by CHRISTIAN ARAOS
ORLANDO, Fla. — It is opening day for New York City FC’s third season in Major League Soccer and the optimism is palpable. The team is coming off of its first playoff appearance, brought in a replacement for Frank Lampard and has replenished the squad with younger, more versatile players.
An improvement for NYCFC doesn’t necessarily mean a higher points total or even scoring a goal in the playoffs. Just as much as finishing worse than second doesn’t mean that City is stagnating. So instead, here are five questions ahead of the 2017 season in an attempt to gauge the team’s progress.
On talent alone, there’s enough to project City finishing among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference. But a top-three finish requires consistent performances, depth and good squad management from Coach Patrick Vieira. City had the best away record in the league last year but don’t necessarily need to duplicate that. A better start at home is key.
Alex Callens will debut at center back with the club confident he can help the team build from the back while also being sound defensively. NYCFC gave up 58 and 57 goals in each of its first two seasons — that number needs to come down. If Callens plays 2,000 minutes and the goals allowed drops below 50, it would demonstrate that the front office can find defenders suited for MLS who can also fit Vieira’s style.
City capped its Yankee Stadium capacity at about 30,000 last season. It will stay that way, with the exception of a few select games. The club’s attendance, using statistics compiled by Soccer Stadium Digest, dipped by an average of 2,000 a game. Improvement at the gate would indicate the team’s marketing strategy is working.
The team’s local TV ratings have not been made public, but are said to be disappointing according to those familiar with the data — but still better than the dreadful Brooklyn Nets. The YES network carried the team’s preseason games but there’s still a lack of club-oriented coverage accompanying the network’s live games.
There are signs the team is doing well in terms of cultural presence from its partnerships with the mayor’s office and strong jersey sales. But when Andrea Pirlo leaves, will the people who bought “No Pirlo, No Party” T-shirts buy Alexander Ring shirts? Can the team enter the area’s mainstream sports discussion, which is dominated by baseball in the spring and summer and football in the fall?
Using the most recent roster announcements by U.S. Soccer, there are six NYCFC academy players in the national teams from U14 to U20, not including Jonathan Lewis. The best measure of youth development will be the number of homegrown players signed to contracts and how many minutes those players play.
City is how partnering with San Antonio of the USL, a well-fiananced team with MLS ambitions and the facilities to match. Geography will influence the relationship, limiting the movement of players. Vieira has not ruled out loaning players to San Antonio. A player like Kwame Awuah could end up in Texas if he fails to find first-team minutes, where an experienced coach in Darren Powell and quality facilities will give him time to develop.