New York City FC's offseason was under the microscope quite a bit this past winter.
It began with key departures, as club captain Alex Ring (to Austin FC) and stalwart left back Ronald Matarrita (to FC Cincinnati) were both traded within MLS. With all the allocation money returned and subsequent roster flexibility, it seemed as though NYCFC were loading up for a big shopping spree.
Except it didn't quite flow like that, leading to some questions and criticism around the league and from their fanbase. Additions have come, of course, via Alfredo Morales, a midfielder with 16 US men's national team caps. Rising Brazilian winger Thiago Andrade, Danish fullback Malte Amundsen and US youth international defender Chris Gloster were acquired as well, but there's no guarantee any are starters in head coach Ronny Deila's strongest XI.
Still, the Cityzens have enjoyed a quick start to 2021 with seven points through four games. And sporting director David Lee is quick to point out the squad is still being added to, with the front office plenty content about how things have gone so far.
“I think we’ve probably signed fewer players than expected, certainly from our fanbase, but the roster is not finished," Lee told MLSsoccer.com. "We have flexibility to sign more players. While some might think it was lower-key so far, we’re pleased with the players we managed to keep and who we managed to bring in, while still having flexibility in the roster to make additions, particularly from the summer on."
Keeping a few rising talents was key to the club's plan.
Homegrown standout James Sands committed his future to the club over the offseason, signing a new five-year contract. Sands signed despite interest from Europe, specifically Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, as MLSsoccer previously reported in November. Argentine youth international Valentin Castellanos followed this week, with the forward signing a new five-year contract through 2025 despite overtures from Brazil.
Reports emerged that a number of clubs were interested in Castellanos' acquisition, but sources tell MLSsoccer.com that reigning Copa Libertadores champions Palmeiras were the most aggressive in their pursuit, with a handful of bids rejected.
"We're really excited," Lee said of Castellanos re-signing. "Taty has developed incredibly well since he joined us, he’s a brilliant player. To get him to agree to a new contract is a really important step for us. To have it done is really positive."
Castellanos has started the season in great form, with four goals and an assist across the club's first four games. Dating back to last season, he has nine goals and three assists in his last eight regular-season games.
The 22-year-old has been with the club since 2018, amassing 22 goals and 11 assists in 64 appearances (46 starts). Castellanos preferred to stay in MLS, according to Lee, and he believes those intentions speak to the club's culture.
"I think it says they trust and believe the club will help them develop as players," Lee said. "If you develop and your performance levels continue to develop, interest will come. It also means they both feel valued and wanted. If they didn’t think they would develop here, they wouldn’t have stayed. We’ve shown in the past that we understand our place in the football ecosystem. If interest and offers come for players who can improve their career and help the club, that’s a pathway we’re not opposed to. I think they know and trust we’ll work with the players to try and find solutions at the right times in their career.”
Castellanos has been integral to their early-season success, not just because of his goals, but his availability. He's NYCFC's lone natural center forward who's currently fit, with teammate Heber still on the mend following a torn ACL. The Brazilian is expected back in a few months.
By the time Heber returns, there should be a few new faces in the team.
“I would hope that we have a minimum of one new player in by the end of the first window and potentially two," Lee said. "That’s the hope – you’re never certain. If we spoke two or three months ago, I might have said the same thing. But the window is still open, our aim is to have more before this window closes."
The Primary Transfer Window closes on June 1 before the Secondary Transfer Window opens on July 7. The small break will feel even shorter since the league will pause for the first two weeks of June to account for summer international tournaments, while most teams will go three weeks between games.
NYCFC still retain a great deal of flexibility, even as reinforcements trickle in. They have the ability to add another senior Designated Player, as well as another U-22 initiative acquisition. Lee didn't forecast specific designations they plan to sign, given the roster situation remains fluid, instead signaling for "impactful" players.
“I wouldn’t want to be specific on the roster category," Lee said. "We’re just looking for players who can be impactful to our team."
Despite losing a couple of key talents, NYCFC's strongest XI didn't change much and is regarded favorably when compared to many in the Eastern Conference. They continue to chase their first trophy, too.
"The expectation for the club is to win and we think we have a roster together who can win MLS Cup," Lee said. "I believe when we make more additions that can help on the journey, too, but all fans and us at the club alike want one thing: To win.”