Once upon a time, New York City FC were home to the so-called aging superstar.

You could go to Yankee Stadium and watch legends of the game, one last push before hanging up their boots. World Cup and Champions League winners, guys whose trophy cabinets were stuffed to the brim with team and individual accolades alike. A sea of Spain, England and Italy kits from over the years in the stands, featuring the names of current NYCFC stars on the back.

David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo headlined the Cityzen's first couple of seasons. They're players that every casual soccer fans knows, irrespective of their MLS fandom. It was exciting and, in turn, these legends were supposed to inspire wins and drive interest.

That club-building philosophy has faded at NYCFC, as those players slowly trickled out and the sporting strategy evolved.

“I hear that a lot, about the big names,” NYCFC CEO Brad Sims told media on a virtual roundtable. “Getting big-name players does not necessarily translate to winning in MLS. By the way, it doesn’t necessarily translate to commercial success, for NYCFC or other teams. It’s challenging, those are not usually investments that generate a positive ROI (return on investment).”

Frank Lampard - David Villa - Andrea Pirlo

In the club’s inaugural 2015 season, they recorded just two wins in the eight games that Villa, Lampard and Pirlo all appeared in. They averaged 0.8 points per game during that span, while averaging 1.1 points per game that same season while missing at least one of those players. The next season had improvement, as the team won seven of the 14 games all three stars started, averaging 1.7 PPG.

Lampard left after the 2016 season, Pirlo after 2017 and Villa after 2018. Their DP spots have since been occupied by Maxi Moralez (signed at age 30), Jesus Medina (20) and Alexandru Mitrita (24).

Sims himself joined the club after the 2018 season, while sporting director David Lee was promoted to the role in 2019 after originally joining the club in 2017 under now-Austin FC sporting director Claudio Reyna.

“If there were situations where they definitely would translate to wins and championships, that’s one thing. If we felt that was the case, we would have continued on that trajectory.” Sims said. “But if you look at ‘big-names’ at NYCFC for the first four years versus the last two years, we have had more success on the pitch. More points per game, the number two team in all of MLS the last two years alone, with no big names. We’ve had more success with the current strategy.”

NYCFC topped the Eastern Conference standings in 2019, finishing second in the Supporters' Shield race behind a record-breaking LAFC. Last year, in Ronny Deila's first year at the helm, the club finished fifth in the East before exiting in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs to Orlando City.

Expect the club to continue doubling down on this ethos.

MLS introduced a new U-22 initiative this winter, incentivizing teams to re-sign homegrown talent to more lucrative deals or acquire younger players across the globe. NYCFC made quick use of the new mechanism, acquiring 20-year-old rising Brazilian winger Thiago Andrade.

“These are things that we feel, quite frankly, we’re better positioned for than other teams in the league,” Sims said. “We think it’s something we’ll benefit from because of the competitive advantage we feel we have with the global scouting network and global footprint within CFG.”

New York City FC 2021 Season Preview

It could also open up more loans for City Football Group signings to develop at NYCFC. They were the home of successful loans for left back Angelino, who has since become a staple at RB Leipzig, and midfielder Yangel Herrera, a constant at La Liga side Grenada.

“We do believe we have a competitive advantage over other MLS clubs with our ties to City Football Group with the extensive scouting and footballing network,” Sims said. “It allows us to get better, find more players at better prices because we have a broader range we’re ultimately looking at. That’s the key.”

NYCFC’s offseason has been a bit slower than fans may have hoped. After trades of Alex Ring and Ronald Matarrita, the club acquired left backs Malte Amundsen and Chris Gloster before signing midfielder Alfredo Morales and Andrade.

“I just want to be clear: This isn't a way to spend less money,” Sims said. “This is a way to be smarter at how we invest our dollars. City Football Group has never been more ambitious, we’re being challenged every day. Dave, Ronny and the scouts. Find the best players. In this COVID world, maybe there’s more opportunities.”

The club believes this is the path to their first-ever trophy.

“Fans want to support winners and teams that win consistently more so than a big-name player,” Sims said. “... Ambition is extremely high. We are extremely passionate about winning, it’s something I appreciate about our group. The focus on winning, everywhere.”