Valentín Castellanos Is (Still) Better Than You Think

An appreciation of NYCFC’s 22-Under-22 forward.

Taty’s come a long way. In the uncertain summer of 2018, a 19-year-old Argentine named Valentín Castellanos showed up in New York a complete unknown, climbing the corporate ladder from City Football Group’s tiny Uruguayan club, Torque. At the time NYCFC fans worried—correctly—that he would steal minutes from Jonathan Lewis. What they didn’t know was how much he’d deserve them.

Yesterday, less than a year and a half after hitting the league, Castellanos was announced at number six on the annual MLS 22 Under 22 list. The only surprise was that it felt a little low. Number one on the list, Diego Rossi? Fewer goals and assists per 96 minutes than Taty this season. Number two, Ezequiel Barco? Playing for a lower Argentina National Team age group than Castellanos, who scored a hat trick in his debut for the U-23s last month. In a survey of MLS technical staffers, Castellanos was the only name that cropped up in the same conversations as Rossi, Barco, and Brian Rodríguez, the trio of high-profile South American prospects everyone expects to move to Europe for eight figures in the next year or two. Fans who once worried about Taty’s arrival now wonder how much longer NYCFC can hold onto him.

This year was a giant step in the development of the Argentine, who’s adapted to MLS better than anyone could have hoped, displaying improved strength and body control in his second season. While many young players struggle to adjust to the physical nature of the league, Castellanos seems to relish it, endearing himself to his fans (and pissing off everyone else’s) by throwing his body around with enough South American verve to get under opponents’ skin.

His physical maturation has gone hand in hand with a tireless workrate on both sides of the ball. Castellanos is a vital part of NYCFC’s high press, hounding backlines deep into the final minutes for a defense that allowed opponents to complete a league-low 78 passes per game from their own third. 

Taty’s linking play and hair-trigger shot helped him grow into the center forward role.

That energy carried over to the attack, where Dome Torrent praised Castellanos’ off-ball movement as fundamental to the way NYCFC distorts defensive shapes to create space in the final third. The fact that he could slot in at both center forward and winger made Dome’s life easier, as the offense looked its best on those too-rare occasions when Taty and Héber made the same eleven. But Taty could also hold down the striker spot on his own, and he proved it during a crucial September stretch that helped NYCFC cling to the top spot the East while Héber was hurt.

You want numbers? How about some fancy ones from American Soccer Analysis. Although Castellanos had the lowest touch percentage on the team at just 6.2%, buildups that flowed through him were incredibly efficient: he ranked seventh among MLS attackers in the percentage of his possession chains that ended in a shot (39.8%). Part of that was his much-improved hold-up play, but significant credit also goes to Castellanos’ skill at putting chances on frame without much time or space. Getting open play shots off at a rate of 3.0 per 96 minutes was good for seventh among MLS forwards, and Héber was the only NYCFC player who topped Taty’s 0.49 expected goals plus expected assists per 96 minutes. It’s not hard to look at the kid’s 11 goals and 6 (non-MLS) assists this season and still see room to grow.

22 Under 22? Definitely. But at this rate Castellanos won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday in New York City, so enjoy it while it lasts. ❧

Image: Marble torso of a boy