Santiago Rodríguez at striker?! DP produces "masterclass" for NYCFC


Santiago Rodríguez, over his last two-plus seasons at New York City FC, mainly played on the wing or in a central playmaking role.

But the Uruguayan No. 10 had a new role tossed his way Saturday evening at Citi Field.

Head coach Nick Cushing deployed the 23-year-old as a central forward in the club’s 4-3-3 system, a tactical shift that paid dividends in a 3-1 victory over FC Dallas. Rodríguez scored the Cityzens’ first two goals, tallying in the 44th and 50th minutes before Talles Magno’s near-range finish put the game to bed.

Rodríguez didn’t fancy the positional change at first, though.

“I honestly had doubts about the position that Nick [Cushing] chose for me,” Rodríguez admitted postgame. “It is a bit different to what I am used to. I felt uncomfortable the first couple of minutes and more than anything, I felt frustrated in terms of not having the ball. After that, I started to adapt more into the game and that served me well to get the two goals.”

That patience paid off, giving Rodríguez his first career MLS brace and the biggest indicator yet of why NYCFC gave the South American attacker a Designated Player contract in early March. That’s when, after months of uncertainty over Rodríguez’s possible return, he officially put pen to paper on a long-term deal from Montevideo City Torque. Previously, he was on loan from the Uruguay-based City Football Group sister side.

Rodríguez is viewed in many respects as the heir apparent to club legend Maxi Moralez, who departed in the offseason to return to Argentine boyhood side Racing Club. With that comes both responsibility and expectation, which Cushing said shows up in spades.

“I can’t say enough good things about Santi Rodríguez,” Cushing gushed postgame. “His work rate is excellent, his presence and rapport that he has with his teammates, and the presence that he has within the locker room, he is far above his years. Obviously he is a young player, but he has a real maturity and a real presence in the locker room.”

Cushing believes there’s another level their new DP can reach, mentioning him in the same light as 2022 Best XI presented by Continental Tire attackers from Philadelphia Union, Austin FC and Nashville SC.

“I look at moments in other games where I think his numbers should be a little bit higher in assists and goals,” Cushing said. “We look at the likes of \[Daniel\] Gazdag, \[Sebastián\] Driussi, and \[Hany\] Mukhtar in the past seasons, you have to be in those high 20s or low 30s for goals and assists if you want to be a top offensive player. I believe Santi [Rodríguez] can and will get there this season for us.”

As for the long-term? Cushing pumped the brakes on using Rodríguez as a No. 9, saying the tactical challenges FC Dallas presented resulted in the change. Come their Matchday 10 trip to Toronto FC next Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), they may switch it up.

“Will we do that every game? No. We go to a really difficult Toronto team where we may need a focal point,” Cushing said. “We may need someone to run in behind. We may need a real physical presence up there. Every game is different.

“For what we asked the team, and in particular Santi tonight, I thought it was a masterclass. Not only in the goals but also tactically, the spaces that he played in and the decisions that he made on the ball.”

NYCFC also have two U22 Initiative spots open, so could look elsewhere in finding a week-in, week-out striker to lead the line – much like Taty Castellanos did before his loan last summer to LaLiga’s Girona FC. They’ve also put Magno up top this year, though shifted him to the wing recently, and given college soccer product Gabe Segal an extended run-out as a No. 9.

In the meantime, NYCFC are relishing the talent Rodríguez brings.

“He’s an amazing player,” said fellow recent signing Richy Ledezma. “You saw it tonight, two goals and you know when he’s feeling himself he’s feeling himself. I’m happy for him and we keep going.”