They’re good at soccer. But they’re not David Villa. But they’re very good, really.
After a 2018 that started so brightly and faded so alarmingly, and with midseason coaching arrival Dome Torrent hinting that he didn’t quite have the lineup to play his preferred style of soccer, the stage was set for this to be a busy winter window. David Villa’s departure cast a long shadow and the La Liga call-up of Yangel Herrera—whose injury absence coincided with NYCFC’s least inspiring spells in 2018, and whose late-season return gave us a tantalizing reminder of his impact—left the front office with holes to fill. Although the club teased big changes with a flurry of declined roster options early on, the first half of the offseason was nothing but anxious radio silence.
Then players came! Several of them! With less than two weeks to go before the season opener, some of the most glaring roster questions have been answered (yes, NYCFC splashed out on a third designated player; no, it wasn’t Chicharito), while new questions have taken their place, such as “How many center mids does it take to make a pretty pineapple?”
The winter of our discontent is almost over and while the sun of York (an English striker perhaps? any kind of striker, surely?) has yet to appear, here are some new names to consider for the back of your bepigeoned 2019 jersey.
With fans demanding a major signing to replace Villa, NYCFC’s front office gambled big on the $8.5 million acquisition of Alexandru Mitriță, making him the third-most expensive designated player in MLS history. A quick, technical, 5’5″ attacker, Mitri has inevitably been dubbed the Romanian Messi, and was groomed by the legendary Gheorghe Hagi (himself styled the “Maradona of the Carpathians”). He comes to New York hot off a league-leading 12-goal start to the season at Romania’s Universitatea Craiova, a hero’s farewell, and an epic Valentine’s Day. So what should you expect from this lightweight but heavily tattooed newcomer?
To judge from highlights and a sparkling birthday goal in his NYCFC preseason debut, Mitriță looks deadliest cutting in from the left side, dropping deep to pick up the ball and running directly at goal, though his pace also makes him an option over the top when necessary. He shares Maxi Moralez’s surprising ability to use his frame to protect the ball under pressure from more imposing opponents, and his acceleration and low center of gravity help him to unsettle center backs and put powerful shots on frame. If you squint and turn the Eastern European dance music up loud enough, you can sort of see what Dome’s talking about when he compares his new DP to Philippe Coutinho.
With a conspicuous lack of dedicated strikers on the roster, expect the club’s biggest signing to bear much of the burden of replacing Villa’s goalscoring. Torrent has hinted that we could see Mitriţă feature in various positions across the front line. So far Mitri’s impressed teammates, although followers of Romanian football have warned NYCFC fans to watch out for attitude (he’s got more career yellow cards than assists) and adjustment problems as the 24-year-old settles into an unfamiliar environment, much farther from home than he’s ever played before. —Christopher Jee
Keaton “Keaton” Parks
When Yangel Herrera’s loan expired and he jetted off to Spanish basement-dwellers SD Huesca, he left a gaping hole in NYCFC’s midfield—one bigger than an Eloi Amagat or Tommy McNamara type could fill. Enter Keaton Parks.
The 21-year-old American arrives on a season-long loan from Benfica, the centerpiece of Claudio Reyna’s recent shift toward hoarding young domestic talent. Parks spent most of his first year and a half at the Portuguese powerhouse with the reserves, edged out by Champions League–caliber competition. He needed first team minutes somewhere, and NYCFC has plenty to spare.
A versatile, attack-minded midfielder, Keaton has shown some defensive bite—not like Herrera, but enough to give Alex Ring a little breathing room. His slippery pirouettes should help in possession, and already this preseason we’ve seen Parks drop into the buildup and make the first pass to initiate the offense, freeing Maxi Moralez to play higher up the pitch. It doesn’t hurt that he’s 6’4”, adding some welcome height on set pieces.
There’s justifiable excitement around what Parks can bring to NYCFC this season. But Benfica seems to have him in their long-term plans, so expect another Herrera-type loan situation here. —Chris Campbell
Juan Pablo Torres
NYCFC’s midfield hasn’t always been a fountain of youth: 29-year-old Andrew Jacobson, 33-year-old Eloi Amagat, 36 year-old Andoni Iraola, and 2,938-year-old Andrea Pirlo have all earned significant minutes in years past. The club looked to reverse that trend this offseason by acquiring 19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres from KSC Lokeren.
Torres only featured twice for Lokeren’s first team during his year and a half in Belgium, but he did help the USYNT earn a berth in the 2019 U-20 World Cup, scoring 4 goals in the process. Finding club playing time and national team exposure ahead of the tournament appears to have weighed heavily in Torres’ move. Nothing on his résumé really stands out, but he looks technically adept and tactically versatile, able to fill in at any of the midfield spots. Picking up a young domestic player for depth makes sense for NYCFC, who will look to use their international spots in more valuable places.
In the preseason Torres has been defensively capable and calm on the ball, able to pick out the appropriate short pass option. And look, the kid is only 19. He’s new to top flight play, new to New York City, and not yet old enough to order a pickleback. This is a depth signing, but one with a future. —CC
Forgive fans who found themselves slightly underwhelmed with the first move of the offseason: NYCFC picked up Tony Rocha from Orlando City in exchange for a token fourth-round pick in the 2019 MLS Superdraft. Despite his lack of name recognition, though, there’s reason to hope Rocha might be another shrewd bit of business from a front office that has made the most of overlooked, budget-friendly American talent like Ben Sweat and Sebastien Ibeagha.
Advanced stats aficionados will like that Rocha completed 5.8% more passes than expected in 2018, second among MLS midfielders to Ozzie Alonso. He endeared himself to Orlando with his versatility, seeing time at all three midfield spots, left back, and center back. New Yorkers still hoping to see glimmers of Pep Guardiola’s genius in Torrent’s tenure as head coach will have been encouraged by Rocha’s low-key stint as an inside fullback in the preseason friendly against AIK, where his clever run helped set up a goal:
While Reyna has called Rocha a player that the club has “had [its] eye on for quite a while,” only time will tell whether he emerges as the next Sweat. At any rate he’s cheap, experienced, and should give Torrent reliable depth and positional flexibility in the push for a more tactically fluid roster. —CJ
In late January, NYCFC signed Justin Haak as its third homegrown player, signaling a continued commitment to the club’s championship-winning academy (and an eagerness to play up his East Village and Bushwick roots). Those who remember Haak’s rapturous debut in Mexico last winter, which brought tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Edinson Cavani, will be eager to see whether he can find minutes along with fellow homegrown James Sands in a stacked NYCFC midfield.
With a USDA U-19 championship and a U-18 USYNT call-up under his belt, Haak’s future looks promising. He’s been called a “prototype 6,” although he says he likes to get forward to the final third. What little video is available shows a well-rounded skillset (according Alex Ring, Haak “has everything”) but suggests he’s far from the finished product. With plenty of midfield options ahead of him, no preseason appearances thus far, and no USL reserve team to accommodate him, Haak may get most of his minutes this year with NYCFC’s U-19s. —CJ
When the news dropped mid-Superdraft that NYCFC was moving $75k in allocation money, it had to be for 6’4” forward JJ Williams, right? No chance the club would trade up for a goalkeeper a year after drafting one in the first round, right?
Bucking expectations, NYCFC selected Luis “Huicho” Barraza out of Marquette. He was coming off a Big East Goalkeeper of the Year season, so the first round wasn’t out of the question. But it was Barraza’s ability on the ball that had caught Reyna’s eye—and soon everyone else’s, when he showed it off barely 10 minutes into his preseason debut. He might be the goalkeeper most comfortable with the ball at his feet in NYCFC history, a big deal at a club that emphasizes playing out of the back.
Why did NYCFC burn first round picks on keepers in back-to-back Superdrafts, especially when Sean Johnson is already entrenched as the starter? In the 2018 draft, Reyna and Vieira didn’t see anyone who would provide value in the first round, so they took a flyer on a goalkeeper in Jeff Caldwell. But Caldwell hasn’t locked down a backup role and veteran Brad Stuver didn’t impress in his spot minutes last season. Given the unsettled depth chart and his stylistic fit, Huicho’s got a shot to compete for the number two slot on day one.
If you’re looking for a player comparison, Nick Rimando’s distribution and penalty-saving skills seem like a reasonable fit. Luis spent his academy years at Real Salt Lake, where Rimando has been manning the net for what seems like forever.
NYCFC has never won a U.S. Open Cup match, going 0-4 in its first four seasons. Look for Barraza to get his first chance to prove himself there this summer. In last year’s Big East Tournament, Barraza saved three penalty kicks, which would’ve been handy during the tiebreakers that have ended the Pigeons’ Open Cup hopes twice. —CC ❧
Image: Almax, Volti di Uomo