An MLS Cup champion has been crowned, the 2021 season is officially over and focus shifts to 2022 for all 28 (!) clubs as Charlotte FC also enters MLS.
Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
The champions are here.
New York City FC finally pushed through their playoff curse and finished on the right end of fortune, winning two penalty-kick shootouts and playing a less-than-full-strength Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference Final before beating the Portland Timbers on the road in MLS Cup 2021.
Three of their four wins came on the road, first beating the record-setting and Supporters' Shield-winning New England Revolution. Their entire playoff run came without two key starters: midfielder Keaton Parks and right back Anton Tinnerholm.
The playoffs can be cruel and random in one-game elimination matches. But NYCFC were the last team standing, winning their first trophy in MLS, with head coach Ronny Deila's post-game celebrations taking the internet by storm.
But there are a bunch of questions around this year's Cup-winning squad, with several key contributors already departing. NYCFC are among the teams to watch this winter.
After rejecting offers of around $5 million for Taty Castellanos and signing him to a new contract, it looks overwhelmingly likely that the Argentine forward will depart this winter.
That piece of business has aged incredibly well, by the way. Castellanos got a pay bump, NYCFC believed they had the core of an MLS Cup-caliber team and that Castellanos had another level to jump. He won the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi and starred down the stretch. His value has absolutely increased; it will take much more than $5 million to sign him now.
A host of clubs in Europe are reportedly interested, while Brazil's Palmeiras remain in the chase. They just signed Eduard Atuesta from LAFC, too. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola thinks his next move could be Europe, though.
"I think he is a guy who will do the next step in Europe," Guardiola said last week. "What I saw when the scouting department talked to me, I know he's a quality player and ready to make the next step to Europe and we will see where."
Castellanos, 23, had a career-best 19g/8a in 32 regular-season appearances last year and scored in all three playoff matches he was available for. Wherever his next step is, it'll be fun to watch another MLS export make waves.
James Sands flew a bit under the radar, both by nature of his steady, no-frills excellence on the field and his profile abroad. MLSsoccer.com has previously reported that clubs in Europe hoped to sign him and this winter might be the time to go. Even sporting director David Lee admitted that to The Athletic's Sam Stejskal.
"I think we’re open [to offers]," Lee told The Athletic. "We’re working with James. I think, like all players, every player wants to test themselves at the highest level that he can. And if an opportunity arises that we think is right, that James thinks is right, then we’ll consider it. And that’s our commitment to James, and I think it’s the right thing in terms of players to ensure that we’re going to help meet their ambitions and career goals."
Sands, 21, is NYCFC's first-ever homegrown signing, emerging from an academy that has also developed young German Bundesliga stars Giovanni Reyna and Joe Scally. The midfielder/defender has made 65 appearances for the Cityzens, featuring under coaches Patrick Vieira, Dome Torrent and Ronny Deila.
Slightly different than Castellanos and Sands, the Moralez topic spawns a different subset of questions.
First and foremost, of course, is officially sorting his return. NYCFC want him back and he wants to be back. Deals usually get done when that's the starting point, though nothing has been announced yet.
If Moralez does return as expected, will he be on a DP deal or max TAM?
Moralez turns 35 in February. He had a productive 2021 season, with 3g/11a in 30 appearances. He then was at his best in the playoffs with 1g/3a en route to winning MLS Cup. He still brings game-breaking talent and remains a damn good player, even if he's not at his peak.
If Moralez returns on a TAM deal, that opens a DP spot. With Talles Magno already on the books as a Young DP, NYCFC would have no restrictions on the type of player they could bring in as another DP, an exciting proposition for a club that's shown no fear in spending big on acquisition fees to acquire talent.
Moralez could still hit the roster as a DP and NYCFC could have room to sign another. It's not entirely transparent, though, depending on if Santiago Rodriguez would be bumped up to a DP spot from the U22 Initiative or not at any point between now and his loan expiring after next season, depending on what his future holds (be it staying with NYCFC or moving onto Europe).
As of now, NYCFC could theoretically sign another DP irrespective of what Moralez's designation is if he returns.
Even if Castellanos departs as expected, the NYCFC attack has incumbents ready to step into more minutes. Namely, Talles Magno.
A Brazil youth international, Magno was acquired for big money (reportedly around $8 million) in May from Vasco da Gama, a club he already made 61 appearances for prior to turning 19 this summer. He's clearly a big talent. But a knee injury he was still recovering from when he first joined NYCFC training, plus a glut of attacking options, limited him to just two goals in 444 regular-season minutes. He made his impact count in the playoffs, though, scoring the game-winning goal off the bench in the Eastern Conference Final to beat Philadelphia.
Next season, expectations will be huge. Magno's price tag, pedigree, City Football Group's scouting record and clearly evident talent will make sure of that. Plus, he'll be viewed as a key contributor in replacing Castellanos' impact in the attack.
This could be said of a few other young talents, too.
Thiago Andrade had 4g/2a in just under 1,000 minutes and should be set for more next year. Santiago Rodriguez was a preferred starter by the playoff run; he should improve upon 3g/1a from 2021. Nicolas Acevedo didn't find a ton of minutes behind Sands and Alfredo Morales in central midfield as the season went on (injury factored in here), but still has 36 MLS appearances and is a well-regarded midfielder. He's in line for a bigger role at the base of midfield if Sands departs.
NYCFC are deep and talented, even before signing any players this winter. Depth will be hugely important as they look to make some noise in the 2022 Concacaf Champions League and defend their MLS Cup crown.