New York City FC enter 2022 with a target on their backs courtesy of last season’s impressive run to their first MLS Cup championship.
For head coach Ronny Deila, the mindset required to defend that title can also power a deep run in Concacaf Champions League, starting with Tuesday night’s tricky Round of 16 first-leg visit to Costa Rican side Santos de Guapiles (8 pm ET | FS2, TUDN in US; OneSoccer in Canada).
“It’s not about them. It's about us,” Deila said in his matchday-1 media availability Monday afternoon. “If we do a good performance, they’re going to have to be very good to have any chance to beat us. We play bad, then there's going to be trouble. I think the players know that, everybody knows that.
“It's more about how we perform and how we get into the game, because we are so confident that we know that when we are on our best, we can beat them, and beat almost anybody.”
It’s not so much that NYCFC are underrating Santos, the highest-scoring team in Liga FPD’s fall Apertura season, a side with ample international experience via Concacaf League and a transition-centric game model that could work well in CCL.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” said Deila, whose team defeated another Tico opponent, AD San Carlos, at this stage in their first CCL foray two years ago. “This is a big, big game for Santos, of course, coming so far in the Champions League and New York City is coming to visit, so we know they’re going to come with a lot of energy. So we have to be ready for that: take the fight, win challenges, stay together and be very, very hard to play against, and that was our strength last year.
“They are a direct team, good in crosses, good in winning second balls and playing from that. So we have to be disciplined, be up for the game and the fight, and we have to play our style offensively, so we get them to move, and create the chances we need to win the game.”
Deila wants to keep his team on an upward trajectory after last year’s heroics, staving off complacency and setting expectations high, starting with a committed attack on the Champions League mountain that no modern MLS team has conquered.
“We're in a much better place now than we were two years ago,” said the Norwegian, noting that this winter’s relatively short offseason helped his players maintain strong fitness levels. “We have been here one time, we know what it’s about, we have been together for two years, I know the players, they know me. We had a lot of success in terms of belief and confidence. I feel that everybody in the club is so eager to do something here in this tournament. So we are looking forward to the game now, we feel ready.”
Deila revealed that midfielder Alfredo Morales contracted COVID-19 during City’s preseason camp in Mexico and is out for this week’s match, though Keaton Parks has returned from injury and is available for selection.
The status of star striker Valentin “Taty” Castellanos has also been a hot topic, with the Argentine reportedly the subject of multiple transfer bids from River Plate and Palmeiras, and said to be keen on a move to Europe sooner than later. While admitting that the final decision on the matter is “not in my hands,” Deila sounded optimistic that his spearhead will stick around in good spirits until the summer window, at least.
“I don’t think he has any problem. When you're an attractive club and you’re doing well, there’s always interest around our players. So he is professional. We are professional. He's our player right now. And we’re preparing for the game with Taty, and that's of course very good for us, because he’s a fantastic football player. But I can also understand that there's a lot of interest around him,” he said.
“He’s a great player, anyone would be interested in him. But I haven’t heard anything, nothing new, and the window in Europe is closed. So I'm preparing with Taty for the season and into the summer, but things change quick in football.”
News reports indicate that Santos will be without three key players – Jamaican striker Javon East, Mexican defender Everardo Rubio and Cuban attacker Luis Paradela – in the wake of an investigation into work permitting that has ruled them ineligible for action on Costa Rican soil.
Deila wasn’t ready to take their presumed absence at face value, however. He and his squad are approaching this series as the first step in a much longer path towards more trophies like the one they hoisted in Portland back in December.
“This competition motivates us,” said veteran center back Alexander Callens in Spanish. “Everything is possible and working together, we can achieve something. I think that we already have experience with that and so we have to continue along that line.”