2020 MLS Season Preview: NYCFC

Posted By Peter Nolan on February 29, 2020

So which is it? Is New York City FC a team in turmoil? A team that just played a CONCACAF Champions League match in its main rival’s stadium and will play home games at not one but two baseball stadiums this season?

A team with a new manager, that’s number four as the team heads into its sixth season, as well as a new Sporting Director?  Or is New York City FC a rising MLS power that finally has some positive movement on a stadium of its own? A team that has opened new manager Ronny Deila’s tenure with an impressive two leg sweep of San Carlos in the CCL, and a team that returns virtually the entire roster of the Eastern Conference winning side of 2019?

The answer is, of course, both.

Deila Combative from the Start

Deila endeared himself to New York fans when he jumped in to defend winger Gary Mackay-Steven, shoving his opponent away after an overly aggressive tackle. That sort of bravado from a manager has historically been well received at Yankee Stadium.

So has winning and Deila has inherited a team that figures to do plenty of that over the next several months.

Most teams would struggle to adjust to a new manager but with so little turnover in personnel New York appears poised for a smooth transition from Dome Torrent to Deila.

If it Ain’t Broke…

The new boss has taken a light touch with his new charges, employing similar tactics to his predecessor and largely sticking with the same group in both legs against his Costa Rican foe.

More Heber

One of the reasons that emerged for Torrent’s decision to depart from the Bronx was management’s failure to land a striker in a timely fashion, with Heber only arriving in time to play 22 times for NYCFC.

In contrast, Deila stands to benefit from a full season’s worth of Heber’s goal-scoring touch. In just 18 starts in 2019, Heber chalked up 17 goals and four assists. The 28 year old Brazilian has mostly operated on the fringes of European soccer but he has scored goals and won honors wherever he has played be it Croatia, (Player of the Year) or Armenia (league leading goal scorer.)

Heber’s transition to MLS was seamless, now look for a settled Heber to chase similar accolades in 2019.

The Assist King

With Heber on hand from the start of the campaign, the question becomes can Maxi Moralez exceed his 2019 assist total of 20 and possibly chase down Carlos Valderrama’s record of 26 in a season?

NYCFC Goes Deep

Delia will have himself a bit of a headache this season as he tries to parcel out minutes amongst a deep and talented group of attacking players. After Heber and Moralez, Deila will have to think long and hard about his first choice front-runners.

21 year-old Valentin (Tata) Castellanos notched 11 goals to go with seven assists for NYC in 2019 and has established himself with the Argentina U23 team. Designated Player Alexandru Mitriță contributed 12 goals after he joined the team early in the season.

Ismael Toujouri-Schradi added five goals and four assists in 19 games. Paraguayan DP Jesus Medina showed signs of living up to his promise late last season. And Deila also has Mackay-Steven chomping at the bit to prove himself after arriving from Scotland mid-season in 2019.

Spoiled for Choice

Further back the pitch, Sean Johnson is the clear number one between the posts, the former Chicago Fireman having played himself back into the national team during his time in New York.

Fullback/wingback Anton Tinnerholm may be the best right back in MLS. Ronald Matarrita provides a high quality counterpart on Tinnerholm’s opposite flank. Center back pairing Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callensare strong and experienced at the heart of the NYC defense.

Deila has options in his midfield with Keaton Parks likely to see plenty of minutes while former Arsenal prodigy Gedion Zelalem attempts to get his career back on track.

Rising Star

The continued progress of 19 year-old defender/midfielder James Sands could have a lot to with how far this New York City FC side goes this season. Sands was a hit in 2019 when Torrent slotted the club’s first ever Homegrown signing into the starting 11 between Callens and Chanot.

Solid rather than flashy, Sands was an effective conduit to the NYC midfield and attack as well as providing defensive cover. A broken arm and a broken collarbone limited Sands to 19 games last year but Sands impressed in both legs of New York’s 6-3 aggregate score CCL win over San Carlos.

On Thursday night at Red Bull Arena, Sands appeared physically stronger than he had last season and was noticeably stronger in the tackle.

Deila was certainly impressed with Sands, telling the assembled press after Thursday night’s CCL victory, “today was outstanding.” Deila went on, “it was the best game I’ve seen from him.”  The coach also praised the Rye, New Yorkers tackling, positioning and passing, noting, “I don’t think he played one bad pass today.”


An NYCFC team that is filled with difference makers will battle Atlanta for supremacy in the Eastern Conference in a race that should go down to the wire. In the end, I see NYCFC repeating as Conference champions before going on to make some noise in the postseason.

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Peter Nolan

Peter Nolan has been on the soccer beat for many years now, covering the United States Men's and Women's teams, from the SnowClasico to Azteca and back again. Along with the US national teams, Peter will provide insight into the MLS and NWSL, with a focus on the NY Red Bulls and NYCFC.

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