Tenorio: How Claudio Reyna, NYCFC recast the roster to join the MLS elite

The shift in direction at New York City FC was stark.

After starting the club’s history by chasing older, established players with lengthy resumes but higher prices, NYCFC hit the reset button and looked to focus on building a more well-rounded squad.

Only one Designated Player remains from that first season, David Villa, a league MVP who has belied age and proved himself to be one of the best purchases in league history. The biggest resume on the team now belongs to the coach, Patrick Vieira, who has helped direct a new identity for NYCFC.

Behind the scenes, former US national team captain and NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna has directed the soccer operations team, which has been able to take advantage of the resources the City Football Group has to offer, including a massive scouting infrastructure. The result is one of the best rosters in MLS, with players like 20-year-old Venezuelan Yangel Herrera, 20-year-old Paraguayan DP Jesus Medina and 27-year-old Finnish midfielder Alexander Ring.

Maxi Moralez, Alex Ring and Jesus Medina are part of an impressive roster rebuild for NYCFC | USA Today Sports Images

The roster build is the result of a philosophy that the club will look anywhere and everywhere for players that fit within the MLS roster rules and salary structures.

“We’re very open to finding players at any league, because I’m a big believer there are good players all over the world now,” Reyna told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s a global game and you have to really be open-minded about finding quality players because they are everywhere. I think our team at the moment proves that with the different nationalities we have. There are players coming from ‘smaller’ soccer nations, if you will, that can play at a higher level.”

The City Football Group scouting network and infrastructure has allowed NYCFC to shop at the higher levels of investment – Medina had a reported $4 million transfer fee, Maxi Moralez has a $2 million annual salary and Villa is among the higher paid players in the league – but also to find bargains on the international market. Ring is paid less than $400,000, according to last year’s MLS Players’ Union release, center back Alexander Callens made just $180,000 last season, and left back Ronald Matarrita was on just $200,000 before recently getting a contract extension with Targeted Allocation Money.

To find quality players at those price points is absolutely essential to being competitive in MLS. NYCFC has hit on several of them.

“It is certainly helpful that City Football Group’s scouting network does help us identify players and get information on players, because we have teams and scouts throughout Europe and South America and around the world,” Reyna said. “Getting information on players is always key and helps makes better decisions and we’re fortunate to have that. When it comes down to making decisions, they’re made locally and we have to be smart because they have to fit into our salary cap and rules that we have here [in MLS]. We’re able to certainly tap into the network and get information and feedback on players, and then from there we’re able to make better decisions with all that information.”

While players like Herrera, Medina, Villa and Moralez have been standouts for NYCFC, there have been some key finds from within the domestic market, as well.

Jonathan Lewis is part of a younger, more dynamic NYCFC. | USA Today Sports Images

New York City has focused on finding talent within the U.S. at multiple levels. They’ve added players like Sean Johnson and Ben Sweat, both of whom have thrived under Vieira after a change of scenery, as well as casting an eye to the lower divisions and the MLS SuperDraft, where players like Jack Harrison, since sold to Manchester City, have been picked and developed.

NYCFC’s sporting team — Reyna, technical director David Lee and the club’s director of scouting in the Concacaf region, Khaled El-Ahmad — make it a priority to seek out those types of under-the-radar or miscast players. Reyna said they scout the lower leagues carefully and that the club emphasized the SuperDraft in early seasons as they got their Development Academy up to speed. NYCFC traded significant amounts of allocation money to move up in the draft and select Harrison and 20-year-old American Jonathan Lewis in back-to-back years.

In a league with budget restrictions, finding value at every level within the U.S. and Canada is critical. NYCFC has also benefitted greatly from Vieira, who is regarded as one of the best coaches in MLS. Johnson, for example, was seen as a player who had not yet hit the prime years of his career with the Chicago Fire and could be brought along by NYCFC’s coaching staff.

This week, NYCFC unveiled a new 17-acre, first-team training facility in Orangeburg, New York, providing a permanent home for the club. And while NYCFC has signed two Homegrown players, the academy is still in its infancy, even compared to the overall Development Academy, which itself is only 11 years old. (Reyna said there is no update on any Homegrown contract for his son, Giovanni Reyna, a standout with NYCFC’s under-17 Academy team.)

The rival New York Red Bulls have built a hugely successful academy just down the road and their head start has led to a Homegrown-laden roster. That pathway has been boosted by a USL team that is stocked with academy-developed players. Reyna said NYCFC, which has a USL affiliation with San Antonio FC, hopes to launch its own USL team soon.

“We are still exploring a second team locally and what that could look like so that we can sign more players into a USL team,” Reyna said. “For now, we’re happy. Starting the academy three years ago with an under-14 team, there’s probably another year where we don’t have to have a USL team. … It’s something we’ve been exploring and we want to make sure we make the right decisions with how that’s done because it’s an important one. But yes, we’d like to have a second team more local so we can create that bridge between the academy and the first team.”

A USL team would be a big step for a club that has already come a long way since debuting in 2015. Already, though, Reyna and Vieira have put together a championship contender, and with the resources of City Football Group behind it, NYCFC looks to be an MLS power for the foreseeable future.

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