MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Three big questions following NYCFC's 2022 season


MLS Cup 2022 is set, with just two teams left standing in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. That means the other 26 clubs (plus St. Louis!) are in full offseason mode. The Conference Finalists are the latest to see their seasons end and the offseason begin.

Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. 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 (NYCFC version). Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

Big picture

Reigning MLS Cup champions NYCFC had a rollercoaster ride of a season. A strong start was followed by losing head coach Ronny Deila and star forward Taty Castellanos in the summer, which fueled an extended poor run of form. They recovered and advanced back to the Eastern Conference Final in convincing fashion, but fell 3-1 to the Philadelphia Union.

NYCFC are set up well for the future, though have a few pressing questions that need addressing.

Will Nick Cushing be named manager?

First and foremost, NYCFC need to decide who their next head coach is going to be.

Cushing, who was an assistant at NYCFC after a productive spell as women’s head coach at Manchester City, was named interim manager after Deila left in mid-June for Standard Liege. The 37-year-old is highly rated by those at the club and City Football Group. It seemed like the last five months would be an audition to keep the full-time job.

It didn’t go great at first, but it’s not easy taking over a team on the fly. Dome Torrent struggled to replace Patrick Vieira midseason in 2018, as did Chris Armas for Jesse Marsch that same year with the New York Red Bulls. It’s particularly hard when you lose a player like Castellanos, who was a favorite for MVP honors before departing.

NYCFC struggled mightily over a 10-game stretch in the summer, but recovered and played some of their best soccer in the fall, starting with a Campeones Cup win and impressive performances in MLS play. They were legitimately dominant for the better part of 2.5 playoff games, too.

"Of course I want to come back next year," Cushing said after NYCFC lost in the ECF. “I think you’ve seen from the moment I came in here that I will take responsibility for the results, whatever happens. You know, we’ve had some exceptional results this year. We had a period where it was really disappointing and we’ve been able to turn that around and finish third in the [Eastern] Conference and make it to the [Eastern] Conference Final.”

Did Cushing do enough to keep the job?

What happens with out-of-contract stars Callens, Johnson and Tinnerholm?

NYCFC have three core players who are out of contract: Alex Callens, Anton Tinnerholm and Sean Johnson. Johnson and Callens will be two of the three most-coveted free agents on the market within MLS. Tinnerholm will be one of the top two right backs and would be more sought after if not for just returning from a long-term injury (ruptured Achilles tendon).

All three will have options. It feels unlikely all three can be re-signed. Will they lose one? Or two? How can they be replaced? These are big questions, not just for their on-field production (very good) but also the core/culture. All three have been at the Cityzens for years, throughout continued success.

Johnson, 33, was signed in 2017. The goalkeeper and captain earned MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi honors in 2021 and was strong again this year. Callens, 30, also was signed in 2017 and has shown flexibility across the backline. Tinnerholm, 31, arrived a year later.

NYCFC have picked up the third-most cumulative points in MLS since 2018. This trio has been integral to that.

Primarily 3-4-3 next year or back to 4-3-3?

A few factors went into everything clicking down the stretch this year for NYCFC. Some players returning from injury (Callens missed a month and was right back in the lineup; Keaton Parks featured off the bench) helped a ton, but the biggest difference was going to a 3-4-3 formation full-time.

NYCFC won their final three regular-season games, played Miami and Montréal off the pitch in the first two rounds of the playoffs and gave Philly everything they could handle in the ECF.

In modern soccer, all teams need multiple systems. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of both looks. But which will be Plan A? Which will be the fastball they go to when they need a result?

This depends on personnel, of course. Callens was phenomenal as a left center back who pushed forward aplenty. As already detailed, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back. They could use another ball-playing center back to dictate possession as well. James Sands was perfect for this system in their Cup run in 2021 before heading out to Rangers in Scotland.

One issue with 3-4-3 is, simply numerically, it adds another defender and takes away a spot for an attacker. Their attack has Talles Magno, Santi Rodríguez, Gabriel Pereira, Thiago Andrade and Héber. I didn’t even mention natural No. 10 Maxi Moralez because he played deeper in the 3-4-3 (or at least not as a traditional No. 10). There could be more attacking additions this winter. It’s difficult to balance minutes.

Depth chart as of Oct. 31
NYCFC year-end roster Bogert 2022

A few more thoughts:

  • Speaking of Moralez, he was awesome at the end of the year. He has a contract option himself and turns 36 in February. He’ll be back…. right?
  • Unless Thiago Martins’ contract is descending year over year, I don’t believe it’s possible to buy him down off his DP spot, so NYCFC may have the top of their roster set.
  • Is Kevin O’Toole a long-term answer at LWB?