From the outside, New York City FC seems a very similar team to what it was near the end of a disappointing 2020 campaign.
But there’s something different about NYCFC in 2021, at least according to the players and coaches putting in the work each day, after the club’s 2020 netted an ordinary regular season, a bizarre first-round MLS Cup playoff exit and an embarrassing blowout in the CONCACAF Champions League.
"I think there’s a hunger in this group now that I haven’t seen in a very long time," said goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the club’s new captain.
NYCFC kicks off its seventh season Saturday against DC United at 8 p.m. in Washington, eager to start fast in the ongoing quest for its first trophy. While the window to win may be closing on this core group, Johnson said the team is locked in and ready to prove itself.
"I think there’s always going to be pressure, especially coming off a season like we did last year," Johnson said. "When I say it feels different, I think everybody is committed to understanding that you can’t be leaving things up to a penalty shootout or getting to that point where we have control of the game, going up a man and not being able to kill games."
"There’s just something different about what this year means to each and every single person in the locker room and I think you’ll see that come out on the field this year."
The new season is the second under Norwegian head coach Ronny Deila, who has worked to instill a stronger culture that he believes finally is taking hold.
"It’s not about one day, it’s about years, and I think we changed a lot from where we were last year to now," Deila said. "The mentality we have now, it’s just fantastic to be the coach now because people really want something, people want to get better and people are willing to sacrifice everything to be the best version of themselves."
Improving the culture and mentality may be even more important given the lack of major additions and a handful of subtractions as two of the club’s three designated player spots sit unused. Offensive production likely will remain reliant on the health of attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez and striker Valentín Castellanos, with 20-year-old Brazilian Thiago Andrade added last week for much-needed depth.
Alex Ring no longer roams the midfield after a trade to Austin FC, making way for Keaton Parks and James Sands to take ownership. They’ll have some help from newly signed Bundesliga veteran Alfredo Morales as well as youngster Nicólas Acevedo, which also will allow Sands to fill in at centerback as needed.
Anton Tinnerholm is expected to put in another solid season as one of MLS’ best defenders, but without longtime fullback partner Ronald Matarrita, now with FC Cincinnati. The club added a few fullbacks in former Red Bulls youth product Chris Gloster, signed from PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and Denmark’s Malte Amundsen. Gudi Thórarinsson and Sebastien Ibeagha will be expected to take on larger roles as well.
A boost both to the roster and the mentality could come from an infusion of homegrown talent. In addition to Sands, recently signed to a long-term extension, 19-year-old Andres Jasson is expected to challenge for starting time right away after an impressive preseason on the wing, and 20-year-old Tayvon Gray may work his way into some fullback minutes.
Ultimately, Deila doesn’t seem too concerned about personnel, unlike when preseason kicked off in March. Instead, he remains focused on setting high standards and keeping his players responsible for one another on the training pitch.
"That’s the way forward for this club, because we always have good teams here, but they never win anything," Deila said. "And for me, it’s the way you train, the way you prepare the whole year, that’s going to end up with trophies."
That would be something quite different for NYCFC.