New York City make "huge potential" signings: Mijatović, Ojeda & Wolf


In hindsight, New York City FC sporting director David Lee knows their squad entered the 2023 season with too many holes.

NYCFC weren’t exactly transfer-market bystanders as veterans from their MLS Cup 2021-winning group departed en masse. James Sands returned from his loan to Rangers. Santiago Rodríguez did as well, on a permanent transfer from sister side Montevideo City Torque. Right back Mitja Ilenič and goalkeeper Matt Freese, two starters nowadays, were acquired too.

But, when last year’s opener at Nashville SC arrived, head coach Nick Cushing didn’t have a full hand to play. And it showed as the club entered July with just four wins and an 11-game winless streak. The amount of quality lost wasn't fully replaced, at least not at first.

“When I look back at the roster that we were entering January of 2023 with, we were looking for six or seven starters, plus depth,” sporting director David Lee told this week. “That's just a huge amount of work and a huge amount to get right. 

“I think one of the big challenges of MLS is if you sign the wrong player or the right player but at the wrong value, it's hard to unwind some of those decisions. And so the work that we had was significant.”

Summer sprint

NYCFC, needing reinforcements, got to work during the summer transfer window. Mounsef Bakrar gave them a much-needed starting striker, Birk Risa offered Thiago Martins a center-back partner, and winger Julián Fernández brought dynamism to the wings after Gabriel Pereira was transferred to the Qatar league. Andrés Perea, who’s now on a permanent deal from the Philadelphia Union, boosted the midfield as well.

Form gradually improved and the goals started flowing. NYCFC were alive on Decision Day and, to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, needed to both beat Chicago Fire FC and get help from others. The first box was checked, but not the second. For the first time since the club’s 2015 expansion season, there would be no playoff soccer for The Boys in Blue.

Flash forward to Saturday, when NYCFC open their 2024 season at Charlotte FC (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), and it seems lessons were heeded. The club’s made key additions in recent months and has depth in every position, hoping to return to the Eastern Conference elite after a "non-stop" window.

“That 2023 push obviously wasn't enough to get us into the playoffs, but we went into this offseason with a foundation of a team that we knew, and I think already proved, that they could compete in MLS,” Lee said. “So this winter transfer window was just totally different. The problems were totally different than what we experienced last year.

“We also wanted to add real quality, more depth. That was a big focus for us, to be more decisive in the market, to sign the players that we were really confident in and make those deals happen.

“I'm really proud and pleased with where we've ended up with our group heading into Charlotte this weekend. I think it puts us in a good place. … A key part of that strategy was getting all of our business done as quickly as we possibly could.”

Serbian star

One key checklist item? Acquiring rising Serbian youth international Jovan Mijatović, a striker who previously starred at Red Star Belgrade and was linked with Manchester City. He reportedly cost $8.6 million and fills a U22 Initiative spot alongside Bakrar, giving NYCFC two high-upside No. 9s.

Lee stops short of making player comparisons for Mijatović – "We have discussed names internally, but I don't want to give those names externally,” he said – but there’s clear excitement about the youngster.

“I'm sure Jovan would say, and he has said in his recruitment process, that his ambition, his goal is to play at the highest level that he possibly can,” Lee said. “So ultimately, when we discussed with him the opportunity in New York, we're trying to support him on that journey. But that doesn't mean we compromise on what impact we think he can have in terms of helping us to win trophies.

“We think that those two things can go hand-in-hand, side-by-side, and he's a player that has a huge amount of potential. I think often, when you're looking at some of these U22 players, you are looking at players who have relatively limited senior experience. Jovan is a little different in the amount of senior experience he already has for being an 18-year-old. So he's got huge potential as a striker. He's got all the attributes of a striker that can play at high levels in Europe.”

There’s also a proven path Mijatović could follow, seeing what former Golden Boot winner and Best XI honoree Taty Castellanos accomplished at NYCFC. The Argentine striker was sold to Lazio for reportedly nearly $17 million last summer after he impressed on loan at LaLiga side Girona. Reaching those heights is no guarantee, though.

“It's really important to stress to any of these young players that we might sign that the interest in playing at higher levels comes from your performance here,” Lee said. “If you don't perform well in New York, then it's very unlikely that teams come and want to acquire you.

“Whereas Taty shows if you're a Golden Boot winner, then teams want to come and acquire you. And so that's the process for us, and we think Jovan has enormous potential. He's only been with us for a little bit of time and still waiting for his work visa to come in. But he's here and just staying fit. We're really excited to see him out on the training pitch and work with him to hopefully reach his potential.”

Argentine spark

The offseason’s not just about Mijatović, though. NYCFC acquired another high-upside attacking talent in Agustín Ojeda, a 19-year-old Argentine youth international winger who arrives from Racing Club for a reported $7.5 million. He’s also a U22 Initiative signing.

Similar to Mijatović, Lee doesn’t make any bold proclamations about Ojeda. Yet the excitement levels are similar.

“We really like his ability to attack space, to run in behind,” Lee said. “I think the way that we play, we have been at our best when we have multiple players who can attack space in behind opponents and that's a really strong attribute of Agustín’s.

“He's a player that he's excellent technically, he's good in 1-v-1 situations, he can play on the left or the right. He's right-footed and typically we would play with our wingers inverted, but he's had a lot of success in Argentina playing sort of on his natural side, on the right-hand side, a little bit almost as an old-fashioned winger.”

Austrian import

And then there’s attacking midfielder Hannes Wolf, a one-time wunderkind and “massive talent” out of Austria who arrives from Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach. The 24-year-old’s additional stops include Red Bull Salzburg, RB Leipzig and Swansea City – the type of Europe-centric résumé and age profile that’s not always found in MLS.

“He was going through a bit of a frustrating period in his career and I think this opportunity in MLS allows him to reset a little bit and come somewhere where he believes and we believe he can perform at a really high level in our team,” Lee said, confident Wolf's injuries are in the past.

“He's a player that's moved, and this is not a fault of his or a contribution of his, for maybe 20 million Euros at the age of 24 to two clubs. So it is unusual that those types of players come to MLS and I think that speaks volumes to the attraction of New York City FC and what we can do.”

Mijatović, Ojeda, Wolf, Perea and even defender Strahinja Tanasijević – they form a strong transfer window from a club that, just three years ago, lifted the league’s biggest prize. Plus their youthful core, reinforced by veterans like Sands, Keaton Parks and Martins, is back.

It leaves Lee hopeful, but cautious about what 2024 could mean.

“Lots of teams will be sitting here before the first game of the season, probably 29 of them, really optimistic for what's to come,” Lee said with a laugh.

“But I think when we look at the squad, we look at the roster, we look at the growth and potential of our team, it fills me with excitement. And I can't wait to get to Charlotte on the weekend and see how our team performs.”