Back in June when we issued Santiago Rodríguez his midterm grade, we wrote that he “needs to apply himself.” We gave the midfielder a C+.
That was a gentle way of encouraging NYCFC’s newest Designated Player to step up and elevate the team’s level of play. Since then, it became abundantly clear that this NYCFC squad was the weakest to take the field since the team’s inaugural year. The six players signed in the summer transfer window (a club record) made the team competitive in the final months of the season. It seems fair to conclude that both individual performances and the team’s overall results would have been stronger had sporting director David Lee taken care of business in the primary transfer window.
But that doesn’t completely let Santi off the hook. The fact remains that the 23-year-old attacking midfielder didn’t operate at the level of an elite DP. When you look at the numbers of Luciano Acosta of FC Cincinnati, Carles Gil of the New England Revolution, and Lucas Zelarayán of the Columbus Crew, you see that Santi trails far behind per FBRef.
MLS Attacking Midfielders (by percentile)
Gil, Lucho, and Zelarayán should be Santi’s peer group — if anything, he ought to be looking to out-perform them to attract the attention of European clubs, to say nothing of Marcelo Bielsa, now the head coach of Rodríguez’s native Uruguay.
Santí leads in just one category, pass completion. It makes sense given that NYCFC’s possession-heavy style of play remained intact this past year even as ball progression, chance creation, and scoring goals faded away. Registering in the 52nd percentile for assists ain’t going to get you a call-up to your national team.
We wish that we could point to Santi as one of the few bright spots this year, but we can’t. His performances were bound to those of the rest of the team, and he stumbled along with the others. It’s too bad. We wanted to see an MVP-caliber DP who was determined to carry his club over the line — whether or not he pulled it off wasn’t as important as his putting in the effort. But what we had was somebody who consistently played at the level of his teammates.
That also means that his performances improved with those of the rest of the team. Santi was looking pretty good in the final 10 games of the season, and he was NYCFC’s engine in their 1-0 Decision Day win over the Chicago Fire.
Because of that, we’re going to bump him up to a B-. The numbers don’t support the increase – his stats in the table above actually went down when compared to the mid-season – but we reserve the right for some discretion when handing out a grade, that 10% that falls under “other,” and we feel that his recent improvement should be recognized.
Let’s be perfectly clear: That grade is nothing to be proud of if you’re a DP.
Santi should take the lessons learned from this year and approach the 2024 season as if his life depends on it. He should have Gil, Lucho, and Zelarayán in his sights — and outperform every one of him. He should return to preseason training next year with a chip on his shoulder, and a desire to be the best attacking midfielder in MLS.
The grade below isn’t an achievement, it’s a nudge, maybe even a warning.