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NYCFC Captain Watch: Who will get the armband in 2024?

NYCFC center-back Thiago Martins is the leading candidate.

NYCFC center-back Thiago Martins in training. | Courtesy

Maybe we should have paid closer attention when New York City FC announced at the start of the 2023 season that the team wasn’t going to name a permanent captain to replace Sean Johnson after he decamped for Toronto FC.

It was the first time in cub history that New York City didn’t name a permanent captain. Previously, the captaincy passed seamlessly from David Villa, to Alex Ring, to Johnson. All three were guaranteed starters, experienced players who were respected by the rest of the squad. All three were also natural leaders in the locker room.

Last year, the team simply didn’t have a player who met all of those conditions.

Which is why NYCFC head coach Nick Cushing rotated the captaincy among a handful of players including Maxime Chanot, Keaton Parks, James Sands, and Thiago Martins. Looking back, the ongoing game of pass-the-armband was yet another indication that 2023 was a rebuilding year despite what the front office said — and many fans chose to believe.

Will this year be different? We’re into the second week of 2024 preseason training, and the NYCFC squad is more settled than it was 12 months ago when Alexander Callens made the shock announcement that he was leaving the club for Girona FC and Santiago Rodríguez was still negotiating his return to the roster.

But even if we have a good idea of who will be in the Starting XI when NYCFC face Charlotte FC on Opening Day on February 24, who will wear the captain’s armband in 2024 remains up in the air.

The candidates in 2024

• Thiago Martins

The 28-year-old central defender is the oldest and most experienced starter on the team: Only the 36-year-old Maxi Moralez, who is recovering from an ACL injury he suffered last year, has logged more miles and lifted more silverware.

It’s no small thing that Thiago Martins was the captain of Yokohama F. Marinos when they won the J1 League title in 2019 under then-head coach Ange Postecoglou. He was also named to the J1 League Best XI that year, which is one of the reasons why NYCFC pried him away from Yokohama before the start of the 2022 season. (Both clubs are owned by City Football Group.)

He would have been a candidate to get the armband last year, but his first season with New York City was met with mixed results. Brought in to replace the aging Chanot, Thiago Martins made 24 starts in all competitions in 2022, and yet he didn’t feel like a significant upgrade over the Luxembourg international. He sometimes struggled with the physicality of MLS, and seemed out of sync with the rest of the defense. Even more notable, Thiago Martins scored two own goals that year — one against Toronto FC, and one against FC Cincinnati, when he back-passed it into the net (although, arguably, it wasn’t completely his fault), then went on to earn a red card for a foul.

Moments like those don’t lead to a captaincy.

But the central defender grew into his position over the course of 2023. The NYCFC defense was the most consistent part of the team last year, allowing just 39 goals in league play — that’s the second-fewest in club history in a 34-game season. The defense ended the season on a strong note, allowing just four goals in the final eight games and logging five clean sheets.

Numbers aside, we now see the Thiago Martins that the front office was so eager to sign back in 2022. Positionally intelligent and calm in possession, Thiago Martins isn’t a flashy player, but he does all the little things right. He was a general on the field, keeping the rest of the defense in order — and giving some fairly loud advice to goalkeepers Luis Barraza and Matt Freese as they both tried to earn a starting job that was up for grabs for most of the season.

The leadership of Thiago Martins slowly revealed itself over the course of the 2023 season, and could deliver him the armband in 2024.

• Santiago Rodríguez

The enigmatic Santiago Rodríguez is one of the club’s most exciting players — and one of the most inconsistent. He’s an attacking menace in one game, a non-stop creation machine who terrorizes the opponent’s defense, but then he’s petulant and disconnected the next, and doesn’t make an impact on the match.

You never know what you’re going to get with Rodríguez, and that kind of streaky quality is in itself enough to diminish his chances of becoming the captain. Add to that a tendency to earn yellow cards for cheap fouls or dissent, and you have a player who took himself out of the running.

But the 24-year-old is evolving as a player, and is entering the prime of his career. Could this be the year he matures into the captaincy?

If so it would likely happen after the start of the season, once he has the opportunity to prove himself on and off the field.

• Keaton Parks

Nobody would have guessed that Keaton Parks would emerge as NYCFC’s Iron Man last year. The 26-year-old was sidelined by blood clot surgery twice in the previous season, and his role on the team seemed to be up in the air.

But the midfielder made 30 starts and two substitute appearances in 34 league games in 2023, turning himself into the bedrock of the team. Two weeks ago he was rewarded for his performance with a contract extension that could keep him with the club through 2028.

Respected and liked by the rest of the squad, Parks leads by example: He shows up and does his job. But is that enough to earn the captaincy?

Another question: Does he want it? The low-key Parks might not aspire to be the one who speaks for the team when the officiating becomes tense, or who keeps NYCFC’s more volatile players in check.

• James Sands

In some ways, James Sands and Parks are of a type: Both are professional, focused, and not showy. They’re physical players and fierce competitors who don’t play the drama game when on the field.

Sands is a fan favorite, NYCFC’s first Homegrown player, and he proved to be a key player in the club’s title-winning 2021 season. But the 23-year-old Sands is a bit young to be given the captain’s armband permanently. His return to NYCFC last year came on the heels of a disappointing loan to Rangers FC in the Scottish Premiership where he struggled to secure a starting role.

Sands has the quality and consistency of a captain. But his young age makes it hard to give him the armband despite his long history with the club.

• And the rest

The truth is, there are no other strong candidates on the roster.

Working out of the back of the field, you have 25-year-old goalkeeper Matt Freese (who earned the starting role only at the end of the season), 27-year-old goalkeeper Luis Barraza (who lost the starting role), 21-year-old Tayvon Gray (too young), 19-year-old Mitja Ilenič (too young), 26-year-old Birk Risa (who joined the club over the summer), and 25-year-old Kevin O’Toole (who became a starter at the end of the season).

In the middle of the field, you have 23-year-old Andrés Perea (who joined the club over the summer), 36-year-old Maxi Moralez (who is still recovering from an ACL injury), and 22-year-old Justin Haak (who isn’t a regular starter).

In the attack, you have 21-year-old Talles Magno (who is young, talented, inconsistent, and combustive), 20-year-old Julián Fernández (who is young, and joined the club over the summer), 23-year-old Mounsef Bakrar (who joined the club over the summer, and has yet to prove himself), and 24-year-old Hannes Wolf (who has yet to play for the club, or in any competitive game since last May).

That’s it.

Another captain-less year?

That brings us to the final candidate: Nobody.

Once again, Cushing might opt to rotate the armband between the players he trusts most without settling on one as the team leader.

Or he might name a captain after the season is already underway, and leading candidates such as Thiago Martins, Rodríguez, Parks, and Sands get a few more games under their belts.

Does the team need a captain? No. A game-by-game captaincy in 2024 doesn’t mean the team will follow the pattern set in 2023, when they failed to make the playoffs for just the second time in club history. But it would speak to the leadership vacuum in a young squad that could use some of the acuity that comes from experience and success.