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2023 Player Preview: Santiago Rodríguez

He’s back as a Designated Player and now faces the burden of replacing Maxi Moralez as the creative center of NYCFC’s attack

What color will Santi’s hair be this year?
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

Santiago Rodríguez

Position: Attacking Midfielder/Winger
Age: 23
2022 MLS Regular Season: 32 appearances, 29 starts, 4 goals, 13 assists, 83.3% pass completion, 12 yellow cards
2022 MLS Playoffs: 3 appearances, 3 starts, 0 goals, 4 assists, 83.6% pass completion, 1 yellow card
Key Stat: 19 - Number of Big Chances Created by Rodríguez in 2022, tied for the most in MLS with FC Cincinnati’s Luciano Acosta.

What went right in 2022:

What a first full season in MLS it was for the man from Montevideo. Rodríguez was a creative force all year long, yet also managed to perfectly time his highest performance peak for the MLS Cup Playoffs. Santi’s 13 assists during the regular season were good for sixth most in MLS, and he added four more to his already-impressive total across the club’s three playoff matches.

Rodríguez stood out statistically in a number of different ways in 2022. The Uruguayan graded as an elite dribbler and chance creator, as per data, Rodríguez ranked 8th in MLS in Progressive Carries, 5th in MLS in Expected Assisted Goals (xAG), 11th in MLS in Shot-Creating Actions, 13th in MLS in Goal-Creating Actions, and 12th in MLS in Successful Take-Ons.

Many of Rodríguez’s best performances happened to occur in NYCFC’s most significant matches of 2022. He was Man of the Match and the lone scorer in the “home” leg of NYCFC’s CONCACAF Champions League tie with Seattle Sounders, a match in which Rodríguez also created five chances. Santi stood out in both Hudson River Derby wins, assisting and scoring in the 2-0 home victory at Yankee Stadium in September. Perhaps more dramatically, though, he unleashed this absolute dime of a pass to Taty Castellanos for the winning goal in NYCFC’s first away derby win since 2017.

His regular season featured a number of standout performances, but the tear Rodríguez went on during NYCFC’s run back to the Eastern Conference Final was something to behold. He and Maxi Moralez combined forces to largely pick apart Inter Miami and CF Montreal in NYCFC’s two playoff wins, with Rodríguez impressively orchestrating this back-breaking second goal right before halftime in the away win at Montreal in the Eastern Conference Semis.

What to improve:

Rodríguez desperately needs to find the right balance between playing with aggression and passion, and being undisciplined and potentially costing his team. Santi was tied for the most yellow cards received in all of MLS with 12, and got sent off in his very first competitive match of 2022, the Champions League opener on the road in Costa Rica against Santos de Guapiles. He also got into an on-field skirmish with his teammate Maxi Moralez in NYCFC’s ugly away defeat to Inter Miami during the team’s dreadful 10-match stretch in the late summer.

It’s clear Rodríguez has an edge to his game, but he’ll need to exhibit more self-control to avoid causing any self-inflicted harm to NYCFC’s chances in 2023. It would also help if he chipped in a few more goals himself–--Rodríguez slightly underperformed his Expected Goals in 2022, as his xG was 7.0 yet he found the back of the net just four times. Converting more of his own chances would go a long way towards erasing any questions about where NYCFC’s goals will come from with Maxi Moralez, Taty Castellanos, and Héber no longer in the squad.

What to expect in 2023:

Rodríguez is back after a long, drawn-out offseason transfer saga that may or may not have been impacted by the MLS-Apple TV streaming deal. Whatever went in to his negotiations, Santi is now NYCFC’s ninth-ever Designated Player. He now faces the burden of officially being expected to replace Maxi Moralez in the NYCFC midfield, even inheriting the departed Argentine’s No. 10 jersey.

His 2022 performance makes it seem as though he will be more than up to the task, but it remains to be seen how Santi will fare as the new creative center of NYCFC’s attack. Rodríguez has regularly bounced between positions since arriving in New York, deployed on either wing and at attacking midfielder by both Ronny Deila and Nick Cushing. Moralez’s departure, the team’s lack of other viable attack-minded midfielders, and that new jersey number all seem to indicate Santi will primarily feature at CAM in 2023. The club will be looking for him to continue being an elite creator of chances who chips in with more of his own goals. His on-pitch passion and ability to rise to big occasions have served him extremely well so far in New York, and they will be vital attributes he’ll need to maintain if he and NYCFC have any hope of making a run at more silverware this season.