How a change in approach took NYCFC to their best season so far
New York City FC set a new club record for points during the regular season, finishing atop the Eastern Conference and clinching a spot in the Concacaf Champions League for the first time.
They enter the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs as second favorites to Supporters’ Shield winners Los Angeles Football Club.
It is, to partially quote Charles Dickens, the best of times for NYCFC, a club that has come a long way and looks vastly different from the one that played its inaugural game against Orlando City SC at the Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015.
The aging superstars are gone, replaced by younger, lesser known players picked out by City Football Group’s expansive scouting network.
They are joined by young Americans who made their way up through the club’s burgeoning academy, a strong core up the spine and depth in the form of players who, for one reason or another, didn’t succeed at their previous clubs.
The architect through both the initial build and this rebuild is Claudio Reyna, the club’s sporting director and first employee back in 2013.
Reyna said the mechanism to sign players, specifically with Targeted and General Allocation Money, has altered the league greatly and makes the comparisons from 2015 to 2019 more apples to oranges than apples to apples.
“Now we’re in a different space,” Reyna told MLSsoccer.com at the club’s latest mini-pitch unveiling in Queens last week.
But as the new kid on the block in a city with an MLS original just across the Hudson River, it was important to sign global icons like David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard “to make a big splash in the market.”
“They have a big part in where we are today as well because the standard and the level of professionalism that the three of them had while they were here was something that laid the groundwork for where we are today,” Reyna said. “Those were guys that our players were able to see how they took care of themselves, how they ate. James Sands learned from Andrea Pirlo more than anybody.”
So how did Reyna, along with technical director David Lee and head coach Dome Torrent, reshape NYCFC into a league elite? It starts with an overriding understanding that comes with a brashness fitting of New York City.
“We were very focused in how we wanted to build a team and we wanted to have a couple of key points and in the players we brought in that they really want to be here,” Reyna said. “We were not going to beg anybody to come play for NYCFC.”
As for the incoming pitches from agents around the world, Reyna said the strategy has been to be selective and not just select a big name to make a splash again.
A signing, especially a Designated Player signing, needs to make sense — and cents.
“There's many times where you're presented a player and he's good, but in our world, if you overpay with him, you’re perhaps going to get a lesser level player in another position,” Reyna said. “I think we've been disciplined and we stay disciplined, when perhaps at times we could have spent more on a player and you're always looking for value for money in this league.”
When Villa left to play in Japan, one of 12 eventual departures from the 2018 roster, it opened up a Designated Player spot and created a chasm in the goal-scoring department. Through Villa’s spectacular four seasons as NYCFC’s first signing and captain, the Spaniard was also the leading scorer with 77 goals.
The club signed Alexandru Mitrita in the preseason as a DP. Then Torrent pressed for the signing of Heber, adamant the Brazilian who arrived via a transfer from HNK Rijeka in March would be the forward the club desperately needed even though he was used primarily on the wing in Croatia.
Heber netted a team-high 15 goals in the regular season and was a finalist for MLS Newcomer of the Year. Mitrita added 12 goals. NYCFC scored a club-best 63 regular season goals in 2019, getting production from 12 different sources.
Torrent credits Reyna with the signing of Keaton Parks on loan from Benfica in Portugal. The young American midfielder, as a result of his work off the ball, eventually became an integral part of NYCFC’s midfield.
Taty Castellanos, signed midway through last year from Club Atletico Torque in Uruguay — another product of CFG’s scouting network — had a breakthrough season with 11 goals and seven assists and earned a call-up to the Argentine U-23 team.
The 21-year-old attacking player is a prime example of another key component in NYCFC’s ethos.
“Ultimately, the philosophy is that I strongly believe any player who comes to our club is our responsibility, regardless of age, that we make them better,” Reyna said. “I don't believe in player development for 18-and-under. Every player could get better and develop, even at 33, 34, there’s learning.”
Tony Rocha was seen as a depth signing when he arrived in a trade from Orlando in December and proved his value, and versatility, by setting personal records in games played (17) and minutes played (871) after three seasons with the Lions.
“I'm a big believer that there's so many good players that just might not be in the right situation,” Reyna said. “And you follow those players when they're younger, in college, maybe another MLS teams, it just hasn't worked out.”
Greater depth means a greater competition for spots under Torrent, who has proven throughout his first full season in charge of NYCFC that no player has a guaranteed spot in his XI. That raises the level at training, which then carries through to match days.
“It's been a real joy to see because with all the individuals, the best thing about where we're at is how the group is really strong and they all support each other,” Reyna said. “Dome can call the next man up. He has tough decisions to make. Of course guys are going to be disappointed if they don’t start, but they support the guys on the team. And that is not always easy to get to as a team because everybody wants to play.”
Then there’s the core, the bedrock of the club. What started last year with Sean Johnson, Alex Callens, Alex Ring and Maxime Chanot continued in 2019 with Anton Tinnerholm and Maxi Moralez inking multi-year contract extensions.
“Every club needs to have a core and that’s where we feel really good,” Reyna said. “There’s a really good core. Anyone who comes in knows there’s a group that knows what this club’s about.”
And while Ring wears the armband, the distribution of leadership responsibility, and for that matter goal-scoring responsibility, is more spread out than in the past when both were squarely on Villa’s shoulders.
“Now as we transition, you also see that without a big-name player that other guys sort of have to step up in different ways,” Reyna said. “So instead of perhaps one or two or three players having to be, probably unfairly, more responsible for the direction of the team and the success of the team, it's in everyone’s, it's spread out a little bit more. I think the group now feels good about that."
It’s that group tasked with trying to lead NYCFC to a first MLS Cup over the next month and into a first foray in the Concacaf Champions League in February.
It’s a competition that’s long been a goal of NYCFC. And now that’s a reality. Reyna, who is confident the club will be able to play its home CCL games at Yankee Stadium, said its critical to put forth a team capable of a deep run, while not losing sight of keeping what he calls a “high standard in MLS.”
“I’ve paid close attention to the teams who have played in the Champions League and how tough it's been,” Reyna said. “Going into next year, we have to be very smart in terms of the squad we build because it's a challenge. The travel and all the things that Toronto and Atlanta and Sporting KC went through are learnings that if we don't open our eyes and see what they went through, we'd be foolish.”