Some players split a fanbase with their play. That’s rarely been the case for New York City FC’s Jesús Medina, and not in the fun, cult-hero kind of way.
The Paraguayan international joined NYCFC in 2018 as the club’s fifth-ever designated player in a slot vacated by Italian legend Andrea Pirlo. Through two seasons, Medina understandably failed to meet the lofty expectations that come with replacing an all-timer of the sport. He found himself out of favor in 2019, and NYCFC fans saw one of the club’s three allowed designated player contracts wasting away on the bench.
Fortunately for Medina, he’s not had to convince the City faithful of his ability, just first-year coach Ronny Deila, and convinced him Medina has.
The 23-year-old is having a moment of sorts for NYCFC as the club inches closer to the MLS Cup Playoffs. Medina scored in each of the last two games, including the lone goal in a victory over second-place Toronto FC on Wednesday night, and figures to be in the team for the next edition of the Hudson River Derby against the Red Bulls on Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
"When you score a goal, it does give you confidence because it makes you feel good about what you've been working on," Medina said through a translator earlier this week. "I felt that I was playing well and I was working well, but my game is more suited for a team game, it isn't all about goals, but at the same time, having a goal like that does help me."
After Medina made six starts in 2019 under Domènec Torrent, he’s been a fixture in the first 11 for much of a chaotic 2020 season, making 16 starts in 20 regular-season matches for Deila.
"The reason I love to play him is because I know exactly what I’ll get every game," Deila said. "He works really hard, he always is the guy who runs most. He is disciplined, he does his job offensively and defensively."
Medina’s NYCFC career began well enough as a regular starter for Patrick Vieira, and he continued to see the field when Torrent took over midway through 2018. But after 2,004 minutes played in 2018, his total dropped to 743 in 2019. The limited time appeared to hamper Medina’s ability to play his "team game," as his shot creating actions per 90 minutes dropped from 3.48 to 2.82, according to fbref.com.
Now with Deila’s backing, Medina may double his time played from a year ago despite a shorter regular season, already posting 1,318 minutes with two games left. His creating ability also rebounded with 3.78 shot creating actions per 90 minutes in 2020.
Both Deila and Medina concede that part of the player’s enhanced role simply is a numbers issue. With Maxi Moralez injured for much of the year, Medina saw some time playing centrally. Following the departure of fellow designated player Alexandru Mitrita and a season-ending injury to striker Héber, Medina is being asked to produce even more offensively, mostly from the wing.
Deila has seen a player in development with clear room for growth but still able to get a job done when asked.
"What he needs to improve, I told him and we talk about all the time, he has to be more effective and he has to create more in the last third of the pitch," Deila said. "[Wednesday], I think he did maybe his best game this season in that way. I think he was more straight to the goal, took people on, strong with his back to the goal."
Much of the high expectations surrounding Medina are tied to that expensive designated player tag and the nagging feeling it could be used on a more productive piece to the roster. But club sporting director David Lee recently told The Athletic that Medina’s deal is structured so he no longer counts as a DP after this season, and his contract is guaranteed for 2021.
Whatever his role on and off the field, and as long as he continues to improve, Medina appears to be part of Deila’s plan.
"If he keeps on working on his touches, be quicker on his touches, be quicker in his decisions in the last third, he is the player that we need to have," Deila said. "He’s still not there, he just has to keep on working, but in the bottom is the foundation and that’s what you have to rely and trust on, trust people, and I trust Jesús because I know he understands what he’s going to do and he delivers the easy things, and then we work on the more difficult things."