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No team in MLS analytical history has lost more top talent than NYCFC this offseason. With the team that won the 2021 MLS Cup disbanded, Paul Harvey writes on the difficult road ahead in 2023.
O noble Peter, Cyprus' lord and king, Which Alexander won by mastery, To many a heathen ruin did'st thou bring; For this thy lords had so much jealousy, That, for no crime save thy high chivalry, All in thy bed they slew thee on a morrow. And thus does Fortune's wheel turn treacherously And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Monk's Tale
For a brief moment, New York City Football Club was at the very pinnacle of Major League Soccer.
After a rocky start to the season, the defending MLS Cup champions were the betting favorites to win the 2022 Supporter’s Shield. The blistering run of form was bolstered by the best underlying performance numbers in MLS for the 2022 season. New York City put up an expected goal differential of 0.94 per game from March 1st to July 23rd- 0.20 per game more than LAFC managed over the season.
The path to the playoffs and a title defense was clear. Ronny Deila was set to be an all-time great MLS Manager. Everything seemed possible. However, things changed suddenly.
First, Taty Castellanos’ inevitable departure robbed the team of its best goal scorer with no great options backing him up.
Then unexpectedly, Deila was poached by new ownership at Standard Liege. With Deila’s departure, interim manager Nick Cushing was left to pick up the pieces after a series of unfortunate injuries and results left NYCFC on the outside of the playoff spaces.
A timely formation change sparked a run of form that led to an Eastern Conference final matchup against Philadelphia, but after NYCFC briefly gained the advantage- a late capitulation ended the once-promising season.
The End of a Cycle
The wheel of fortune that was the 2022 season was but a wheel within a wheel, reflecting in miniature the grand turns that have defined the club for the last four years. Legendary manager Alex Ferguson said in an interview with the Harvard Business Review:
“Although I was always trying to disprove it, I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years, and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualize the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly.”
If you draw a line back to four seasons ago, the beginning of NYC’s last four-year cycle roughly aligned with the start of the 2019 season. David Villa, the focal point and star player for the first cycle during NYCFC’s expansion years, had just retired. The original building cycle had established NYCFC as a contender in MLS, but spending on flashy stars like Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo had not brought any trophies to Yankee Stadium.
After Villa’s retirement, NYCFC brought a totally different approach to roster construction and a new focal point in diminutive talisman Maxi Moralez. In the four years since the beginning of the Moralez cycle, great things have happened within the NYCFC squad. Along with a MLS Cup - the whole reason they play the game - the team has had successes in all areas:
NYCFC developed Taty Castellanos from a “tweener” winger to the best striker in MLS before sending him to a top 5 league.
James Sands became the most successful homegrown in team history and earned a loan move to Rangers.
Keaton Parks went from the fringes of Benfica to one of the best midfielders in the entire league.
Ronny Deila turned one of the best tenures of any MLS coach into a position at a club competing for a Champions League berth.
Multiple homegrown players received debuts and became crucial pieces in a consistent contender.
Unfortunately, in the context of the greater soccer world, MLS is not an endpoint. It’s a stop on the line. Every individual gain is balanced by an inevitable loss because the flickering flame of victory can only last briefly in the cold reality of a salary-capped league that sits well below the world’s best.
Many players have left this season, and words are insufficient to fully capture what they mean to the team.Maxi Moralez, the focal point of the last cycle, became more than just a player for NYCFC but an icon, a hero, and the team’s emotional center. Anton Tinnerholm reigned as the best fullback in the league for much of his tenure. Alex Callens played every damn position on the field and is etched in history as the player whose shot won NYCFC the cup. Sean Johnson was the captain and leader of the team who represented his club and country at the highest level.
Beyond the big names, other key departures in the clear-out marked the 2022-23 offseason. Santi Rodriguez, the player that at one time seemed to be the heir apparent to Maxi Moralez, declined to return to NYCFC after his loan period finished. The Uruguayan was a phenomenal player during his NYCFC tenure with a knack for big moments in big games. It was not clear why he chose not to return, but it may have been that the squad lost too many of the players he was closest to, and despite all of his good performances with NYCFC he was unable to make the national team over lesser players like Facundo Torres.
One of the players closest to Santi, Cacha Acevedo, also left to join the newly promoted Brazilian side and CFG sister club Bahia in Serie A. After struggling for playing earlier in his NYCFC tenure due to a crowded midfield and injuries, Acevedo was able to come into his own last season. His extremely conventional approach to shielding the backline was bolstered by his intensity in challenges. It’s fair to say that Bahia, a team on the rise, will need his help in their quest to stay up more than NYCFC will in their rebuild.
In 2019, Héber looked like the answer for NYCFC at the No. 9- a pure scorer who could finish off the chances created by his teammates. While injuries changed the trajectory of his career, his positivity was infectious and it was obvious the love he held for the team. Héber is moving on to Seattle- a team that can take advantage of the minutes he has left in his career. It seems fitting that the first Brazilian player signed by NYCFC has laid down a platform for the talented youngsters who have since joined.
The Remaining Holes
The reality is that building a roster for the 2023 season will be an incredibly difficult task. Although there is talent on the roster, no MLS team has given up as much talent in a single offseason as NYCFC has this offseason.
Since 2013, teams have on average turnover of 30% of their roster’s total player performances. NYCFC’s departing players contributed 209 of 516 total player performances or 40.5%. That’s on the high side but not in its own right notable. Plenty of teams like Inter Miami or FC Cincinnati have had higher marks in recent years. What makes NYCFC’s rebuild uniquely daunting is both the number and quality of the departing performances.
Of the 209 performances by departing players, 84 were good performances, while only 31 were bad performances. Since 2013, those departing good performances are the most in MLS. The difference between the percentage of good and bad performances in departing players is a full 25%- the highest in MLS since 2013. The only team close is LA Galaxy’s rebuild after the 2014 season, and they turned over only 21.5% of their team’s performances.
The fundamental reality is that in order to keep the production from last year, every player that steps into the gap must perform at a level well above the average MLS player.
Needless to say, replacing NYCFC’s top-end performances this year will be the toughest challenge facing NYCFC’s front office yet. Not only will David Lee have to replace high-quality players in multiple positions who made up the majority of the good things the team did last season, but they have to make up a significant amount in the xDawg metric:
Building Back the Blues
While there is still a great deal of mystery around how the new cycle will take shape, the endpoint is clear. In 2027, the new stadium is scheduled to be opened, and that inaugural season will hopefully coincide with the final stages of the cycle we are just entering.
Just like the new stadium, building a championship contender from the ground up is not going to be a fast process. The NYCFC front office has shown a great deal of patience in team building usually waiting until late in the first window or even the summer window to bring in the biggest names. There are clear advantages to this approach in terms of the quality of players available and the decreased quality of the options available to those players.
In the short term that may have a negative impact on the team’s early successes. It will be interesting to see how the first steps of the total rebuild play out as NYCFC gets ready to play competitive matches in under a month.
It’s easy to view the upcoming season with an element of dread. Players who will be core pieces are still missing from preseason, and even now 14-year-old Maximo Carrizo has started two straight games as the replacement for Maxi Moralez. It’s not hard to imagine that the start of this season could be a little rough as it takes new teammates time to bond and learn to play together.
At the same time, the total rebuild wipes the slate clean. New stories are going to be written, and new legends are going to be made. Fringe players may become club legends, new rivalries will be made, and more victories will be carved into the history of the club. A new dynasty starts in 2023. If all goes as planned, this winter will be the lowest point of the cycle, but hopefully will provide a foundation for multiple deep playoff runs and more trophies before the new stadium is built.
If it goes poorly, more upheaval will come this summer. If 2023 turns into a complete disaster, the cycle might start all over again in 2024. The front office has earned some leeway from NYCFC fans after the 2021 MLS Cup, but considering that by the end of the summer for four straight years #[manager’s name]Out popped up on Twitter, it might be naïve to expect patience when things look bleak.
The wheel of fortune can bring you up, and it can cast you down. NYCFC has gone a long way down in an eyeblink. If this is the bottom, hopefully it is brief. Far better to be cycling between very good and not as good than to be stuck hovering forever in the middle like our New Jersey neighbors who are neither bad enough to rebuild nor good enough to win anything that matters.
Whatever 2023 brings, it will be quite a ride.❧
Image: Wheel of Life
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