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2023 Player Preview: Mitja Ilenič

The 18-year-old right-back oozes confidence — playing the full 90 minutes in a historic upset win over an England squad that featured Emile Smith Rowe, Curtis Jones, and Folarin Balogun can do that

Mitja and the gaffer.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

Mitja Ilenič

Position: Right Back
Age: 18
2022-2023 Slovenian PrvaLiga Season: 16 appearances, 1,326 minutes played
Key Stat: 90 minutes played for a Slovenian U21 team that beat a stacked England U21 squad

What went right in 2022:

As starting right-back for NK Domžale in the Slovenian PrvaLiga, the 18-year-old Mitja Ilenič put in impressive performances in what is frankly an unimpressive setting: Domžale are a mid-table team in what is officially the 31st-best league in Europe.

But his club record is only part of the story. Last summer, Ilenič was named to a Slovenian U21 squad looking to qualify for the UEFA U21 Championship. Despite being just 17 at the time the right-back played the full 90 minutes in a stunning 1-2 upset win in Huddersfield over an England U21 squad packed with regular starters from the top leagues in Europe, handing the Group G winners their only loss. So what if Slovenia didn’t advance? Ilenič was part of a defense that locked down Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe, Liverpool’s Curtis Jones, Arsenal’s Folarin Balogun, Everton’s James Garner, and Nottingham Forest’s Morgan Gibbs-White, limiting a team that Transfermarkt values at €364 million to a consolation goal in stoppage time.

It was a historic win – the England U21 squad last loss in Euro qualifying took place in 2011, way back when Jordan Henderson was the captain of the Young Lions – and while we don’t want to make too much of this match, a strong performance in a game like this one can go a long way to build the confidence of a teenager looking for minutes in the second-best best league in North America.

It also helps explain why New York City FC paid a reported €1 million to sign the right-back earlier this year.

What to improve:

It’s hard to know what a player this young and this unfamiliar needs to do to make it in the Bronx (and in Queens, and maybe in Harrison, NJ). One thing is for sure, Ilenič will need to adapt to the physicality of MLS, a league that routinely surprises European and Latin American players with the level of play and the speed of the games.

In addition, Ilenič’s size might be a concern. The 18-year-old officially clocks in at 5’ 10” and 157 lbs, and you could see a player such as Philadelphia Union’s 28-year-old Mikael Uhre, a 6’ 2” forward who tips the scales at 185 lbs, alpha-dog the young defender just to make a point.

Ilenič might be able to handle Huddersfield in June, but can he do it in Chester, PA, in July? Let’s hope so. How quickly he adapts to MLS will determine how many minutes he gets with the NYCFC Senior Team.

What to expect in 2023:

And really, that’s the big question in regards to Ilenič: How many minutes will he find with the Senior Team? NYCFC doesn't rush the development of their young players, but they also don’t send a €1 million wire transfer for a benchwarmer.

We haven’t seen much of Ilenič, but to go from the little tape that has been made public we judge him to be a technical player who looks comfortable on the ball — and who looks at ease with the Senior Team and coaching staff. The kid oozes confidence. Just the body language between Ilenič and head coach Nick Cushing tells us a lot.

We could see Ilenič ease into the lineup by pooling with Tayvon Gray at right-back, helping the team stay healthy during the mid-summer slog of MLS games, the US Open Cup, and the thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another Leagues Cup. We could also see Ilenič slot into right-back and let Gray play at center-back to replace an injured Thiago Martins or Maxime Chanot.

And we could see Cushing flex his tactics and sub on the seemingly more attack-minded Ilenič for Gray, or maybe change the team’s shape mid-game by shifting to Gray to the center in a three-back with Thiago Martins and Chanot and letting Ilenič take up a more advanced position on the right.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see every one of these scenarios play out during the 34-game group stage known as the MLS regular season. Cushing doesn’t need to lock in Ilenič’s right away, but he will need to decide his role in the Senior Team by the time it really counts, and the MLS Cup Playoffs roll around in late October.

2023 NYCFC Player Previews

• Tony Alfaro
• Malte Amundsen
• Luis Barraza
• Maxime Chanot
• Maximo Carrizo
• Matt Freese
• Tayvon Gray
• Justin Haak
• Kevin O’Toole
• Samuel “Kwaku” Owusu
• Keaton Parks
• Matías Pellegrini
• Gabriel Pereira
• Talles Magno
• Thiago
• Thiago Martins