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A New Dimension: How Birk Risa Could Enhance NYCFC's Vertical Play
NYCFC's new left-footed center back has a name straight out of Star Wars and a cosmic passing touch. But can he ascend to claim Callens' vacated throne?
Two center backs joined New York City Football Club six years apart. Despite both being 25 years old1, left-footed, and coming from under-the-radar leagues, their expectations upon arrival were dramatically different.
The first defender in this tale is Alexander Callens. Acquired ahead of the 2017 season, Callens joined an NYCFC that just made a massive leap under head coach Patrick Vieira after a disappointing inaugural season. Finishing second in the Eastern Conference was a success in spite of a glaring weakness in a defense that conceded the 2nd-most non-penalty expected goals (npxG) in Major League Soccer.
Competence was the modest objective Callens’ was brought in to help the defense achieve. But the Peruvian did far more than that.
The relative unknown who arrived from Numancia in Spain’s second division quickly became a locked-in starter. He developed into one of the league’s best center backs. His ascent continued, a trajectory that extended to an entrenched position in Peru’s starting lineup. Throughout this progression, Callens not only elevated NYCFC past mere competence, but also propelled them to having one of the most formidable defenses in MLS2. Maintaining the standard he set will undoubtedly be a difficult challenge for the next player to take that mantle.
That brings us to the second defender in this story, Birk Risa.
Whether fair or not, Risa enters the stage for NYCFC under the weight of the performance expectations set by his predecessor. Like Callens, the Norwegian is here to solidify the left side of the backline in what has become a tumultuous season.
Unlike Callens, Risa won’t need to transform the actual defense from the backline, but simply reinforce it. Despite a makeshift crew in the interim period following Callens departure to Girona, NYCFC currently ranks second in MLS in npxG allowed and could potentially end 2023 with the best mark in franchise history in that metric.
Although evaluating the effectiveness of center backs at defending remains an inexact science, Risa exhibits a skill set that seems poised to enhance NYCFC’s stout defense. Standing at 6’2”, he pairs good size with good athleticism. He uses both to defend on the front foot, aggressively attacking aerial challenges and ball carriers alike.
Nonetheless, that aggressiveness can get the better of Risa. Preferring to attack headers with a running start, he sometimes concedes position on these challenges in order to get a head of steam. Risa can also overcommit when challenging dribblers running at him, leading to fouls or leaving him out of position. Encouragingly, Risa’s decreased foul-rate3 since his early seasons in the Eliteserien suggests Risa is making progress in this aspect, but this could be an issue as he transitions to defending against the quicker, stronger players in MLS.
Defensive team metrics often prove more insightful than individual ones, and Risa’s integral role within Molde’s high-level defense is a true endorsement to his abilities. Molde have allowed the 3rd-fewest shots in Norway’s Eliteserien and rank 2nd in xG conceded.
However, the real impact Risa will have is on the ball. The 2023 backline needs to add some juice in possession.
NYCFC center backs are one of the least progressive groups in the league, ranking second to last in vertical passes4 per pass. This, alongside a lack of runs in behind, has nullified any direct attacking threat for a significant portion of the 2023 season. Justin Haak, Tayvon Gray, Thiago Martins, and Maxine Chanot all rank in the bottom quartile of MLS in both vertical yards and raw distance per pass.
Even Callens, in his tenure in New York, displayed more incisiveness in his dribbling than his passing. He only managed ranking among the top half of center backs in vertical distance per pass in two of his seven seasons. This apparent lack of verticality likely is attributable to the possession-retention focus of NYCFC’s head coaches. While Nick Cushing maintained this ethos, the balance has now shifted excessively toward conservatism.
Risa possesses the potential to reverse this trend. With an actual No. 9 in Monsef Bakrar leading the front line, a central defender capable of putting balls behind the opposing defense will effectively stretch defenses, facilitating NYCFC’s desire to play through the lines.
In this new setup, Risa immediately becomes the most threatening central defender on NYCFC’s roster. The FC Koln academy graduate constantly tested Eliteserien backlines in three seasons with Molde. Demonstrating continuous improvement year after year, he elevated himself to rank among the top 10 among central defenders in many playmaking categories in 2023.
Risa’s left foot is particularly refined for the pass to the right wing from wide left positions. These moments underscore Risa’s tactical compatibility with Cushing’s current scheme. It starts with a 5-3-2 defensive shape that fluidly transforms in possession. The left wingback advances up the sideline, and the left center back drifts wide into fullback territory, transitioning NYCFC into a 4-3-3 attacking formation.
While Callens occupied this shifting center back role last season, a revolving committee has taken over in 2023. Tony Alfaro, the sole left-footed member of this committee, quickly became ineffective, leading to his trade to the Los Angeles Galaxy and reopening the vacancy. That position now belongs to Risa.
Not only can Risa fulfill this role, it may be the one where he is most comfortable. The role he leaves behind at Molde is nearly identical to how Cushing is expected to deploy him within the aforementioned 5-3-2/4-3-3 hybrid. Throughout this season, Molde played exclusively in three-at-the-back shapes where Risa’s tendency to drift to the touchline afforded him the time and space to exhibit his adept passing skills.
Despite a devotion to a 5-3-2 this season, Cushing recently shifted back to a 4-3-3 against Toronto FC and the Red Bulls with Bakrar now in the starting eleven. Risa’s role within this shape with NYCFC is less certain, though he does have experience as a fullback and central defender in a back four.
During his rise in the Eliteserien with Odds BK, Risa played exclusively as a traditional left back. After moving to Molde in 2021, head coach Erling Moe converted Risa to a center back in a four-man backline. His conversion to central defense became complete in 2022, but he has only started in a back four once in the last two seasons.
The versatility Risa showed in Norway indicates he can play the spectrum of roles between left back and center back as Callens once did. His passing and athleticism are applicable across that range. In the short term, it’s more likely he would function as an elbow back in four-man backlines while Chanot continues as the primary left center back. Using him this way provides a similar offensive function to what it will be in the 5-3-2. Risa pairs particularly well opposite of Mitja Ilenič, who’s propensity to push up the right flank would balance out an elbow back on the other side of the backline.
Regardless of where he’s positioned, shackling Risa’s progressive capabilities in favor of maintaining possession would be a misguided and unideal approach. His long ball acumen is a missing ingredient. Acquiring Risa's talents signifies an acknowledgment that the lack of urgency within the backline can no longer be tolerated, especially when trying to salvage a playoff run from this nightmare of a season.
More importantly, Risa is here to replace a club legend. It’s unlikely he’ll ever match the extensive contributions of Callens, who’s penalty kick clinched the team’s first ever MLS Cup. It’d be shocking if Risa ever reaches that status. But that’s the unfair comparison he’ll have to live with as the heir apparent.
Yet, in order for this transfer to be a success, Risa doesn’t have to be Callens. If he can make the left center back role his own, expand the backline’s passing profile, and help ease the team through this transition year, it will be $1 million very well spent. ❧
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan, & Alyssa Pagan, Rho Ophiuch
Technically, Callens was three months shy of 25 when he signed but no one like a pedant.
NYCFC were 2nd in NPxGA/game (1.09) from 2017-2022. Nashville was 1st but played 102 fewer games.
Fouls per 90
Defined as passes that exceed the 75th percentile vertical passing distance by CBs from the defensive half