That’s plenty for the Cityzens faithful to savor through the long, cold winter. But focus naturally turns to their prospects for 2022. In a league marked by near-constant churn, only three champs in MLS history have successfully defended their crown, and it’s been nearly a decade since the last, the 2011 and 2012 LA Galaxy.
After Saturday’s penalty-kick triumph over the Portland Timbers, head coach Ronny Deila pointed out that they're a “young team,” with most of their recent arrivals “young players that have their careers in front of them,” which suggests decent prospects for going back to back.
But first, big questions must be answered by Deila, sporting director David Lee, president and CEO Brad Sims and the rest of the NYCFC brain trust in the coming months. Here’s a rundown.
NYCFC have the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner to thank for a large part of their title run. The Argentine striker got red-hot down the stretch, scoring nine goals in his final seven matches in the regular season and playoffs, including Saturday’s opener and their first penalty kick of the shootout that decided the result.
“This has been my best season here, I have fulfilled all my targets, knowing that I am at a club that has not been around very long and that I am totally a part of its [seven]-year history,” said Castellanos.
“Yes, we have had calls from some clubs, but for now I am focused here. I want to wait for the season to end, I want to lift the Cup, remain calm and then focus on the future. But yes, they are arriving, my representative writes to me and constantly asks how I am doing, and he passes on to me all the questions that come to him. We are in contact all the time to deal with the things that are coming in and will shortly make the best decision. Let's see how everything goes.”
Balague himself goosed the throttle on that hype train, declaring Taty “ready to make the jump to Europe” and adding, “I got the impression that he will be one of those bargains of the season in January, so keep an eye on that.”
The Cityzens need to find a mutually beneficial outcome here, ideally a lucrative transfer that bolsters both the club’s reputation and its coffers for acquiring reinforcements.
NYCFC may have gotten younger in recent years but they remain rather dependent on one of their oldest players. Moralez has been the hub of their possession game since his arrival in 2017 from Liga MX's Club Leon, and now he’s out of contract with his 35th birthday fast approaching.
The club don’t have a true like-for-like playmaking successor on the roster, much less one as proven as the diminutive Argentine, so a new deal for another year or two would seem to benefit both parties.
“We have been talking to him for some time; I think our intention is we'd like to keep him,” Lee told journalist Glenn Crooks earlier this month, but cautioned that there is “still a lot of work to do” to clinch an agreement. City need to both keep Maxi around and prepare for life after he’s gone.
As for Moralez, he seems content in City Blue. Reaching a new deal isn't necessarily straightforward, though.
“In the future, everything else will come in due time," he told my colleague Jonathan Sigal during the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. "My family is happy here, I'm happy here. I've been at the club for five years, so we'll see how everything pans out.”
Long seen as a richly promising talent, the rising US men’s national teamer produced a breakthrough 2021, advancing his international career while becoming a battle-tested regular for NYCFC.
Sands also harbors European aspirations, and while he could probably use another season of MLS experience – especially with 2022 World Cup qualifying still running hot and heavy – that clock will tick louder with each strong central-midfield performance.
Deila is clearly a fan of the 21-year-old homegrown, and needs to put Sands to the best possible use while preparing both player and club for the eventual move.
“James, what can I say, he’s been good the whole season,” said Deila after the Cup win. “He can play every position on the pitch, almost, from midfield and back. And he has sacrificed himself for the team, playing right back in some games, he can play in the center back, right, left, he played midfield, he played in a three-back.
“And also attitude – every day first in the training center, going last. Does everything right all the time, wants to achieve something, has ambitions, unbelievable, clever football player. So this is just the start of a big career for him.”
Two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara joked now and then about hating to compete in Concacaf Champions League when the topic arose on the podcast he used to host with Benny Feilhaber and Sal Zizzo. It wasn’t that he minded the opportunity for him and his old Sporting Kansas City teammates to test themselves against the region’s elite, so much as he dreaded the extra wear and tear the competition imposed on him and his teammates.
CCL participants usually must start preseason earlier than their MLS counterparts, ramp up their fitness levels more aggressively and then juggle long trips, difficult conditions and demanding international opposition in the early phases of their seasons. It can take a real toll, as Toronto FC’s 2018 and SKC’s 2019 campaigns showed.
NYCFC secured MLS’ final spot in the 2022 CCL with their MLS Cup win. They also participated in the 2020 edition of the tournament, giving Deila and much of their current squad a taste of the experience. On Saturday he mentioned CCL as something to look forward to, much as he did with this year’s Leagues Cup.
“To me, it's about experience. When you are in Europe and you're playing the domestic league, it is one thing, but when you play internationally you develop yourself more,” Deila said back in August. “That's why you want players in the national team to play at the highest level, and for us it’s to play teams now in the highest level. In Mexico, they have many really good teams.”
Given their resources and ambition, NYCFC’s CCL approach figures to be intriguing. The draw is set for Dec. 15.
As tired as their supporters – and probably plenty of club officials, too – are of talking about it, the inevitable fact remains that Yankee Stadium is an imperfect home for the Cityzens. Fitting a soccer pitch onto a baseball field is one thing, but having to play a sizeable chunk of their home games elsewhere due to scheduling conflicts with the MLB's Bronx Bombers (often at rival Red Bull Arena in 2021) is quite another.
Sims shared some notable insight into the topic during a recent conversation with The Athletic, discussing the sites currently in the mix to eventually host a soccer-specific venue for NYCFC, the urgent desire to get moved into the future home by the time the World Cup returns to North America in 2026 – and how the groundshare figures to impact the Cityzens’ schedules until then.
“I don’t anticipate playing all of our home games at one venue any year until we have our own stadium,” Sims said. “We’re anticipating roughly two-thirds at Yankee Stadium, one-third at [the Mets’] Citi Field.”
Deila & Co. have adeptly managed that reality thus far. They have been excellent in the Tri-State area: Only four teams in MLS won more home games than NYC in 2021. But the club’s massive potential both on and off the field won’t approach maximum fulfillment until they have a home of their very own.
With the front office working intently, a new mayor (Eric Adams) taking office and a championship trophy raising everyone’s spirits, there’s real optimism of a breakthrough, or at least significant progress, in 2022.