In the Designated Player era, MLS teams are always going to be judged by their marquee signings. As the signings go, so go the team. For New York City FC, a team with the likes of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard on their roster, the ceiling for success is especially high—and potentially disastrously low if any or all of those players don’t find their footing in their new home.
In the early portion of the 2016 MLS season, two of NYCFC’s “big three” have been absent—in presence and quality. With Andrea Pirlo having only one assist so far this year, and Frank Lampard yet to see any action this season, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that the team could be on the brink of collapse.
Enter Khiry Shelton and Tommy McNamara.
Through nine games, the pair has a total of eight assists (four each), and four goals between them. Of course, many of those assists have been to the team’s most successful Designated Player David Villa. Villa’s seven goals have him in a three-way tie for the league lead.
McNamara knows the capabilities of a player like Villa, and stresses his gratitude to be working alongside of the former Barcelona and Spanish national team striker.
“He’s really easy to play with,” McNamara says. “When I’m looking upfield, I’m always looking to combine with him in and around the 18-yard-box.”
Shelton says he’s “learned a lot” from Villa—but also credits the importance of head coach Patrick Viera’s style and experience as a manager on the early success of his young career.
“[Viera] tells me to have fun,” Shelton says, grinning. “My talent…comes out then.”
Viera says that he “is really pleased” with the pair, and attributes their work ethic for the team’s recent surge.
“They work really hard in training, and when you work hard in training, you play the way [they have been playing,” Viera says. “They really understand their role on the field.”
Those roles have evolved. Last year, Shelton managed only one goal and one assist in 17 games played. This year, opponents have had difficulty dealing with Shelton’s relentless ability to take opposing defenses head on.
“That’s part of my game—running at defenders,” Shelton says. “[Viera has said to] do that more and more.”
“[Shelton’s] really athletic, and he’s able to stretch the team,” McNamara says. “It keeps defenders being worried about the space behind them—which creates space [for others].
As for himself, McNamara scored five goals last season, but has far surpassed his assist tally from last year. Just like Shelton, McNamara sees a changed coaching philosophy directly responsible for his increased output this season.
“I think I’m playing in a slightly different position and being asked to do different things than I’ve been asked to do in the past,” McNamara says.
“I want to give them more responsibility,” Viera says. “Because they’ve got talent. They’re working really well.”
With Khiry Shelton and Thomas McNamara picking up the slack, NYCFC’s fortunes may not hinge on missing—and misfiring—Designated Players.