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2023 Front Office Preview: David Lee

Will NYCFC’s sporting director be up to the tough task of building another championship team after the club experienced a mass exodus?

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You need two hands to hold a cup this big.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

David Lee

Position: Sporting Director
Age: 36
Key Stat: 9 years - Length of time David Lee has been with NYCFC, rising from Director of Player Recruitment to Technical Director to, ultimately, Sporting Director.

What went right in 2022:

His team won another trophy and made an arguably unexpected run back to another Eastern Conference Final. In doing so they overcame two seismic disruptions to their season in the departures of their manager and Golden Boot-winning striker. Lee got it right in turning to Nick Cushing as the interim replacement for Ronny Deila, with Cushing proving up to the task of navigating NYCFC through a tumultuous summer, fully earning his appointment as the full-on head coach early this offseason.

Lee’s 2022 signings were few in number but successful on the pitch. Gabriel Pereira broke out over the club’s last 15 matches, Thiago Martins largely improved as the season progressed and will be expected to be even better in year two in MLS, and Kevin O’Toole went from an unsigned MLS SuperDraft selection to surprise late-season starter when Nick Cushing adjusted his team’s formation. The Matías Pellegrini waiver claim feels too early to judge given his very sparse 2022 playing time, but he’ll be back with a chance for more minutes in 2023.

Lee also oversaw the successful launch of NYCFC’s reserve team, with NYCFC II’s inaugural season in MLS Next PRO providing what should be valuable game time for the development of some of the team’s most promising young players. Lee notably added to that list of promising young players by signing 14-year-old Maximo Carrizo as the youngest player ever to pen a professional MLS contract.

What to improve:

Turnover among players is inevitable in pro sports, and particularly for a team like NYCFC, which plays in a “selling league” and fills its rosters with young players who are given the chance to showcase themselves for potential overseas moves. Even taking all that into account, the kind of roster turnover NYCFC has recently experienced seems unprecedented, leaving Lee with what looks like a daunting task of a rebuild.

Of the 18 players in the match-day squad for MLS Cup 2021, only seven are still with NYCFC as the 2023 season approaches. Just three members of the team’s MLS Cup Starting XI remain in the fold 14 months later. NYCFC experienced its own form of a Great Resignation in 2022/early 2023, and thus far, Lee has only secured a handful of new players to offset what look to be some very costly losses. Any hopes of a significant new signing arriving last summer after Taty Castellanos left were dashed by a silent (save for that Matías Pellegrini waiver claim), unsuccessful transfer window.

Specific parts of the roster—striker, center back, central midfield, goalkeeper—remain clouded by a number of significant question marks. There’s still plenty of talent at the top end of the team’s depth chart, but the options behind the likely starters are limited and largely untested. It also feels somewhat incongruous that three of NYCFC’s better young players—Taty Castellanos, James Sands, and Nicolás Acevedo—have left since the end of 2021, yet no transfer fees have come back the club’s way due to all three being sent out on loan.

What to expect in 2023:

In the season ahead, the hope has to be that David Lee stabilizes what looks like a very unstable roster. That will mean finding a new core of players following the departures of foundational figures like Maxi Moralez, Alexander Callens, Sean Johnson, and Anton Tinnerholm. That process could have started already, if the long-rumored re-signing of Santiago Rodríguez comes to fruition.

One Designated Player and one “U22 initiative” roster spot remain open, representing two chances for Lee to sign more expensive, higher-quality players, ones you’d expect to form a new foundation for the roster in this Post-Johnson/Moralez/Callens Era. The sporting director will need to get these signings right if 2023 is going to go down as a success.

Don’t expect any moves to get made in haste or at terms not to Lee’s liking, though. Lee seems to be a dedicated member of the “slow and steady wins the race” school of thought when it comes to building his NYCFC roster, waiting for the right player to become available at the exact right price (see: Talles Magno when his team in Brazil was relegated).

Fans may expect a certain urgency to sign players and have them ready for kickoff of the first MLS match of the season, but that’s not been the NYCFC way under Lee. His approach to date has been unquestionably successful, but this time the situation feels a bit different. NYCFC’s roster faces a level of change not seen since the club’s earliest days. Lee has been around since those earliest days, and played a critical role in turning what was once a rough expansion roster into a trophy-winning success. Molding this current, seemingly unfinished version of NYCFC into another championship side might be his toughest task yet.