After knocking on the door as of late, it may be time to bust through. Here’s ESNY’s official New York City FC preview and predictions for the 2018 MLS season.
New York City Football Club begins its fourth competitive season in Major League Soccer this weekend.
After flaming out in the second round of the postseason for the second year in a row, NYCFC figure to be under immense pressure to deliver come fall.
Change this offseason was inevitable for head coach Patrick Vieira and sporting director Claudio Reyna. Two straight second seeds in the Eastern Conference and only one playoff victory from four tries simply wasn’t good enough for a team led by an aging superstar.
David Villa is set to compete in his fourth season in the United States at 36 years of age, and never before has his age been such a pressing concern. Father time will catch up eventually–it always does–and for NYCFC, part of the pressure on their shoulders regards their captain–will they be able to get David Villa a title before he retires?
On paper, NYCFC have one of the better rosters in MLS. They shed a ton of dead weight this offseason, from failed high draft picks (Khiry Shelton) to rotation defenders that simply weren’t good enough (Ethan White, RJ Allen, Frederic Brillant). They’ve retooled with savvy additions from MLS and overseas alike, and appear set to be one of the better teams in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.
But do they have enough to overcome their playoff woes? How about knocking off reigning champions Toronto FC, or crosstown rivals Red Bulls, or the upstart Atlanta United?
Only time will tell, but here’s a sneak peek at how NYCFC should fare this season.
Look alive #MLSisBack pic.twitter.com/jJCxebhb5N
— New York City FC (@NYCFC) March 2, 2018
Like I mentioned previously, shedding dead weight was a big theme this offseason. NYCFC shipped out a significant number of players, including Ethan White, Khiry Shelton, RJ Allen, Eirik Johansen, Frederic Brillant, Mikey Lopez, Sean Okoli and Andraz Struna.
Most notable, however, was the departure of star winger and Generation Adidas athlete Jack Harrison, who had a spectacular two seasons in MLS. Seeing his potential, Manchester City, NYCFC’s mother club, flexed their financial muscle and brought him to England, buying his rights and subsequently loaning him to Championship side Middlesbrough.
Harrison is an undeniably massive loss. The mercurial Englishman had 14 goals and 13 assists in two MLS seasons, and his production will need to be replaced.
Luckily for NYCFC, his replacement may already be in position. 20-year-old Paraguayan winger Jesus Medina was brought in on New Years Day. His pace and youth make him a typical contemporary designated player, and NYCFC will hope he follows the same trajectory of a player like Miguel Almiron in Atlanta.
NYCFC also retooled in other positions, particularly defensively. Anton Tinnerholm brings much-needed solidity to right back– the Swede is fresh off winning the Swedish League’s Defensive Player of the Year. Joining him is Saad Abdul-Salam, a veteran MLS defender who was acquired for Khiry Shelton earlier in the offseason.
Brad Stuver and Jeff Caldwell were added for goalkeeping depth, Cedric Houtondji and Sebastien Ibeagha for defending depth. Ebenezer Ofori was loaned in to bolster the midfield, while Jo Inge Berget and Ismael Tajouri-Shadi were brought in to add bodies on the front line.
To put it simply–there was a lot of roster overhaul, but the big additions–Medina and Tinnerholm–ideally outweigh Jack Harrison, who was the one lone departure of note (with respects to retired legend Andrea Pirlo, whose MLS influence was near nonexistent last season).
.@OfficialVieira takes stock of the team heading into Round 1 of @MLS 2018 #NYCFC pic.twitter.com/MMBqI72fqz
— New York City FC (@NYCFC) March 2, 2018
Projected Starting XI
- Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson
- Back Four (from right to left): Anton Tinnerholm, Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, Ronald Mattarita
- Holding Midfielders: Alex Ring, Yangel Herrera
- Left Wing: Rodney Wallace
- Right Wing: Jesus Medina
- Attacking Midfield: Maxi Moralez
- Striker: David Villa
3 Burning Questions
Can Jesus Medina fill Jack Harrison’s shoes?
Harrison leaves behind a hefty legacy and a gaping hole on the right wing for NYCFC. Jesus Medina is his presumptive replacement, but it will be awfully difficult for a 20-year-old to match his production. Expect somewhat of a learning curve for the Paraguayan international to start with, but if he isn’t firing on all cylinders by August then NYCFC faithful will be ruing the day Harrison left across the Atlantic.
Are NYCFC good enough to hang with the best in the East?
Toronto return almost their entire title-winning team. Atlanta United have a full season at Mercedes Benz Stadium, plus another year of Almiron and Josef Martinez, plus glittering new signing Ezequiel Barco. New York Red Bulls are always a threat given their pedigree and don’t discount Columbus or Chicago, either. The East is dangerous, and rather top heavy as well. NYCFC have been able to qualify for the postseason as the two seed in 2016 and 2017, but it may be difficult to clinch a first-round bye given the strength of Toronto and Atlanta.
Will age catch up to El Guaje?
David Villa has had three terrific seasons in MLS, including a 2016 League MVP Award. However, as previously stated, he is 36 years old, in a league that is increasingly leaning on youth, pace, and explosiveness. Some pundits view Villa’s age as a legitimate concern, while others think he is a legitimate candidate to make the Spain squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Either way, Villa’s progress is certainly worth watching.
NYCFC should make the playoffs again. Villa needs to continue being himself. Maxi Moralez and Alex Ring will benefit from a full year of experience under their belts. NYCFC are younger, faster, and more dynamic, and that should translate into the regular season. I see them finishing third in the East, behind Toronto and Atlanta. Whether or not that is good enough to garner them a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals is a prediction for another time, but make no mistakes: this is a playoff team.