How new-look New York City FC found way to final

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December 11, 2021
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    NYCFC celebrate beating Philadelphia Union to win the Eastern Conference final and reach the MLS CupNYCFC beat Philadelphia Union to win the Eastern Conference final and reach the MLS Cup

    It is less than nine years since New York City FC were given the 20th Major League Soccer franchise.

    Fewer than seven have elapsed since the fledgling club played its first home game in the unlikely setting of Yankee Stadium.

    Home to the iconic New York Yankees, the baseball team where Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio became legendary sporting figures, the venue attracted a crowd of 43,507 as David Villa scored the opener in a 2-0 win over New England.

    They became the second club, after Manchester City, in the City Football Group's portfolio of teams – the holding company now has a financial interest in 10 around the globe.

    On Saturday, former Celtic coach Ronny Deila will be in charge as NYCFC attempt to win the MLS Cup for the first time since their inception, as they face Portland Timbers at Providence Park.

    It has been quite a ride from the club's debut campaign in 2015 when Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo joined Spain's World Cup winner Villa in a star-studded line up.

    The squad has a very different look these days.

    Now Maxi Moralez, a 34-year-old Argentine attacking midfielder who won his only international cap in 2011, wears the number 10 shirt.

    Notably, two players produced by the club's academy, 19-year-old defender Tayvon Gray and James Sands, a 21-year-old United States international, completed the full 90 minutes of the Eastern Conference final win over Philadelphia.

    "New York was the first time any of us had been involved in something where, literally, you were starting with a blank piece of paper," Brian Marwood, managing director of global football at the City Football Group told BBC Sport.

    "There was a lot to do. We managed to achieve it – and here we are seven years on."

    Taking a bite of the Big Apple

    There are positives and negatives to being a new professional sports club in New York.

    The location attracts attention like nowhere else. But with the Yankees and Mets in baseball, the Nets and Knicks in basketball, the Giants and Jets in the NFL, and ice hockey sides the Rangers and Islanders, there is quite a bit of sporting competition.

    That is also without mentioning the New York Red Bulls, an MLS founder member, located across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

    Against that crowded market, even the financial might of a club so closely aligned to super-rich Manchester City cannot, on its own, make much of an impact.

    So NYCFC put building blocks in place to make a lasting impression.

    Being part of an initiative that will help lay 50 mini soccer pitches across New York's five boroughs is a source of particular pride.

    "We spend an awful lot of time out in the communities trying to do work where our fans are," said sporting director David Lee, an Englishman who was head of performance analysis at Exeter City before taking on a similar role with the Red Bulls in 2011 and then joining NYCFC in 2014, initially as director of player recruitment.

    The advent of digital media has also helped.

    "Soccer is growing so much in this country," said Lee. "There's obviously a lot of people in the US that have moved from other countries and can stay connected and attached to their teams from the countries they're from.

    "Our role in New York and MLS is to appeal to people who want to go and see football and be part of a team that's growing and improving."

    Evolving from an era of big names

    Frank Lampard (left), David Villa (centre) and Andrea Pirlo in action for New York City |FCBig things were expected from superstar trio Frank Lampard (left), David Villa (centre) and Andrea Pirlo

    Marwood feels the Villa, Lampard, Pirlo era was what the club needed at its inception. Lampard's delayed arrival, after extending his spell at Manchester City until 2015, did not give the impression of NYCFC as a serious club.

    But the former England star went on to play for the next 18 months, while Pirlo stayed a year longer than that and striker Villa, who remained until 2018, is still the club's record scorer with 80 goals.

    "Frank, Andrea and David were important because we needed to establish this club with some really significant names in world football," said Marwood.

    "Once we did that we needed to change direction. Over the last 12 to 18 months we have gone for a more younger, dynamic squad. We have important senior players – Maxi Moralez, Maxime Chanot, Sean Johnson – and some younger ones – Valentín Castellanos, Santiago Rodríguez and Sands."

    NYCFC haven't just had big names on the pitch.

    Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira moved to New York in 2015 to replace Jason Kreis, having impressed during two and a half years in charge of Manchester City's Elite Development Squad. Pep Guardiola's former assistant Domenec Torrent replaced Vieira when the Frenchman left for Nice in June 2018.

    Torrent was at the helm for 18 months before the CFG hierarchy turned to Norwegian Deila, who first came to their attention in 2011.

    "One of the things we work on is not just identifying players but also coaches," said Marwood.

    "In an ideal world you would do that within your system. Ronny's assistant is Nick Cushing, who was our women's coach in Manchester. You can't always do that, but we recommended Ronny to Celtic when he got the job there.

    "He is very well respected, well liked and we felt he was a good fit in New York."

    Stadium struggles

    In developing Jack Harrison, now in the Premier League with Leeds and 18-year-old Joe Scally, who made four senior appearances for NYCFC before joining Borussia Monchengladbach and becoming a Bundesliga regular, the club are evidently a far deeper organisation than many expected when they joined MLS in 2013.

    But one major issue remains.

    While NYCFC have made it work at Yankee Stadium, whose dimensions are at the very limit of acceptable standards for a senior club – and relations with the baseball side are good – no-one can pretend the situation is perfect.

    Not when NYCFC have found themselves having to move games – even Champions League games – to Red Bull Arena or other stadiums in the area.

    Various alternative sites have been mentioned, but significant progress has yet to materialise.

    New York City may win their first MLS Cup in Portland, but even Lee accepts it is the stadium that will really secure the club's place in the pantheon of New York's sporting heavyweights.

    "A soccer-specific stadium is crucial," he said. "We love playing at Yankee Stadium. It is home for us, we have a fantastic record there and the fans love going there. But a soccer-specific stadium in New York is incredibly important.

    "A lot of people are working incredibly hard to try to make that happen and, when it does, it will be another transformative moment for our football club."

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