New York City FC had an unusually busy summer transfer window, add a number of talented players to a struggling roster that lingered below the qualification line for the MLS Cup Playoffs for much of 2023.
The summer makeover has yielded results, as Mounsef Bakrar, Birk Risa, Andrés Perea, and Julián Fernández have all contributed significantly to NYCFC’s current six-match unbeaten run.
Those newly-arrived players wouldn’t be in the position of helping NYCFC drag itself back to the MLS postseason if not for the contributions the team has received to date from its four longest-tenured Homegrown players.
James Sands, Tayvon Gray, Andres Jasson, and Justin Haak are all part of the “first wave” of Homegrowns and have each, to varying degrees, made important contributions throughout the marathon 2023 season to keep NYCFC close enough to the playoff places to make this late-season push for the postseason possible.
NYCFC have fielded one of the youngest teams in MLS this season, leaning on young players from within and imported from abroad to fill roster holes opened up by the overhaul/rebuild the team has experienced since the 2022 season. The club needed to see progression, improvement, and impact from enough young players in order to sniff any form of success this season.
All of Sands, Gray, Jasson, and Haak have chipped in to keep NYCFC relevant heading into their final two matches of the season. Form for all four players hasn’t been a straight line pointing up all season, but NYCFC has benefited from positive developments in the games of each of these “veteran” Homegrowns.
Jasson finds form at right time
He’s been a master at soaking up contact and drawing fouls since making his MLS debut in 2021, but Andres Jasson hadn’t produced much in attack through his first two seasons in MLS. Jasson’s 2021 and 2022 seasons featured 1,147 minutes of MLS game time with just one assist and no goals, and he saw experimental time as a wing-back, tasked with more defensive work than expected from a promising young attacking player.
Now, while playing predominantly on the right wing, the goal contributions are coming. In his nine appearances (seven starts) since July, Jasson has picked up four goals and one assist for NYCFC, earning a spot in the MLS Team of the Matchday and earning a Goal of the Matchday nomination for his finish in the home win over CF Montréal. He’s helped NYCFC form a more formidable attacking line, generally thriving while playing alongside new starting striker Mounsef Bakrar.
NYCFC loaned out Thiago Andrade and sold Gabriel Pereira this season, two significant wing contributors gone. Julián Fernández and Alonso Martínez were signed this summer, yet to date, it’s Jasson who has broken out and picked up the most slack for the departed Brazilian duo.
Fernández is a prized young player who has already shown glimpses of the upside that made him so appealing to NYCFC, and he ultimately may end up replacing Gabriel Pereira’s productivity on the wing Martínez likewise might get acclimated to MLS and turn out to be a solid contributor next season, though he’s hardly played in 2023 and been frequently described by Nick Cushing as being “in preseason mode.”
In the here and now, it’s Jasson who has seized this late-season moment. He’s started in three straight games, earning Player of the Match honors from Fotmob and from NYCFC in the win vs. Orlando City SC for assisting on Talles Magno’s goal. He scored again against a Canadian opponent in the 3-0 win over Toronto FC (three of Jasson’s four goals and one of his two assists have come against a combination of Toronto and Montréal) and set up one of Mounsef Bakrar’s better missed chances in the frustrating 1-1 draw with Inter Miami CF.
Steady hands of Gray and Sands
James Sands and Tayvon Gray are the seasoned, experienced veterans of the Homegrown foursome in focus in this article. They each started and went the distance in MLS Cup 2021 and have been the Homegrown players most heavily involved with the NYCFC senior team since signing those first pro contracts.
Both of Sands and Gray had questions to answer this season. Sands was back in MLS looking to re-establish himself after a failed move to Rangers FC in Scotland, and Gray had to contend with the arrival of a promising new right back, 18-year-old Mitja Ilenič.
The Guy from Rye slid back into the NYCFC Starting XI and has looked like his usual self for most of the season, seeming to benefit from the consistent minutes given to him at his “preferred” position of defensive midfielder.
Sands played lots of center back with Rangers, and while he’s filled in there occasionally in his second stint with NYCFC, consistent time in the central midfield has helped him. He’s earned multiple call-ups from the United States men’s national team since returning to NYCFC, and was one of the few standouts from the “B-team” roster the USMNT used in this summer’s Gold Cup.
Post-Gold Cup, life at NYCFC has been a bit rockier for Sands, as he’s dealt with two injuries and a dip in form that saw him give away two extremely costly penalties, one in the Leagues Cup loss to the Red Bulls, the other in the frustrating 1-1 home draw with Vancouver Whitecaps.
To his credit, though, Sands seems to have put his struggles and injury issues behind him, as he’s gone the full 90 in four straight matches and has looked increasingly comfortable partnered with Andrés Perea in midfield.
Gray and Ilenič spent a lot of the early season rotating at right back, with Gray also spending time at his preferred center back spot when NYCFC faced the absences of both Thiago Martins and Maxime Chanot.
Now, in late-season crunch time with the sense of urgency for NYCFC ratcheted up, Gray has been playing some of his best soccer.
He’s started at right back and averaged a 7.6 match rating from Fotmob during this current six-match NYCFC unbeaten run, even chipping in a first assist of the season on Santiago Rodríguez’s emphatic opening goal in Miami. Gray also earned himself an international call-up this summer, making his debut with Jamaica’s national team in September.
Brooklyn boy turned Swiss Army Knife
Justin Haak isn’t having the same late-season impact as Jasson, Sands, or Gray, as the young player from Brooklyn has fallen out of the team after the busy summer transfer window, making just three appearances since August for a total of 52 minutes of game action.
He’s been squeezed out of the midfield and out of central defense thanks to the additions of Andrés Perea and Birk Risa, but Haak in 2023 still has proved useful, versatile, and effective at times when NYCFC’s roster was thinner and struggling through both fixture congestion and injuries.
His solidity while mainly playing the unfamiliar position of center back helped New York City pick up important points in June and July. He started nine straight matches as a central defender right around the time NYCFC lost current captain and defensive leader Thiago Martins to arthroscopic knee surgery, and NYCFC picked up one win, seven (!) draws, and one loss in those games. Yes, the Season of Draws has been frustrating to follow, but those seven points gained still have helped keep New York City in playoff striking distance as Decision Day approaches.
The Brooklyn-born Homegrown was the first-ever NYCFC Homegrown to score a goal, what should have been a match-winner on the road against Columbus Crew SC. He continued to learn the ins and outs of center back on the fly, not making many glaring errors while continuing to be an accurate passer and relatively smooth operator out of the back, traits that make him a valuable piece of squad depth.
Haak’s early-season contributions shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should observers overlook the valuable minutes the team has received more recently from Jasson, Sands, and Gray.
The byzantine and complicated MLS roster rules make it so that teams need to successfully develop their young Homegrown players, and while NYCFC has been busy signing talent from abroad to boost their near- and long-term fortunes, the positive developmental steps taken by the four longest-tenured Homegrowns have set the team up for success late in 2023 and beyond.