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Spicy Wings: The upgrades Cufré and Ilenič bring to NYCFC

The 18-year-old Mitja Ilenič has established himself as a starter for NYCFC
Bright lights, big city | Courtesy

New York City FC ushered in a new set of fullbacks in the 2023 offseason, signing young Slovenian right-back Mitja Ilenič from NK Domžale and 26-year-old Argentine left-back Braian Cufré from RCD Mallorca. The fullbacks have been bright spots in a dark year, adding both to the attacking production and the defensive stability the City Football Group style of play demands from the positions. 

NYCFC have a history of excellent fullbacks, dating back to when Angeliño played for the team in 2015. Anton Tinnerholm and Ronald Matarrita are both high on the club’s all-time regular season assist lists: The Swede’s 23 assists make him third, and the Costa Rican’s 13 assists make him ninth.

This is all to say that NYCFC set a high bar for what the club expects from their fullbacks. Looking back on the season so far, both Cufré and Ilenič are meeting or even exceeding those expectations.

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Cufré: A defender who attacks

Last season, NYCFC struggled with attacking production from the left-back position, with head coach Nick Cushing eventually opting to play an out-and-out wingback in Kevin O’Toole over the more defensive-minded Malte Amundsen. The midseason shift worked, sparking victories in the Campeones Cup and Hudson River Derby, and a run to the Eastern Conference Final

But for all that O’Toole brought offensively, he lacked defensive skills. That forced Cushing to drop a midfielder and play with three center-backs.

Cufré was brought in on loan from Spanish side Mallorca in the offseason to play both as a traditional fullback in a back-four, and as a wingback in a back-five. He provided an overall upgrade on the left flank, and the club made the decision in April to trade Amundsen to Columbus Crew for up to $500,000 in General Allocation Money.

According to FBref’s detailed analytics, Cufré is an above-average attacking left-back. He stands in the 88th percentile of fullbacks when it comes to  goals and assists, contributing .25 per 90 minutes. He has scored twice and assisted twice — including sending the ball that set up Matthias Pellegrini’s acrobatic finish in NYCFC’s win over CF Montréal.

Cufré is in the 92nd percentile of npxG+xAG (non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists), with .27 per 90. He also provides 1.14 key passes per game, proving that he’s an excellent attacking contributor from left back. 

His defensive numbers aren’t incredible, but they also don’t paint a full picture. He ranks in the 59th percentile of tackles with 2.09 per 90, 64th percentile of tackles won with 1.33 per 90, 83rd percentile of blocks with 1.39 per 90, and only the 27th percentile of interceptions with .95 per 90. 

It’s important to remember that FBref is comparing Cufré to other fullbacks, many of whom don’t occupy the same attacking spaces.

Braian Cufré 2023 Regular Season Heatmap

As his heat map shows, Cufre occupies the whole left flank with equal time in the opposition’s half as his own. Even though Cufre is a very good defender, his numbers don’t fully reflect his level of play because he’s often so high up on the field participating in the attack.

With the Argentine only here on loan, NYCFC’s front office would do well to sign him permanently as the 26-year-old Cufré could lock down the position as the club builds their next multi-year contender.

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Ilenič: Good for his age, and getting better

Anton Tinnerholm departed the club in 2022, returning home to Sweden after spending five years with NYCFC. Tinnerholm burst onto the scene shortly after arriving, quickly becoming one of the best right-backs in the league. Not only did he finish his NYCFC career with the third-most regular-season assists (23), but with the sixth-most regular season goal contributions (32) in club history. He set a new standard for how much a defender could contribute to the attack.

But in 2021, injuries and age started catching up to Tinnerholm. By last season, the right-back position clearly needed to be refreshed.

Homegrown Tayvon Gray was promoted when Tinnerholm was injured in 2021. Gray started in all of the MLS Cup Playoff games that year, and for much of the 2022 season. Gray had a couple highlight moments, most notably assisting Santiago Rodríguez’s opening goal against the New England Revolution in the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinal, however his upbringing as a center-back and overall lack of attacking threat limited his contributions to the team. NYCFC want more from a right-back, and the front office looked to address that in the offseason.

Ilenič was signed in the winter. The 18-year-old Slovenian is proving to be a promising right-back, notching two assists in 18 appearances so far this season. Ilenič still has ways to go before reaching Tinnerholm levels, however, the blueprint is there and the youngster has loads of talent and potential. Again, he’s only 18. 

Attacking-wise Ilenič’s two assists place him in the 85th percentile for fullbacks according to FBref. One of those assists was a perfectly-placed ball that Keaton Parks headed home in NYCFC’s victory over Nashville. 

The other numbers don’t shine too brightly on the young fullback. His 35.22 passes completed per 90 only place him in the 36th percentile and his 77.1% pass completion rate only places him in the 64th percentile. 

Defensively, however, the numbers indicate Ilenič is above-average. He wins 1.33 tackles and makes blocks per game, good for the 63rd and 78th percentile.

Mitja Ilenič 2023 Regular Season Heatmap

Similarly to Cufré, Ilenič is asked to do less defensive work then the average fullback which his equal presence in both halves indicates. Unlike Cufré, Ilenič was signed to a multi-year contract with the club. 

Ilenič is an investment in the future who’s also contributing to the here and now.

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