We’re in the midst of another international break that Major League Soccer has brazenly chosen to ignore. That means many top players from around the league will be missing Matchday 5, with the total number of MLS call-ups approaching 90 players.
The losses hit all but two MLS teams, though New York City FC is lucky to not be impacted as severely as clubs like Minnesota United, Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, and Los Angeles FC, who are all set to be without multiple key starters. The teams with the best squads tend to have significant players called in for national team duty, so until MLS changes its approach to playing through international breaks the league’s better teams will face weeks in which they find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
For NYCFC, there will just be two national team-related absences in Houston. Yet how head coach Nick Cushing chooses to line his team up without Mitja Ilenič and, more significantly, Maxime Chanot, will reveal a lot about how the club currently views its defensive depth chart and captain hierarchy.
Ilenič’s absence seems far less complicated to solve: Tayvon Gray earned the start against DC United while Mitja was still in town, and would seem likely to keep his place in the Starting XI against the Dynamo.
Chanot, on the other hand, has started and played every minute of all four NYCFC matches to date, also wearing the captain’s armband in each. His center-back partnership with Thiago Martins has been uninterrupted, as they both have been on the field for every single minute of the NYCFC season. Now that Chanot has been summoned to help Luxembourg try to qualify for EURO 2024, Cushing’s hand is being forced into making the first center-back change of 2023.
Who, then, is the next in line for NYCFC? In his pre-match press conference before the trip to Houston, Cushing played it coy as to his plans for filling the Chanot void. One thing the NYCFC head coach did mention was the option to change his formation, mentioning the potential to switch away from a traditional four-man backline while using players such as Andres Jasson and Kevin O’Toole as wingbacks.
Even in the event of a formation change, a third center-back will still be necessary. Who would theoretically join Thiago Martins and Tayvon Gray in that particular setup? The only other natural option at the position with extensive professional experience is Tony Alfaro, who has yet to make an appearance for NYCFC after arriving from DC United this offseason.
Alfaro has never been a consistent MLS starter despite spending five seasons in the league, yet also offers the most straightforward path to replacing Chanot. The formation could stay the same with Alfaro slotting in, or he could help form a back-three.
Beyond Alfaro, the replacement options at center back are young and untested (think NYCFC II regulars Samuel Owusu, Nico Benalcazar, and Stephen Turnbull), or midfielders played out of their preferred positions. James Sands has lots of experience playing as a center-back for NYCFC and Rangers FC, but before NYCFC played DC United Cushing said he didn’t see Sands playing center back again “any time soon.”
Alfredo Morales was asked to occasionally play center-back last season, but to mixed results. To jar your memory: He earned a red card in the 5-4 win over Toronto FC at Citi Field. Justin Haak made the start as a CB in the 2022 Eastern Conference Final in Philadelphia, and that did not go particularly well. Earlier this season, NYCFC II defender Stephen Turnbull came on in the 90th minute of the 1-1 draw with Chicago Fire, and promptly committed a foul that allowed Chicago to take a set piece which came dangerously to winning the game.
Whatever decision Cushing makes, the defensive line that takes the field will be experimental. Something similar took place last September, when NYCFC faced Atlas FC in the Campeones Cup and Cushing lined up the team with three center-backs and Luis Barraza in goal. Things went well that night in the Bronx, but can he make it work again on a seasonably warm night in Houston?
Then there is the matter of the captaincy. Chanot has worn the armband in every match, though NYCFC has not formally anointed him team captain. Who takes on that responsibility in Houston? There was perhaps a hint of a clue in preseason, as Thiago Martins was spotted functioning as captain when Chanot was removed during NYCFC’s friendly with Minnesota United.
The three American central midfielders on the roster—Alfredo Morales, James Sands, and Keaton Parks—all look like possible captains. If one of them deputizes in place of Chanot, might that be a hint as to who has the inside track to the “full-time” captaincy if Maxime is not the long-term solution?
It’s impressive that one international call-up could raise so many questions about NYCFC’s roster and leadership structures, but such is life when MLS dilutes its regular season by plowing through international breaks. While Maxime Chanot will be missed in Houston, his absence will provide many interesting clarifications about NYCFC’s present and future.