New York City FC can win first MLS title after ditching big names

Vieira, Pirlo, Lampard and Villa all tried and failed, but New York City FC can win their first MLS title after ditching big names for unknown talents… they may play in a baseball stadium but the City Football Group empire can conquer America tonight

  • New York City FC, part of the City Football Group, are in their first MLS Cup final
  • They play Portland Timbers on Saturday, chasing the club’s first major trophy
  • City Football Group’s Abu Dhabi bosses were determined to make waves in MLS 
  • When they first formed, big names like Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard signed
  • But now the emphasis is on youth development and signing unknown talents 
  • Former Celtic manager Ronny Deila has led their journey to the MLS summit

Portland’s wonderfully atmospheric Providence Park is a long way from the Etihad – 4,000 miles to be exact – yet Saturday night could provide a pivotal moment in Manchester City’s quest for global dominance.

New York City FC, one arm of the City Football Group’s club portfolio which stretches from England to Australia taking in China, France, Spain, Japan, India, Belgium and Uruguay on the way, are into the MLS Cup final for the very first time since their entrance into the League back in 2015.

Pep Guardiola has enough on his plate to be worrying about how the Timbers – who will have home advantage for the final in arguably the liveliest stadium in North America – will attempt to breach boss Ronny Deila’s defence.

New York City FC are in the MLS Cup final for the first time since they joined the league in 2015

City’s top brass, however, including CFG chief executive Ferran Soriano – who braved the cold to see NYCFC upset the New England Revolution in a dramatic semi-final penalty shoot out and is set to be in Oregon on Saturday night – will be on the edge of their seats.

This is, after all, the moment they’ve all been waiting for.

Soriano and his Abu Dhabi bosses will never settle for second best and were determined to make waves in MLS and, although this is the sixth season in a row that they’ve made the end of season play-offs, that trip to the showpiece final here has eluded them until now.

At the start, the big names rolled in with raised eyebrows and shrugs from MLS diehards who tremble with rage at the notion of the US being portrayed as a retirement home for the rich and ageing of European football.

The arrivals of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard seemed to cause more consternation than excitement which, in retrospect, was wrong. Any new franchise needs to pique interest from the off.

Victory for Ronny Deila’s side could be pivotal in Manchester City’s quest for global dominance

Rivals New York Red Bulls certainly saw the funny side, unfurling a huge banner unfairly portraying both legends as geriatrics during the first ever derby between the two at Red Bull Arena.

The veteran midfield duo left after the second season with Patrick Vieria at the helm having replaced Jason Kreis, now working with Phil Neville at Inter Miami, who disappointed in the inaugural campaign. A 7-0 aggregate play-off thrashing to Toronto was progress yet embarrassing. Grandiose claims of winning silverware started to sound hollow.

Both midfield maestros had their moments but MLS can be a physically unforgiving League and so it proved for their ageing legs.

The one superstar mainstay, apart from Vieria who was adored in New York by those who worked with the Frenchman, was Spanish World Cup winner Villa, who fully embraced the club and the Big Apple lifestyle. He finally left in 2018, having racked up an impressive 80 goals in 124 appearances.

Deila’s crop of 2021, however, don’t have any household names. Key striker Valentin Castellanos, an Argentine who was signed from Montevideo City Torque, CFG’s club in Uruguay, was the winner of the golden boot and is a class act in MLS, while US keeper Sean Johnson has also impressed along with the likes of homegrown defender Tayvon Gray.

(L to R): Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo all failed to take New York City to glory

‘There’s been quite an evolution from the start but I think that sort of always came naturally,’ NYCFC Sporting Director David Lee told Sportsmail.

‘Lampard and Pirlo joined us but as their contracts and time with the club was finishing, I think we just evaluated and discussed what we think is going to help take us to the next level on the pitch and it’s always been really exciting to have a club full of players who are energetic, youthful and can develop.

‘In MLS we’ve seen far less of the big names and teams are really going in with these types of models where they’re signing less household names and instead looking at players who they believe can impact directly on the pitch. And I think that’s what we have now at NYCFC.’

For a major media market like New York, MLS commissioner Don Garber knows having a strong soccer presence in the Big Apple (New York Red Bulls play in Harrison, New Jersey leaving NYCFC as the only major pro team within the five boroughs of New York City) is important.

What will also please Garber, however, is how Deila, Portland and other top MLS teams among many others, have resisted the lure of signing big names on even bigger money and instead recruited intelligently and within their means.

Patrick Vieira is adored in the city and laid the groundwork for his impressive coaching career

‘It’s tough to win in the US,’ admitted Deila. ‘Everybody has the same opportunity and there’s 28 teams.’

David Beckham at Inter Miami knows bringing in superstars is vital to keep interest bubbling, especially in those early years. That’s not how Garber wants to roll though moving forward. 

He wants equality and would have enjoyed watching Brazilian prospect Talles Magno ensuring the loss of the suspended Castellanos was forgotten after scoring the winner in the Eastern Conference final last weekend against a Philadelphia side ravaged by COVID-19.

What will also impress Garber – and Guardiola for that matter – is that the NYCFC production line is undoubtedly working. Deila has fielded five homegrown players in his team this season with more waiting in the wings.

A side to enter the new MLS NEXT Pro competition which will act as a feeder League for academies and was announced recently, will only help keep competition fierce.

The previous six appearances in the end of season charge for honours have all ended miserably – the worst being that 7-0 defeat in 2016 – yet all would have hurt the suits in Abu Dhabi as their attempt to rule the roost here in the United States smashed into the buffers. You only have to ask Beckham and Neville in south Florida just how hard a nut MLS is to crack.

New York City FC play their home matches at Yankee Stadium, the home of the baseball side

While progress on the pitch has been noticeable without being sensational, the club have at least managed to make the best of a bad situation by playing out of the iconic Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a 20 minute subway journey from Manhattan.

Crowds have averaged healthily around 22,000 and a core support has stuck by their side. Playing in a baseball stadium, however, is far from ideal and, just like Beckham, NYCFC have had trouble finding a permanent place to call home although with membership numbers on the rise, it hasn’t had a detrimental effect on interest.

‘As a Man City fan living in New York I was obviously all over NYCFC from when they first formed and have seen many games from their very first in NYC. It’s nice to go watch a team playing in sky blue,’ said Coyle Girelli, an Englishman in New York.

‘It’s been exciting to watch the team and club grow into its own and become a real part of this city’s sporting culture. You probably see more NYCFC shirts around the town than you do Yankees or Knicks now.

‘Winning the Eastern Conference and reaching the MLS final is huge. Especially when you see the core of the team has played together now for several years. And it’s nice to know a few fellow Blues I know back in England also keep up with the results and watch the games when they’re on.’

Crowds have averaged healthily around 22,000 and a core support has stuck by their side

There have been countless attempts to purchase land in New York City but with land at a premium in one of the most densely populated places on earth, it has predictably proved problematic.

The latest plans to build in the Bronx close to the home of the indomitable Yankees is said to be priced at close to $1 billion. There has been a lot of talk yet, as things stand, don’t expect to see the bulldozers start their engines any time soon.

Due to the baseball fixture list and the onset of the pandemic which altered schedules, NYCFC plan to split matches next season between Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, home of the New York Mets as they did for the 2021 campaign. They also played games at Red Bull Arena when the baseball stadiums weren’t available.

It’s far from ideal yet nevertheless, CFG have wasted little time integrating themselves into the melting pot of cultures in New York. They have built 50 mini-pitches all over the city as well as including free programming for families, many of whom can’t afford to enroll their children into expensive clubs who adhere to US Soccer’s much derided pay-to-play model.

Stadium problems aside, the global infrastructure CFG have laid down is impressive and unparalleled. 

The training facility in Orangeburg, a leafy area in New York outside of the bustling madness of Manhattan, is state-of-the-art and has cameras filming training sessions so colleagues in Manchester, Melbourne, Japan or Montevideo can keep abreast of players with the touch of a button. As a result, their scouting network has been described by sources as ‘second to none.’

Their team is now built on unknown talents with potential, like forward Valentin Castellanos

The Castellanos purchase is proof of that. The Argentine has scored 19 this season and is a busy, potent threat.

For any MLS side worth their salt, producing youngsters is the key, especially with financial restrictions restricting the ability to dip into the Abu Dhabi pot of gold and spend millions on superstar talent.

‘Being part of CFG is absolutely enormous,’ added Lee.

‘I think we benefit from it on a daily basis in almost every area, certainly, on the football side of the club. But the one area that is very prevalent is in scouting and player identification.

‘It’s so helpful to have a lot of people around the world that can help us get to players and identify the right types of players. There’s an awful lot of work that goes into the little bits of work that people don’t see.

‘Having scouts and having people all around the world is great, but we have to educate them on MLS, how the salary caps work among many other things so we spent a lot of time over probably six or seven years just really working relentlessly on our talent ID process.

City Football Group officials like chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak (left) and chief executive Ferran Soriano (right) want to conquer the US

‘In terms of Castellanos, we now have access to so much more information. We knew everything about him both on the pitch and off the pitch because he was with one of our clubs and that’s not normally something you get when you’re scouting a player.

‘You can do a lot of the due diligence and work to find out about the character and their mentality, how they live life off the pitch but when a player is actually playing for your club, it’s so much easier to then really go into those details and get the accurate information and so we’ve absolutely benefited from that.

‘I also think CFG have benefited from New York’s role in our ecosystem with Jack Harrison (who was at Manchester City but loaned to NYCFC) and Yangel Herrera (the Venezuelan midfielder on-loan from City at Espanyol who also spent the 2017 season at NYCFC), and I think it’s really important we play we play a part in our own City Football group ecosystem and help move some players on when the right time to bigger and better opportunities they might want for their careers in Europe.’

Their academy has worked tirelessly in attempting to unearth local talent and with former City women’s coach Nick Cushing now working as an assistant coach to Deila, the link between England and the US is prominent, as is the success of the youth sides.

The boys team have won back-to-back U-19 USSDA National Championships in 2018 and 2019 becoming the first franchise ever to achieve such a feat – and the scouts have been watching.

James Sands is one of a number of homegrown talents that the New York City side is built on

Last year, full-back Joe Scally was sold to Borussia Monchengladbach in a move that featured the highest initial transfer fee paid for a 16-year-old in MLS history.

Scally followed in the footsteps of Gio Reyna, son of Claudio the club’s former sporting director, and came through the ranks at NYCFC before moving to Borussia Dortmund in 2019.

‘We certainly made mistakes when signing players,’ admitted Lee, who began working in football at Exeter City while studying for a Masters degree in performance analysis at Cardiff University before being head hunted by the New York Red Bulls.

‘But for the most part, I think part of the reason we’ve had six years in the playoffs, and now coming to this run to MLS Cup is because of the work that we’ve done to make sure that we’re building rosters in the right way and making sure that team can be as competitive as possible.’

Deila, meanwhile, had impressed CFG long before arriving Stateside – he took CFG players to Norway when working in his native Scandinavia and was a favourite of Brian Marwood, the current Managing Director of City Football Services.

City’s top brass braved the cold to see NYCFC upset the New England Revolution in a dramatic semi-final penalty shoot out

Described by one club source as ‘an infectious individual you’d love to have a beer with’, Deila expertly overcame the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 in his first full season in the United States to reach the pinnacle of MLS in his second.

‘I have learned so much’ said Deila who won two Scottish Premiership titles at Celtic in 2014 and 2015. ‘I have become a better coach.’

He now stands on the cusp of glory. No-one fancied them to beat New England – the best team in MLS this year – or Philadelphia, yet both hurdles were cleared impressively.

Guardiola was asked for his views on NYCFC’s big moment as he previewed the weekend Premier League clash with Wolves but most City fans will shrug their shoulders when asked about MLS.

A resounding triumph on Saturday night, however, could well change that.

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