In New York City FC’s 4-0 win against Real Salt Lake earlier this year, the lopsided scoreline wasn’t the main talking point from the night.
The focus was on Patrick Vieira’s international creation. Vieira selected 11 players from 11 different nations in NYCFC’s starting lineup, and then used three substitutes from other countries to continue the flavor on the night. The goal scorers – Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (Libya), Maxi Moralez (Argentina), Jo Inge Berget (Norway) and Ebenezer Ofori (Ghana) – stretched from all corners of the world. Meanwhile, only one American, goalkeeper Sean Johnson, represented NYCFC in a league once known for harboring American veterans.
“It wasn’t planned,” Sporting Director Claudio Reyna joked about the April 11 match. “It’s nice – in some ways, it represents what this city is about, but it wasn’t planned.”
It was the twelfth time in MLS history that a team’s starters hailed from 11 different countries, and just the seventh time all 14 players who played represented different nationalities.
NYCFC’s initiative to go more global has been a gradual process since the team’s expansion season in 2015, when NYCFC molded itself with domestic-born veterans. American mainstays like Ned Gravaoy, Chris Wingert and Andrew Jacobson in Jason Kreis’ rotation racked up 18,321 minutes along. Five of NYCFC’s top seven minutes’ producers were Americans. That, however, changed when Kreis was fired following the inaugural season. NYCFC began shedding itself of older veterans and, with the help of increased league funding, found its identity under Vieira as one of MLS’ internationally-dominated teams.
Vieira and co. shipped out 12 players before and during the 2016 season while welcoming 11 new ones like promising Costa Rican Ronald Matarrita and European defenders Frederic Brillant (Belgium) and Maxime Chanot (Luxembourg). After reaching the playoffs for the first time in team history, Vieira once again retooled his roster and started another massive overhaul when another dozen left due to loans and expired contracts and NYCFC brought in more quality including current starters Moralez, Alexander Callens (Peru), Alex Ring (Finland) and Johnson.
“We have a Scandinavian group who all drive to training every day together,” Reyna said. “They’re close – they’re family together. You get those normal groups that find each other and support each other. When we do bring players in, it is something that, ‘OK, how will they fit in?’”
This past offseason, NYCFC continued its add and subtract trend by welcoming in 11 new players.
“We’ve been extremely purposeful the last two years to go out and get players that fit exactly the way [Vieira] wants to play,” Technical Director David Lee told The Post. “We’re not afraid to take some risks on players that come from different places – we do a lot of work to try to identify the right ones, the right players, the right characteristics, the right personalities.”
How exactly does NYCFC continue to retool and stay atop MLS’ standings? A good front office is one way, but their biggest – and best resource – is their affiliation with City Football Group, the parent company which owns world power Manchester City and other clubs like Girona and Melbourne City.
“We’re close to City Football Group,” Lee said. “We use them for every player.”
Scouting around the world
The process of acquiring a player starts locally for NYCFC. First, Lee and Reyna will meet with the coach to discuss the team’s needs. These meetings usually revolve around what type of player NYCFC would largely benefit from. They focus on the specific attributes a potential player could bring based on whether the team needs more physicality at right back or a true No. 10 which Moralez filled when he signed as a designated player in 2017.
When the sides have settled on a template for the player, that’s when NYCFC will branch out and contact its scouts to find potential targets that would work in the transfer window, whether it’s during the summer window or in the offseason. This process also flows straight to NYCFC’s motherboard and biggest resource: City Football Group.
NYCFC has access all the clubs that fall under the City Football Group umbrella, which includes Manchester City and Girona, among other clubs. Specifically, each team in the CFG family has around five primary scouts that focus on whichever club they are assigned to, but their work doesn’t just end there.
“Every scout works for all [City Football Group] clubs,” Lee said. “Manchester City doesn’t have its own scouts. It’s a group of scouts that work for every team in the group. They will cross-reference them. We have scouts in quite a lot of countries, but not all countries. But we have scouts on the ground that we would typically trust for a really close recommendation.”
The scouts focused on NYCFC, specifically, will go out and develop a full report and recommend players that fit what the front office wants. When going on assignments, scouts take into consideration everything when it comes to recommending a player, especially MLS’ tight budget restrictions, which make acquiring players a little abnormal compared to other leagues. Once those reports have been established, NYCFC’s scouts will consult within the CFG network and create a ranking system to determine the primary target for a transfer window.
For instance, Jesus Medina was NYCFC’s main target this past offseason. Medina had been on NYCFC’s radar for nearly two years before they netted him as their next designated player this when they reached a transfer agreement with Libertad this offseason. Their first-ever glimpse of Medina in-person came when Reyna traveled to South America trying to court Yangel Herrera at the South American U-20 World Cup qualifiers in 2017. They continued tracking him from there and once a designated player spot opened up this year, the team felt comfortable that he fit the position and profile they wanted in this window.
NYCFC discovered Medina by paying close attention to South American youth national teams which they continue to track. However, other times a player commendation could come from someplace within the club like David Villa recommending someone or maybe Lee or Reyna presenting a player. Vieira, who joined OGC Nice in June, has a big Rolodex full of international contacts which benefitted the team, and certainly Domenec Torrent’s will come into play, too.
But the team’s biggest advantage is belonging to the CFG network. Success stories like Aaron Mooy, once a Melbourne City player who Manchester City bought and eventually sold to Huddersfield Town in the Premier League. Most recently, NYCFC shipped Jack Harrison and castaway Mix Diskerrud to Manchester with both of those players hoping for a career abroad. By making stops at smaller clubs like NYCFC or Melbourne City, some players can see CFG’s success stories for players using clubs as stepping stools to bigger ventures.
“[City Football Group] is a way for you to reach the top of your career,” Lee said. “It’s a really powerful recruiting tool. We’re lucky to have it. It’s something we talk to all the young players about that we’re trying to sign.”
Said Medina about CFG’s influence: “When I was first told of it and I first decided to come to New York, of course it played a decision. I think the most important part was just coming to Europe. So if I do well here in New York, I can take my talents over there to Europe whether it be in England or in Spain, wherever it may be.”
The 2017 approach — and beyond
When constructing its roster before any season, NYCFC follows City Football Group’s central image: to play attractive attacking, possession-based soccer. While players could change from Vieira-to-Torrent, all future additions will still fit the same mold.
“We have profiles for every position that’s similar to City Football Groups,” Lee said. “Across the whole group, we have very similar characteristics for a holding midfielder player, what we need to look for. We have those – every club has little tweaks on those to make them specific for that coach, that team or that league that they need to adapt and modify slight things.”
This past offseason, NYCFC wanted to add depth across every position. Both Lee and Reyna echoed each other that the league’s latest influx of TAM money, $1.2 million dollars by the league for new signings or re-signing existing players, benefited NYCFC greatly because it allowed them to go out and attract different players that weren’t attainable in years past. When it comes to signing a new player, NYCFC has to look at how much value the player brings. Some like Medina and Chanot commanded a transfer fee while Berget and Anton Tinnerholm, the team’s stellar right back, were nabbed for free when they left Malmo.
Those variables also affect an incoming player’s strategy. Berget ranks as the third-highest paid player in total compensation ($816,666) on NYCFC’s book because he didn’t command a transfer fee which allowed the team’s front office to offer him more money. But Tajouri-Shradi – the team’s budding star – makes significantly less ($350,000) because he required a transfer fee from Austria Wien.
“We look at the total value of the deal,” Lee said. “The transfer fee and salary. If we can get fantastic players coming out-of-contract, then we’re able to give him more salary. If we have to pay a transfer fee, we can’t pay as much salary. We look at it as the total package of the deal and how do we value that player close to the value. If the values meet, great, that’s ultimately what we’re looking to bring in.”
Finding value has been one of NYCFC’s biggest successes, even beyond the international players. Scouting within the United States’ lower soccer tiers has yielded past contributors like Mikey Lopez and current first-team starters Ben Sweat and Sebastien Ibeagha, both of whom make only $67,500. They’ve also been proactive on the trade market, most recently when the team acquired Saad Abdul-Salaam from Sporting Kansas City for Khiry Shelton, which provided both players with a fresh start.
Another gamble that has flourished is veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson. The 29-year-old was snatched up for $100,000 in general allocation and $50,000 in targeted allocation from Atlanta United before the 2017 season. NYCFC believed he had his best years ahead of him and the deal now looks like a bargain considering how Johnson has transformed himself into one of the top American goalkeepers in MLS.
On the other side of the financial spectrum, NYCFC unloaded cash for Medina when it signed him for a reported $4 million. Even with the higher transfer fee, the young winger was considered a value buy thanks to his more-friendly contract, which allowed more flexibility in NYCFC’s offseason. Medina’s signing was significant because it not only followed other MLS’ teams pursuit of young South American talent, but it also previewed how NYCFC expects to do business when it comes to acquiring more younger marquee players.
NYCFC said it had started explore and do some work on the league’s new youth transfer fund, which according to The Athletic is a $3 million allotment that can be used through the 2022 season. The fund was created to encourage teams to purchase and develop players aged 20 or younger outside the league and resell them to European clubs.
“Lots of those players have ambitions to play at a higher level than where MLS is currently today. If we can be a part of that step, then it’s fantastic for us,” Lee said. “It’s only natural in football – players want to move up the ladder and so if we can use that to ultimately help New York win. If we can find players to help us win, and the by product is that they’re going to have interest from elsewhere , then great – that’s our job.”
Lee explained the team doesn’t have a preference when it comes to international or domestic talent. There will certainly be more internationals who join NYCFC from abroad, but there’s also the growth of the team’s academy, with homegrown signings James Sands and Joe Scally offering the first glimpses at one of the team’s biggest investments. More signings could come later this year with Justin Haak seeming to be the next on the homegrown radar.
NYCFC has stated they are interested in players who want to get better, but that comes with a price tag meaning expect NYCFC to target more players like Medina and not the next Ezequiel Barcos to come to the Bronx.
“You’re spending that much money… Whoever we bring in, we have to feel comfortable that we could get a return on the investment,” Reyna said about Barco, the 19-year-old Argentine stud who Atlanta United scooped up for $15 million. Barco has scored four goals and registered one assist in 15 games while Medina has grabbed three goals and seven assists in 19 matches.
“I don’t think we would say no to spending that amount of money – it’s pretty unlikely, to be honest – but we could if we find in the right player bring that in. But we’re still not looking at that at the moment. We’re happy with finding really good players at good values, there’s a youth transfer fund as well. Like I said, there’s a very small chance we would be spending that kind of money.”