Sean Johnson has watched the Concacaf Champions League over the years, bearing witness to other ambitious Major League Soccer teams struggling to navigate competing on two fronts to begin their season.
Often, those who make deep runs in the competition – Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City in recent years – deal with a rash of injuries and the carryover effect has prompted them missing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
While New York City FC’s goalkeeper said it’s important for his team not to focus on other teams' failed efforts, Johnson also believes roster continuity could be an X-factor during their first CCL foray.
“I think the road ahead for us is going to be unique, it’s going to be something we have to navigate as a group,” he said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “I think an important piece is that this group has a lot of players who have played together for quite a bit of time and understand each other. We’ve been through good moments, we’ve been through tough moments. I think it’s going to be up to us to draw on those moments of experience to make sure that we have a successful campaign going forward here in Champions League.”
The only notable departure is left back Ben Sweat, who was picked by Inter Miami CF in the Expansion Draft. Otherwise, most of last year’s Eastern Conference regular-season winning team returns after the most successful season in NYCFC’s young history.
If new head coach Ronny Deila puts out arguably his strongest lineup for the Round of 16 first leg against AD San Carlos on Thursday (8 pm ET | FS2, TUDN, FOX Sports GO in US; TSN.ca/TSN App in Canada), the XI would require few introductions.
“I think there’s a lot of quality in the squad, a lot of good football players and there’s good consistency and a very good togetherness in the group,” Deila said. “That helps. They want each other to do well and fight together.”
There are also no injuries to start; the full squad trained Monday in Florida before departing for Costa Rica on Tuesday afternoon.
However, Deila warned that some players haven’t seen action in preseason matches, specifically right back Anton Tinnerholm and attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez. While the only way to get match fitness is to play in matches, Deila is also cautious about overly taxing his players at the beginning of the season.
“We need to manage the squad right so we don’t get more injuries and at the same time get the best team available every time to win games,” Deila said.
While a first-choice squad is expected for the opening leg, Deila said the result in Costa Rica will dictate how NYCFC’s coaching staff navigates the next two games. Shortly after there’s the CCL home leg at Red Bull Arena on Feb. 26, and then their MLS regular-season opener at Columbus March 1.
“I think we have to see game to game now in the beginning and how we’re going to play, you’re going to have two games in six days now,” Deila said. “If the game goes very good in Costa Rica, then we have to see the two next games together and see how we can put two lineups and who can play two games and who cannot do it.
“If it doesn’t go so good, we need to think maybe otherwise. But we have depth in the squad now that everybody is ready for the game. That’s going to be an advantage for us in the beginning of the season.