From dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic to losing key players through injury, Ronny Deila’s first season as head coach of New York City FC is difficult to judge.
He led his side past A.D. San Carlos in NYCFC’s first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League before falling to eventual winners Tigres UANL in the quarterfinal. MLS play dropped off in comparison to the peak of Domenec Torrent’s tenure, slipping to a fifth-place finish in the East after topping the conference in 2019.
A ludicrous exit from the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs fit right into the club’s experience in post-season soccer. With NYCFC entering its sixth year without a trophy, expectations will be higher for Deila in 2021.
While most of NYCFC’s core returns this year, The squad will be without Alexander Ring and Ronald Matarrita following lucrative trades to Austin FC and FC Cincinnati respectively.
The loss of Ring may have come as a shock, but the depth and quality in NYCFC’s midfield should allow it to function without skipping a beat. James Sands will provide defensive support alongside Keaton Parks, who contributes as a box-to-box midfielder. They will both be joined by Maxi Moralez, who is looking to bounce back from an injury-filled 2020.
With an opening at left back for the first time since 2016, NYCFC made a pair of moves to replace Matarrita. The addition of former US U-20 National Team regular Chris Gloster adds a youthful and attacking option along the left side. After two years in Europe with Hannover II and Jong PSV, Gloster returns stateside for regular playing time.
NYCFC also added Malte Amundsen, a 23 year-old fullback from Danish side Vejle as its first signing this offseason. Both Gloster and Amundsen compete with Gudmundur Thórarinsson for starts this campaign.
In central defense, Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot will continue to hold down the back line for the fifth year running. The pair will be backed up by Sebastien Ibeagha and possibly 18 year-old Justin Haak, who Deila wants to try out at center back.
The torn ACL injury Héber suffered in September will leave the Brazilian out for 3 to 4 more months. The full-time striker role will be filled in the meantime by Valentín Castellanos, later backed up by recent addition Thiago Andrade.
Here is a closer look at 2021 New York City FC:
2021 New York City FC Season Preview
2020 Finish: 5th in Eastern Conference (12-8-3, 39 points)
Key Additions: Alfredo Morales, Chris Gloster, Thiago Andrade, Malte Amundsen
Key Losses: Alexander Ring, Ronald Matarrita
Newcomer to Watch: Alfredo Morales
Although NYCFC is beyond deep in central midfield, the addition of Alfredo Morales adds the missing veteran presence. The 30 year-old has spent the last ten years in the first and second divisions in Germany, most recently with Fortuna Düsseldorf. Able to play the No. 6 and No. 8, Morales opens up the option to move Sands back to center back.
Pressure is On: Valentín Castellanos
Though six goals made Castellanos NYCFC’s top scorer last season, forward Valentín Castellanos carries more responsibility than ever. With Heber out recovering from his torn ACL, Castellanos will be the starting center forward through at least the middle of the summer.
In an ideal world, Heber would be returning to fitness having to fight for his starting spot back.
Without significant upgrades to NYCFC’s roster, it’s hard to picture brighter days in the Bronx.
Heading into the offseason, it was expected that NYCFC would fill at least one of its open Designated Player slots. Not having done so, success this season will rely on a second consistent contributor, as Maxi Moralez can’t be relied on to stay fit for the entire season.
That could come through Keaton Parks if he is allowed higher up the field, but given the talent on the wings, it will likely come from the flank. Deila stuck with Jesús Medina on the right as the 23 year-old continued to lack the finishing product in just under 1,500 minutes. Having missed time due to injury and COVID-19, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi will be itching for a productive 2021.
Thiago Andrade’s arrival adds a fresh look up top at both center forward and left wing. The 20 year-old began getting time with Brazilian side EC Bahia earlier this year, scoring and assisting once in just over 500 minutes.
“Thiago is a young and talented winger with a lot of pace who likes to take on defenders,” Deila said of Thiago in a press release. “He adds a quick, direct threat to our attack who can run in behind the defense and cause a lot of problems for our opponents.”
A fractured right foot kept James Sands from enjoying a full season as NYCFC’s first choice at defensive midfield, but the 20 year-old returns to fitness with more weight on his shoulders. He’ll be one of three homegrown players looking to make a mark this year.
“I feel like this club is now putting a lot of trust in me that I can be a leader and help this team in the future,” Sands said. “I definitely feel more pressure this year to be a little more vocal and help the guys around me than I have in previous years.”
Andres Jasson and Tayvon Gray should be seeing their first minutes as a professional after developing in the club’s academy since 2017. Jasson, 19, has won a starting spot after a successful preseason largely at the left wing while Gray would see the field as understudy to Anton Tinnerholm at the young age of 18.
Given the decision to split time between Yankee Stadium and Red Bull Arena, tensions continue to rise between fans and the front office. Progress on a stadium would do wonders in solving that, but with no news in sight, a title-challenging season wouldn’t hurt in the meantime.
Goalkeepers: Luis Barraza, Sean Johnson, Cody Mizell
Defenders: Malte Amundsen, Alex Callens, Maxime Chanot, Chris Gloster, Tayvon Gray, Sebastien Ibeagha, Gumundur Thorarinsson, Anton Tinnerholm
Midfielders: Nicolas Acevedo, Justin Haak, Andres Jasson, Maxi Moralez, Keaton Parks, Tony Rocha, James Sands, Juan Pablo Torres, Gedion Zelalem
Forwards: Valentin Castellanos, Heber, Jesus Medina, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Thiago Andrade