Coaches, analysts, and journalists who’ve followed his career agree: NYCFC’s new defensive midfielder is one of Uruguay’s brightest young talents.
Once upon a time, the story goes, the kid’s hair flowed long and golden. Never mind that it’s brown fuzz these days. Never mind that he’s a twiggy defensive type, not a glamorous World Cup goalscorer. Those shaggy days in the sun were enough for Uruguayans to nickname him after one of their country’s great strikers-slash-conditioner models, Diego Forlán, who they’d already decided looked like la Bruja Cachavacha from old Argentinean cartoons. In other words: the kid’s named for a witch. Every time you call him Cacha—and you should, really, he prefers it—remember there’s a touch of magic in it.
But then that’s always been what people notice about him, the magic. Nicolás Brian Acevedo Tabárez was born in Montevideo on April 14, 1999. A childhood playing soccer in the low-rise neighborhood of Villa Española took him across town to the academy of Liverpool FC (no, not that one). “Liverpool is my home and I will always be grateful,” he told the Uruguayan soccer reporter Gonzalo Martini, who shared their conversation with The Outfield. “It is the team that I love, that opened doors to me since I was a child, that formed me as a player and as a person, that gave me everything and never let me lack anything.” Cacha repaid them on the field. At 19 he earned his debut with the first team. Within a year he was named the country’s best U21 player and Liverpool’s captain. In the Uruguayan Primera. At 20 years old. And he led them to a trophy. Remember, magic.
Uruguay’s national team took notice. Last year Acevedo was a leader at the U20 World Cup, where Leeds United scout Gaby Ruiz judged him Uruguay’s standout player along with LAFC’s DP winger Brian Rodríguez. This year Cacha featured in Olympic qualifying for the U23s, a full year younger than his teammate Diego Rossi. His international performances drew attention from Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool (yes, that one), and City Football Group, which won the bidding in February when NYCFC bought him for a reported $2.6 million with a 10% sell-on fee.
What’s NYCFC getting for that kind of money? A player who, on paper at least, looks an awful lot like a three-months-older version of the club’s most accomplished homegrown, James Sands. Acevedo grew up as a central defender but when he reached the first team, Liverpool’s manager at the time, Paulo Pezzolano (who also coached Valentín Castellanos at Club Torque), converted him into a defensive midfielder—probably a better long-term bet for a kid who topped out at 5’8”.
“Cacha’s played pretty much every position in the center,” former Liverpool club analyst Juan Giuffra told The Outfield. “Technically he’s very good. He solved a lot of problems for us with his passing and always tried to receive in a position to turn. On defense he’s good at recovering the ball and an intense marker.” Though Acevedo may take some time to adapt to MLS’s physicality and pace, Giuffra said, he’s perfect for CFG’s playstyle.
Like any good Guardiola-style six, Acevedo admires Sergio Busquets for how simple he makes the position look. “My style is defined by grit, sacrifice, positioning, and trying to play simply with two touches, always searching and searching for a free teammate. My strengths are marking and staying well positioned,” Acevedo told the Spanish journalist Nahuel Beau. He added that he’s most comfortable in a possession-based 4-3-3, which happens to be Ronny Deila’s preferred system at NYCFC.
“We want players who can step forward with the ball from behind, and that’s something he can be really, really good at,” Deila told The Outfield. As a coach he’s not worried about any overlap between Acevedo’s and Sands’ skillsets. Both are versatile, he said, but he expects Cacha to compete with Alex Ring for a spot at the base of the midfield, while Sands may see more time on the back line. Besides, there’s the question of timing as both players look to make the next big step.
“If [Sands] continues progressing like he’s doing now, it’ll be hard to keep him. Clubs in Europe are going to be [interested],” Deila said. “It takes time for players to come into the league and adapt, especially young players, so it’s very possible that Nicolás needs some time to get used to the style of play and the league and the players around him. I don’t see it as a problem. We’re very happy that we have one of the biggest talents in Uruguay.”
Conversations about Acevedo’s room for growth tend to focus on his undersized frame. “Physically he has to improve a lot,” said Beau, who’s followed his development with Liverpool and Uruguay’s youth national teams. “He’s not fast and he doesn’t have much bulk or height. I think he’s got some work to do there.” Everyone agrees Cacha is an excellent ball winner, though some cautioned he can get caught out during quick defensive transitions. And while he doesn’t offer much on the attacking end, his work in the buildup draws raves. “He always plays with his head raised,” Martini said. “That’s a big plus, since he can easily find an open teammate to pass to at long or short distance.”
Acevedo’s stats at Liverpool show a metronomic, precise passer with an eye for breaking lines. According to Wyscout, last year he had the eighth-most progressive passes per 90′ in Uruguay. High involvement and a surprising number of balls into the final third from his defensive midfield hole might explain his outstanding expected buildup, which tallies the xG from shots at the end of possessions he contributed to. (Sands, by contrast, was an extremely cautious passer last year, though he played more vertically in the first few games of 2020.) Acevedo isn’t a big dribbler—as he told Beau, he tries to keep things simple and quick. Like most young players, he does lose the ball in dangerous positions from time to time, and his 5’8″ frame is average at best in the air, but his ruthless closing down, especially right after his team loses possession, more than makes up for it.
When NYCFC announced Acevedo at the beginning of March, Deila and sporting director David Lee were ecstatic. “He’s an excellent player technically and loves to win the ball back, which is key in how we want to play our football. In possession, he’s able to dictate the tempo and that’s a quality that really helps us build from the back,” Deila said. Cacha was poised to be one of the most exciting signings of the season—until the season, and the world, fell apart.
This week, after months of waiting, Acevedo finally joined his teammates in New York. In fact he’d already met them in February, when he flew in secret to Costa Rica to be with the team during its first CONCACAF Champions League game, followed by a jaunt to Manchester for a medical and photos, Acevedo told Sebastián Amaya for Uruguay’s El Observador. Then it was back to Montevideo for quarantine, which he spent cooking with his girlfriend, hopping on video calls with Deila’s coaching staff, and playing FIFA against FC Barcelona’s young Uruguayan center back Ronald Araújo. “I play with Manchester City, always them, even before [the transfer],” Acevedo said.
It’s not lost on him that a star turn with NYCFC could put him on the mothership’s radar. “I was a little surprised by [the bid from] New York, and I liked the idea, because they’re in City Group, they’re very organized and they play very well,” he told Amaya. Winning playing time from Alex Ring at 21 would be a feat, and working his way from Montevideo to Manchester by way of the Bronx would be a fairy tale. But don’t count Cacha out—after all, the kid is magic. ❧
Image: Las Nuevas Aventuras de Hijitus, “El Genio de Cachavacha”