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The Girona Gamble: How NYCFC's Bet on Taty Castellanos Hit Big
NYCFC's greatest striker has made it in Europe, but questions remain on the long-term viability of the club's roster-building strategy.
It was the stuff of dreams. The hallowed grounds of Camp Nou. Nearly 80,000 screaming fans. Your team is deadlocked on the road against the heavily-favored FC Barcelona- the Catalonian giants. But soccer is a game of moments. Even against one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport, and all you need is a single one.
And then it happens. A perfectly weighted through ball allows you to make a sharp run splitting the central defenders, putting you one-on-one against the keeper. Bury the ball in the back of the net for the game-winner, and tomorrow everyone will know your name.
But for Valentin “Taty” Castellanos, he wasn’t some kid in the backyard fantasizing about playing soccer in Europe while shooting at an apparition in an empty net. This was real and this was his moment.
And he missed.
For New York City Football Club, the decision to send Castellanos on loan in July 2022 to Girona FC was a gamble with significant short- and long-term complications.
By the end of the 2021 season, it was quite obvious that Taty, who had garnered serious transfer interest since the previous offseason, was nearing the end of his time in MLS. The Argentine had cemented himself as the best striker in MLS through an incredible end-of-season goal-scoring display. Not only did he win the 2021 Golden Boot, but he also single-handedly propelled NYCFC into the playoffs, leading them to an MLS Cup title. In the MLS Cup Final, Taty scored the team's only goal in open play and added another as the first shooter in the decisive penalty shootout. It was not a question of if but when Taty would make his move to Europe.
Despite NYCFC being 538's favorite to repeat as MLS Cup champions in 20221, the uncertain transfer status of Castellanos put the team in a bind. While the championship core was returning, winning trophies becomes a lot easier when you have the league's best striker leading the vanguard. However, the issue was more problematic than that. NYCFC's entire success seemingly hinged on Taty's work rate. The offensive system relied on the massive amount of high-quality scoring opportunities that Taty's runs generated. The team also depended on his relentless pressure to defend from the front.
Replacing Taty would be NYCFC's paramount roster-building challenge in 2022 and beyond. However, both internal replacement options presented major red flags. Héber, who tore his ACL in 2020, played only 100 minutes in 2021 and was not the same physically dominant player who scored 15 goals in 22 games in 2019. On the other hand, Talles Magno, a young Designated Player signed by NYCFC in 2021, showed promise but was still unproven and in the process of developing into an elite wide attacker terrorizing opposing fullbacks with his exceptional ability on the ball.
While losing your best player to Europe would undoubtedly create immediate hardships, it was crucial for NYCFC to prioritize their long-term roster-building strategy. The club's primary competitive advantage, compared to other MLS teams, lies in its ability to utilize City Football Group's (CFG) extensive scouting network to uncover value in the global market. This advantage becomes even more vital in MLS due to the salary cap restrictions. Furthermore, rule changes aimed at facilitating the acquisition of young foreign talent to eventually sell to European clubs, have given the NYCFC front office even more incentive to leverage CFG's scouting network to identify and acquire promising players.
Acquiring young players with the potential to develop and play in the top European leagues is undoubtedly thrilling and can offer lucrative opportunities. At the same time, it also comes with the duality that you must allow them to pursue their European dreams, or else you will struggle to attract the next generation of talented young players to come and play in MLS in New York City.
To the club's credit, NYCFC has a demonstrated track record of allowing young talent to transition to Europe. This trend began with Jack Harrison's move to the Manchester City mothership in 2018, followed by Joe Scally's transfer to Borussia Monchengladbach in 2021, and James Sands' move to Rangers in 2022. It is highly likely that providing these players with opportunities to play in Europe has positively influenced NYCFC's ability to attract and sign a new youth core consisting of Santiago Rodriguez, Gabriel Perriera, Talles Magno, Mitja Ilenič, as well as recent first-team homegrown academy signings Maximo Carrizo and Christian McFarlane, both of whom have foreign passports.
As momentum was building for Taty's move to Europe to finally materialize after the MLS Cup, NYCFC found themselves in a bind. The club was aware that they had a player of exceptional quality who had outgrown MLS, but they had yet to find a suitor willing to meet their valuation. The highest bid NYCFC received was a $12.5 million offer shortly after the MLS Cup from Palmeiras, one of Brazil's most popular clubs. However, this bid fell short of NYCFC's $15 million valuation. Taty also expressed his desire for European football in an interview with ESPN, stating, "I want to aim for European football. It's my reality, it's my dream. I have always wanted to [play] there. That's my focus."
Ultimately, Castellanos decided to stay in New York for the beginning of the 2022 season and score his way to Europe. He played a crucial role in guiding the club to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League- scoring a team-high 4 goals.2 Furthermore, he continued to dominate in MLS, emerging as the league's top scorer with an impressive 13 goals in the first 17 games of the season including delivering a 4-goal masterclass against Real Salt Lake. Importantly, he waited until the end of the European season when clubs would be more inclined to invest transfer funds to strengthen their rosters.
Despite reported interest from clubs such as West Ham, Leeds, Brighton, and Sevilla, a concrete bid and Taty's long-awaited ticket to Europe never materialized. The reasons remain uncertain. It could be due to bias against MLS, Taty's lack of any experience in European football, the fact that he was already 23 years old and not considered a youth prospect anymore, or even the lingering effects of the pandemic on the global transfer market. Regardless of the underlying factors, NYCFC had no choice but to explore alternative options.
In this particular situation, NYCFC had a unique advantage that other MLS clubs did not possess. They had the opportunity to send Castellanos on loan to Girona, a CFG sister club in La Liga. The loan arrangement served a twofold purpose. It allowed NYCFC to maintain control over the player's development while providing him with valuable experience in a top European league. Secondly, according to NYCFC Sporting Director David Lee, the loan would enhance Castellanos' value in the transfer market.
If he performs well, as we expect him to, then the valuation that we’ve got on the player now will look a lot different than it will in 12 months. So this is a sort of strategic decision for us that we think will ultimately help maximize his value. It’s an opportunity for him to play in Europe, which has been something that he’s really wanted, but really the decision came from us saying that we think this is a smart idea to try to strategically raise his value above the level that we’ve seen so far from European clubs in this transfer window.
NYCFC Sporting Director David Lee to The Athletic (July 25, 2022)
Taty packed his bags, bid farewell to the supporters at Yankee Stadium after a 61st-minute substitution against Inter Miami, and departed New York City as a legend. His journey was far from over, though. He now had to prove himself once again in a new country, a new league, with a new team, and under a new manager during his loan spell at Girona.
Loans can be inherently risky for the selling club. An example of this is NYCFC's first major youth transfer, Jack Harrison, who went on loan for four years after joining Manchester City. During his loan spell, he had a disastrous stint at Middlesbrough in 2018, where he played only 54 minutes before eventually finding success and signing with Leeds on a permanent deal in 2021. Similarly, James Sands faced challenges while on loan at Rangers last season. He had to endure a midseason managerial change and was played out of position, which led to his recall early this year.
Castellanos certainly would also have his fair share of challenges while at Girona. The club had just won promotion back to La Liga the previous season and after Taty’s move was completed 538 projected Girona to finish dead last in the La Liga table.3 The personnel on the roster did not seem likely to provide service for a center forward who made a living making runs off the ball. Chief penalty-kicking duties were also delegated to veteran Crisitan Stuani- which meant that Taty lacked the ability to inflate his goal totals with gifts that go in 78% of the time and would have to earn his goal totals the hard way.
As expected, it took Taty some time to adapt to the demands of La Liga. From August 26th to November 11th, Taty scored only one goal in 11 games. However, he managed to bounce back and found his form, scoring 5 goals in his next 10 starts.
But then, the Barcelona miss happened.
The missed game-winner against Barcelona, a moment that could have marked the beginning of his breakthrough on the European stage, devastated Taty. He was visibly upset, and seen crying in the locker room after the game. He subsequently deleted his social media accounts, leaving many to question whether he could recover from this setback.
It was in the aftermath of that heartbreak that the Taty we had witnessed in MLS started to resurface. The Taty who would never back down from a challenge. The Taty who would outwork everyone on the field. The Taty who, at times, seemed capable of scoring goals at will. Crucially for NYCFC, it was the Taty they had taken a gamble on when they sent him on loan to La Liga.
Castellanos responded immediately in his next game after the Barcelona miss by scoring a game-winning goal against Elche. The Argentine striker continued his impressive form and went on to score 7 goals in 4 games, all of which resulted in victories for Girona. However, it was the extraordinary accomplishment of scoring four goals in a single game against Real Madrid, a fitting act of cosmic balancing, that truly put Taty on the European map.
In his first La Liga campaign, Taty finished tied for 4th in the league with Karim Benzema, having scored 12 non-penalty goals- a remarkable achievement for a still-contracted MLS player. The only players ahead of him in the goal-scoring charts were Robert Lewandowski, Antoine Griezmann, and Álvaro Morata. It was clear Taty belonged among the highest levels of European football.
With the Argentine's impending €15 million (~$16.9 million) transfer deal with Lazio4 set to be finalized, NYCFC's gamble to loan the striker to Girona has paid off exactly as they had hoped. Taty delivered prolific goal-scoring performances, showcased his quality, and ultimately increased his valuation to match the club's expectations.
The transcendence of Taty came at a cost. Currently, NYCFC finds themselves with a deficit of 4 points off the final playoff position as they enter the All-Star/Leagues Cup break. This shocking situation is particularly notable considering the recent expansion of playoffs, where nine teams from each conference now qualify, has made it incredibly easy to make the playoffs.
NYCFC's decline can be attributed to the absence of a cohesive roster-building strategy to replace Taty, despite transfer interest being evident even before the 2021 season. The puzzling decision to trade Héber to the Seattle Sounders in the offseason left Talles Magno as NYCFC's primary option at striker.
Despite a noticeable decline in performance from Magno after Taty's loan in 2022, when he assumed the No. 9 role, NYCFC still chose not to acquire a starting-caliber striker. The Talles striker experiment has seemingly ended this season with the $12 million transfer regressing so deeply that manager Nick Cushing deemed him not able to help the team win games resulting in Magno being a healthy scratch in favor of NYCFC II winger John Denis in their recent loss against the Philadelphia Union.
Five transfer windows after Taty first began getting serious interest, NYCFC finally secured a striker replacement last week in U22 initiative signing Mounsef Bakrar. This acquisition may have come too late, as there are only 10 games left to play in the 2023 regular season. For a club with the resources of CFG, the time it took to acquire a player like Bakrar was simply unacceptable.
In the end, NYCFC's decision to loan Castellanos to Girona FC turned out to be a pivotal moment, benefiting both the player's career and the club. While his lucrative transfer to Lazio, the fifth-highest outbound transfer in MLS history according to Transfermarkt, is certainly cause for celebration, the club must also face criticism for the self-inflicted wound caused by Taty's absence and the lack of a coherent roster-building strategy to replace him.
In a recent interview with the BBC, CFG's Managing Director of Global Football Brian Marwood acknowledged the frustration of NYCFC fans, stating, "I get the frustration of New York. You don't want to let your top goalscorer go, but they also realize they are part of a bigger organization. We have to accept that is the life and that is what it means being part of the group. We can't kill that opportunity."
However, what Marwood needs to understand is that the issue lies not in Taty's departure, but in the absence of a plan to replace him. While Taty's transfer highlights the potential windfall of acquiring talented players from South America through the CFG pipeline, it is important to recognize that his success may be more of an outlier than the norm.
NYCFC's focus on youth signings has not produced the desired outcomes, as players like Nicolás Acevedo, Thiago Andrade, and potentially Talles Magno and Santiago Rodriguez have struggled to make the jump to European football. At the very least, the 2023 season has highlighted the club's failure to build a strong squad around their young talents, hindering their ability to develop and succeed.
It is crucial for CFG and NYCFC to reassess their approach and develop a comprehensive plan for future player transitions and acquisitions. Otherwise, the tribulations faced by NYCFC during the 2023 season will be fated to recur. ❧
Image: Salvador Dalí, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking
This is called foreshadowing.
More like Lazi-no IMHO