In NYCFC sporting director David Lee’s estimation, it was a historic period.
“To put it into context off the top of my head, I think we signed four players in the last five years in the summer transfer window prior to this year,” Lee told MLSsoccer.com. “We signed six this summer and with three outgoing. So it was exponentially larger than anything we've had prior to now. Hugely busy, lots of phone calls, lots of work, both building up to the transfer window and obviously throughout it to make sure that we could improve the team.”
Often, MLS clubs are active summer transfer participants for one of two reasons: 1) trying to strengthen a contender for a trophy push or 2) needing to improve their squad in hopes of vaulting above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line.
NYCFC uncharacteristically fall into the latter group this year, emerging from the Leagues Cup break at 13th place in the Eastern Conference, four points off the postseason pace with 10 regular-season games remaining. For context (and contrast), the Cityzens have made the last two Eastern Conference Finals and raised trophies in the last two seasons (MLS Cup in 2021, Campeones Cup in 2022). They also haven’t missed the playoffs since their 2015 expansion season.
Given this regression, NYCFC got to work near and far. U22 Initiative forwards Julián Fernández and Mounsef Bakrar were acquired. Club legend Maxi Moralez returned in midfield as a free agent. International signings Birk Risa (center back) and Alonso Martínez (winger) added depth, ditto for MLS-experienced midfielder Andrés Perea (loan from Philadelphia).
There were clear positions of need on NYCFC’s roster, creating a checklist for Lee and his support staff to work through. As the dust settles, Lee is optimistic they’ll have a say in the business end of the season.
“We know we have left ourselves a more difficult mountain to climb than we would like to get to where we want to be at the end of the season,” Lee said. “But there's 10 games left, we have seven at home, 30 points remaining, almost a third of the season left to go. There's an awful lot of season left to play.
“Now it's about trying to make sure we can sort of integrate and amalgamate the group that we have now because if we can perform at a similar or better level as we have through particularly the last few weeks, excluding maybe the Red Bull game, then I think we're going to achieve the results that we want to the rest of the season and that will obviously turn into playoff qualification. Then, as always in MLS, it's all about the teams that can handle playoff competition, which is totally different from the regular season.”
Seasons of change
The follow-up question is why NYCFC needed to acquire so many players this summer. And answers arrive as quickly as last offseason, when goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defender Alexander Callens, Moralez and more departed – bedrock figures that were constants in NYCFC being a perennial contender.
The Cityzens expected some departures via free agency or other means, Lee said, just not the sheer quantity that surfaced.
“We were certainly hoping that one or two of those players who decided to leave would remain,” Lee said. “We were also constrained by the same roster regulations as everybody else, and typically when you have the type of success that we have had, particularly in 2021, 2022, it becomes really difficult to keep those players.
“You have essentially a smaller salary budget than every other team in the league because you've been successful. If you've been successful, generally your players are performing at a high level, they have interest from elsewhere that raises the value of those contracts and that becomes difficult to renew and keep them. So all of those things factored into making a challenging window where we needed to replace some of our players.”
The replacements started arriving in January – goalkeeper Matt Freese, fullbacks Mitja Ilenič and Braian Cufré, and midfielders Santiago Rodríguez, James Sands and Richy Ledezma all joined last winter.
Yet things felt incomplete as 2023 began. The team lacked a high-level striker NYCFC fans have come to expect, and center back was another clear area of need. Further questions surfaced in early July when leading scorer Gabriel Pereira was transferred to the Qatari first division.
Amid all the squad shuffling, Lee is confident the roster is strong enough to ascend into the playoff field and make some noise.
“When you lose the number of players we did, it’s very, very difficult to assume that's going to all come back in one transfer window,” Lee said. “We certainly hope the summer has gone another way to retooling the group and then it will be a continual process. We go into every transfer window trying to improve the team and I think we've done that now. I'm excited to see what this group could do over the remaining part of the season.”
Neymar to MLS?
All the while, NYCFC are one of several MLS clubs linked to Brazilian superstar and Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar. Lee addressed the reports, noting the league’s transfer window is closed and only free agents can be signed until the Roster Freeze Date on Sept. 15.
“That rules out any player who's under contract to any other club, whether it be Neymar or anybody else. For right now, that's simple,” Lee said.
Neymar, 31, is currently under contract with PSG through June 2025, meaning he’d only become available via a contract termination or what’s likely a sizable transfer fee. Similar to when Lionel Messi joined Inter Miami CF this summer, Neymar would also likely require a Designated Player roster spot.
“Ultimately it's not something that's entertained or discussed right now, but if those opportunities were to exist for him or any other big-name player that we think can add on the pitch and off it, then we'll discuss and see if that can make sense for us and if we can make it work for the player, for their family, for us as a club. We'll always look at those opportunities,” Lee said.
NYCFC, in terms of club philosophy, haven’t veered towards superstars since their early days when David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard were at the club. Instead, leaning on the City Football Group scouting network and a youth-development eye, they’re more keen to build around a collective.
Lee noted as much, highlighting their recent transfers of Pereira and Taty Castellanos for what’s reportedly north of $25 million. Castellanos, who spent last year on loan at LaLiga sister side Girona FC, has joined Italian Serie A contenders Lazio.
“It's not been something we've done regularly in the last number of years, and we've proven to had a huge amount of success in our way of building and the work that we've done,” Lee said.
“I think we take probably, honestly, just as much pride in developing someone like Taty who we acquired for almost zero and nobody would have had any idea who he was before he arrived, and now he's a player who's going to play in the Champions League at the age of 23, 24. That's a core part of who we are, but when good players become available, whether they're a big name or not, we want to discuss it and see if it's possible to make it work for New York.”
There’s also the big-picture piece, with NYCFC slated to open their soccer-specific stadium in 2027 as construction begins in the Willets Point neighborhood of Queens. That project, ending the club's use of Yankee Stadium and Citi Field as home venues, should spring NYCFC even further forward.
“It's my job to try to make sure that we have a team that can be competitive and try to win championships as consistently as we possibly can, and that's the goal so that we move into the stadium in 2027 maybe we have more than one MLS Cup, we have other trophies that we've won to put into our trophy cabinet when we open that stadium,” Lee said.
“That will be a monumental moment for us to continue and kickstart our growth again as a football club.”
For now, Neymar links aside, NYCFC are focused on a late-season push. It’s ultimately how their 2023 season, amid all the roster changes, will be judged.
“I'm really pleased with where we are now as we look upon the close of the window and we look at the roster now, I think we've achieved our objectives to improve our group and improve our team,” Lee said. “So we're getting ready and looking forward to the last 10 games of the season."