL: Matt Freese, so far. I think the real answer might be Santiago Rodríguez, but his seemingly expected return to NYCFC as of this writing remains up in the air. Goalkeeper is a position of major uncertainty thanks to Johnson’s defection to Canada, and just handing the job to a largely untested Barraza seems unwise. Securing the services of Andre Blake’s longtime Philadelphia Union backup provides some much-needed competition and experience. It also feels like an attempt to replicate the formula that worked for former NYCFC backup keeper Brad Stuver, who has since entrenched himself as the No 1 for an ascendant Austin FC.

AM: Freese. Simply because I think he’s the only incoming transfer that has a legitimate shot to start on opening day against Nashville. I was never thrilled with Barraza when he played instead of Johnson, so I’m glad that we have another option.

RNR: There isn’t one — yet. Maybe Ilenič becomes the next Tinnerholm, but he’s 18, and I’m not placing that kind of pressure on him. Cufré is, honestly, a journeyman who’s the latest attempt by CFG to find an answer at the left back position, which NYCFC have never had. Gabriel Segal never made it past the German lower divisions.

4. What is the missing piece NYCFC still need?

RNR: My god, so many. They need to replace the following massive holes: Goalkeeper, right-back, left-back, attacking midfielder (especially someone who can manage an offense), strikers (plural). The Pigeons just need someone who can score reliably, and it is shocking that they haven’t acquired one yet.

If I had to rank them? The need for a central attacking midfielder — someone who can direct the offense — first, then striker second. Then, goalkeeper — Johnson bailed NYCFC out of trouble so many times, and it’s going to be tough for either Barraza or Freese to replicate that.

AM: A striker. Not to beat a dead horse, but the issue of a true striker still remains from the second half of last season. Talles Magno is going to be the striker to start the season, but that just isn’t his position and he’s been nowhere near good enough when he’s played as the striker. He shows his flashes of brilliance when he’s playing on the wing, but all of that seems to disappear when he’s asked to play the number nine.

CD: A true striker. While Talles Magno has been making it work in the role, he is better served being allowed to play on the left wing. The drop in the team’s lethalness in front of goal has been apparent since Taty left midseason. And if Talles Magno goes down with an injury, we’re looking at playing some combination of Santi/Pereira/Thiago as a miscast center forward in his place. Even if Talles Magno is going to be allowed to grow into the role, a true backup would still be needed.

AL: An out-and-out No 9. There’s been no real attempt made to replace Taty, and even Héber is gone now. While Talles Magno is endlessly talented and could blossom as a center forward, being able to shift him back out to the left wing seems like it helps the player and the team. The first Match Day of the 2023 MLS season will mark exactly seven months since Castellanos left for Girona FC, and while there are a few new internal options (Gabe Segal? John Denis?), a signing at striker remains a need.

NKY: A striker is the biggest position of need. Talles Magno will be the starting striker this year and even though the club believes he can be his best self in that position, I’m not convinced. NYCFC is still yet to replace Taty which is a failure from the front office as the club was a striker away from MLS Cup last season. Looking at the roster as it stands, NYCFC are an elite striker away from being a borderline contender again.

5. Who is in your Starting XI?

NKY: With Santi: Barraza; Amundsen, Chanot, Thiago Martins, Ilenič; Morales, Parks; Pereira, Santi, Pellegrini, Talles Magno.

Without Santi: Barraza; Amundsen, Chanot, Thiago Martins, Ilenič; Morales, Parks, Haak; Pereira, Talles Magno, Pellegrini.

CD: I’m going with NYCFC in a 5-2-3 or 3-4-3 depending on how far up the wingbacks push up.

Freese; Ilenič, Thiago Martins, Gray, Chanot, Cufré; Morales, Parks; Pereira, Talles Magno, Rodríguez.

AL: My Starting XI, at least to start the season, would be: Freese; Cufré, Thiago Martins, Chanot, Gray; Morales, Parks, Rodriguez; Thiago, Talles Magno, Gabriel Pereira.

Without Rodriguez, I would keep the same shape but insert Justin Haak as the deepest defensive-focused midfielder of the three.

RNR: Barring any further additions to the roster – and believe me, this roster is barely a playoff roster as it stands – it’s a 4-3-3: Barraza; Gray, Thiago Martins, Chanot, O’Toole (more on him in a second); Morales, Parks, Haak; Talles Magno, Thiago, Jasson.

Two things: Based on the preseason games thus far, it looks like head coach Nick Cushing used O’Toole as a wingback. Second, if NYCFC manages to bring back Rodriguez, I fully expect him to step in for Jasson.

AM: Freese; Amundsen, Chanot, Thiago Martins, Gray; Parks, Morales, Rodriguez (once it’s official); Thiago, Talles Magno, Pereira.

6. Will this team compete in the Eastern Conference? For the MLS Cup?

RNR: Not at this time. MLS’s forgiving and ever-changing playoff structure means that teams have to be actively bad to miss the playoffs. The talent on the roster right now is too good for this to be a bad team. So, they’ll make the playoffs. But there are just too many holes in this roster for them to compete for the conference title, let alone MLS Cup.

But like I said: This roster is incomplete, so let’s revisit this on April 25, and again on August 3. Either way, though, this is the beginning of a rebuild, so anything other than playoff qualification should be seen as a bonus, much like the Giants making the NFL playoffs this past season.

AM: Honestly yes, I do think this team can compete in the Eastern Conference. I don’t think they’ll be competing for any silverware, but I don’t see why this team can’t at least compete for a playoff spot. This is still a solid Starting XI when fully healthy. The depth is where this team will be exposed, but there are still some very good players on this team. I’m pretty confident that at least they’ll be in the hunt for the playoffs. For the MLS Cup? Absolutely not.

CD: While this is far from NYCFC’s most talented team to date, I do think this is capable of still maintaining a high bar of play that will keep them a playoff team. And from then on we know it’s a matter of who can get the hottest to win MLS Cup. Do I see this team being a Supporters Shield favorite? Not this year, but this is a team with talent on the rise.

NKY: The squad as it stands is a 5th or 6th seed in the Eastern Conference — they’re competitive, but not a Supporters Shield- or MLS Cup-contending roster. That being said, the roster still has a boatload of talent. Chanot and Thiago Martins are a Top 5 center-back partnership, Morales is an above-average defensive midfielder, Parks is one of, if not the best box-to-box midfielders in the league, Pereira is a Top 5 right winger, and Talles Magno is arguably the best young talent in the league. While the rest of the squad is filled with question marks, there is still a solid core that with a couple of extra pieces brought in could easily contend for MLS Cup again.

AL: As currently constituted I think they are a playoff team in the East. I don’t think they have enough depth nor clear goal-scoring firepower to make a run for a second MLS Cup, but it’s also only February. NYCFC’s front office has shown a willingness to add players as seasons unfold. There’s a decent chance more difference-making players could yet arrive, but for now, I think it’s a roster capable of a mid-to-low playoff seed.

7. What is the x-factor that you think will make or break this season?

CD: Gabriel Pereira. It’s clear he has a goal scorer’s mindset, with a toolkit to match. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this season saw Pereira sort of leapfrog Talles Magno as the team’s best attacker and leading goal scorer. It would play a critical role in NYCFC’s title chances if he’s able to rise to the occasion.

RNR: How Nick Cushing — and by extension, the team — navigates the clear deficiencies in this roster, especially early in the season. Related: How aggressive the front office is in filling those deficiencies, which will tell us how long this rebuild will last. A soft opening schedule helps, but the Pigeons have to take advantage.

AL: The team’s remade defense. Parting with Tinnerholm, Callens, and Johnson means a massive reshuffling of the deck at the back, and I am not yet convinced this group of keepers and defenders will be able to recapture the consistent defensive dominance the 2022 team displayed during its multiple unbeaten runs. Ilenič and Cufré look like promising fullbacks on paper, but it’s yet to be seen how they will take to MLS. In goal, Freese and Barraza have limited experience, and the positional pecking order is unsettled. How the backline and goalkeeper positions collectively pan out will decide how far this rebuilt 2023 version of NYCFC can go.

AM: Talles Magno’s play as a striker. If he brings up his play and turns into a consistent goal scorer, then this season can take a surprising turn for the better. However, his play could also tank the season and make for some brutal stretches of games. Last year he drifted in and out of games, and if that continues then we could be in for a few long winless streaks.