Welcome to the second part of the Hudson River Blue Roundtable that dissects a less-than-ideal 2023 season for New York City FC. Read on to see how Corey Clayton, Andrew Leigh, Matthew Mangam, Raf Noboa y Rivera, Mark Radigan, and Oliver Strand try to make sense of the year that just ended.
You will find Part 1 here.
6. Are NYCFC still NYCFC?
Oliver Strand: Did this season change how you look at NYCFC?
Corey Clayton: One season can be just a blip. Look at the two teams in the World Series this year — the Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers. They both lost about 90 games in 2022 and bounced back to win 84 and 90 this year, respectively, to get into the MLB Postseason as wild cards and beat all the favorites. And that was in a league with no salary cap — capped leagues like the NFL, NHL, and MLS offer far more opportunity to reverse your fortunes year to year.
So no, if David Lee and Nick Cushing are worth their salt, they can course-correct and field the right squad to get the Pigeons back to their rightful place in the East Top 4.
If they can’t, they both need to go before 2025, if not sooner.
Matthew Mangam: NYCFC is in a weird spot right now. I think the squad for next season has enough talent to make the playoffs, but there are still some things that need to be addressed. Although Nick Cushing is most likely returning, I feel more positive about NYCFC for next season than I felt for NYCFC before the start of the 2023 season.
Raf Noboa y Rivera: No. I think this roster had some serious deficiencies in 2023 that were fixed by the end of the season. I don’t think it’s a title-winning roster, but it’s sufficiently talented to make the playoffs and win some games. That this didn’t happen doesn’t change my overall opinion of the team.
Mark Radigan: This roster is competitive. But you have to look at the market as well. A New York team can’t settle for mediocrity, the fans won’t stand for it. I fully expect NYCFC to be more competitive next year, and at least lock up a Wild Card spot.
Andrew Leigh: I view them as a team still in transition, still figuring itself out after progressively tearing down the squad that won MLS Cup. Confidence is higher here at the very end of the 2023 season even despite the playoff miss, because there does still seem to be a promising nucleus of young talent in place that, if improved further this winter, could plausibly climb back up the table in 2024.
7. Emotional, not rational
OS: Overall, how do you feel about the year? Set aside rational thought — give us a purely emotional response.
CC: Definitely depressed, seeing the MLS Cup Playoffs going on without us. Now I know how NY Jets fans feel all year long.
MM: It was a rough season, especially with that stretch of poor results in May. It is depressing that the playoff streak ended and to see how the fan base reacted. Seeing the Cushing out signs at the games was something that made me feel odd too.
RNyR: It was a bummer of a season. I can deal with missing the playoffs, weird stuff happens to talented teams. But this team has too much talent to play such boring soccer.
MR: The aurora around the club has shifted from one of optimism and success to aggravation and discontent. I expected more from this roster, even with the departures of Taty and Callens. But, the squad is young, they’ll continue to grow. Even in the face of this brutal season, I still have some optimism for 2024.
AL: Draining season, too many heartbreaking results, too much other drama around the team, like the sale of the team’s leading scorer, the weird circumstances around Maxime Chanot’s departure, that time Talles Magno flipped off Chanot during a loss in Toronto…there were way too many negatives this season, huffing on the hopium of that Willets Point stadium opening in 2027 was not enough to erase the stink of everything else 2023 had to offer.
8. Looking ahead
OS: Let’s look ahead to the immediate future.
The 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs end on December 9, then the primary transfer window for the 2024 season begins two days later, on December 11. Which NYCFC players should the club retain?
MM: There are many players NYCFC should keep. I won’t name every single one but a few key ones are Talles Magno, Keaton Parks, Santi Rodríguez, and Tayvon Gray. Making Andrés Perea’s loan permanent would also be a nice addition.
CC: Other than the core of Santi, Keaton, and Sands in the midfield, and Risa and Martins in the backline, I’m open to any changes. I’d even be happy moving Talles Magno to open up the DP slot, moving Santi out to the wing, and finding a new DP 9 or 10 in free agency — Josef Martinez, call us!
RNyR: Just as I was writing this, NYCFC announced their roster options. They picked up five: Barraza, Freese, Jasson, O’Toole, and Segal. They rejected seven: Benalcazar, Cufré, Jimenez, Morales, Owusu, Pellegrini, and Turnbull. That leaves 25 players on the roster.
I’d have retained Cufré and Morales, but I can see why they declined the option on both.
AL: Nothing too surprising among the end-of-season roster decisions, though odd to see a huge chunk of the NYCFC II roster have their options declined.
In terms of retaining players this winter, I think it would be a mistake to sell Talles Magno while his value is still low after his rough 2023. He looked marginally better playing on the left at the end of the season, and if he’s given more chances to develop chemistry alongside Bakrar or another first-choice striker, his goal contributions could recover—as could his value on the transfer market, and we know that’s always a consideration with NYCFC’s young talent.
8. Who should bounce? Join in?
OS: Which players should the club let leave?
RNyR: I’m a little surprised that they kept Gabriel Segal, but maybe he’s seen as a project piece. Beyond that, the list of players whose options were declined made sense. I’m a little torn on Richie Ledezma, to be honest. I don’t know if Maxi Moralez is someone I’d keep, either.
CC: That all depends on how Maxi recovers from injury. At his age, that surgery may be the final straw. Or he’ll have to adopt the Lionel Messi “walking style” of play and focus on distribution.
MM: I don’t think there’s a ton of players who need to go, but Ledezma should not be re-signed. Maxi is only getting older and his injury could affect his fitness going forward. I get the idea that the club were trying to do with re-signing him, but it backfired and I sadly don’t think we’ll ever see the same Moralez from 2019.
MR: I touched on this in my final grade, but Talles Magno is a major question mark. Cushing needs to take this off-season to figure out where Talles is going to play. He’s too valuable and is paid too much to make 15-to-20-minute cameos off the bench. If he can’t fit into Cushing’s system, he has to be sold.
AL: I am surprised both 2023 goalkeepers are returning, as I thought Barraza was a candidate to have his option declined. Freese seemed to have won the job convincingly by season’s end and was the player David Lee recently traded a bunch of allocation money to acquire.
OS: What are the holes the club need to fill?
MM: The depth.
NYCFC could use another two natural center-backs for the sake of depth. If Thiago Martins or Bik Risa, you don’t want to throw Justin Haak in there once again as a replacement. Maxi Moralez probably will not play a whole lot next season, so another attacking midfielder and playmaker would be nice too.
RNyR: With Braian Cufré’s departure, NYCFC is going to need a first-choice left-back (and depth there). They’ll need depth at center back, too. I wouldn’t count on Maxi being a factor, so probably another attacking midfielder.
CC: If they can’t fill their holes with trustworthy NYCFC II call-ups (MD Myers?), it’s time to go shopping with all that Taty/Gabby transfer fee money. Need depth at wingback and center back, a new starting left back, and depth at center forward. And with Alfredo’s departure, we’ll need depth at CDM.
I’d also like to see the front office look at the MLS trade/FA market as well — why go overseas for players and have to deal with acclimation issues (both for country and league) when there are plenty of good players available already acclimated to MLS play?
AL: The club needs multiple central midfielders, a left-back, another striker, and maybe another central defender if you’re not comfortable relying on the Homegrown Gray, Sands, Haak trio as your backups to Thiago Martins and Risa.
Striker seems to still be the most glaring spot: Mounsef Bakrar showed promise in his limited run after joining but also missed a ton of chances, and Gabe Segal did not seem like a big part of the first team’s plans.
9. What does 2024 hold?
OS: Let’s be honest, it’s too soon to tell what’s going to happen next season. Still, I’ll ask the question: What’s your outlook on 2024?
MM: If NYCFC can make the necessary signings and return the key players, I think the team should make the playoffs. There is talent in the squad, and regardless of Cushing, I think the team can get results. The defense is a positive and the attack started to click towards the end of last season. New York needs both aspects to click and they will find their groove again.
CC: Like I previously said, a slow start for NYCFC in ‘24 and Cushing is history by May 1. Only being in the top half of the East table will keep him employed here.
RNyR: This is too talented a team to miss the playoffs in consecutive years. I don’t have any faith that Cushing can put the pieces together to do it, but making the playoffs as one of the top four or five seeds is a reasonable expectation. Anything less is frankly unacceptable. Beyond that, this team became justly noted for playing sharp, attacking soccer, and they didn’t do that last season. NYCFC weren’t entertaining, and that, too, needs to change.
MR: I agree. NYCFC are too talented to languish in mediocrity.
AL: I think it’ll be another up-and-down season but one that features more wins than 2023 and thus sees the team get back into the (unusually large) playoff field. I don’t think they’ll be in the one-off Wild Card game either, I think they’ll manage to creep from 11th to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. They have talent in place, and I’m operating under the assumption they’ll bring in some more before and during the 2024 season.
10. The year in 10 words
OS: Time to wrap this up with a bow: Please sum up the year in 10 words or fewer.
MM: Expected, but disappointed, especially with the team NYCFC has.
MR: Disappointed, I expected much more.
CC: This team won’t improve until Nick Cushing is fired.
RNyR: I’m not mad, I’m disappointed. Better luck next year.
AL: Our expectations for you were low, but holy f….