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Congested end to MLS schedule will test NYCFC's lineup depth

New York City FC coach Ronny Deila looks

New York City FC coach Ronny Deila looks on during a match on August 29, 2020 at Red Bull Arena. Credit: Major League Soccer/Katie Cahalin

New York City FC soon may learn just how deep a squad it has.

The club is expected to play 11 matches before the Major League Soccer regular season ends on Nov. 8, a fairly grueling finish long expected but cemented Tuesday as MLS revealed the remainder of its schedule beyond Sunday. NYCFC’s slate the rest of the way includes four mid-week games and no weekends off, with road matches in Miami, Orlando, Columbus and Chicago, plus a trip to Hartford to face the displaced Toronto FC.

While City has gone six matches without a loss in the last month to reach fifth place in the Eastern Conference, this 46-day stretch likely will put the club’s depth into focus more than any other time in this fragmented season, something NYCFC coach Ronny Deila seems more than comfortable with thanks to a largely fit squad at his disposal.

"We don’t have many injuries now, in a squad with so many players, you always have something. We have some small issues all the time but I think every team has that," Deila said. "I think our depth is really strong, and I’m confident going into these games with a short distance between them."

NYCFC (5-5-2, 17 points) rotated its lineup as much as ever under Deila the last time out, missing five starters for a variety of reasons in a scoreless draw Saturday at the New England Revolution. The relatively quick turnaround against Toronto on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena will see the return of a few, Deila said, including midfielder James Sands from suspension, defender Anton Tinnerholm from rest, and midfielder Jesús Medina and defender Ronald Matarrita from injury.

But attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez, crucial to NYCFC’s creativity in the final third, remains unavailable. As the games come fast for City, Deila said he’ll be thinking a match or two ahead when picking his best team moving forward, making new looks and lineup combinations a virtual inevitability.

"I always play the team I think is best to win. Of course, when you have a really tight program, you have to see more than one game, and now we have three days between two important games," Deila said. "That's the first time this year, and for me that's different from four days to three days. So, I'm thinking two games now ahead, the game against Toronto and the Cincinnati game [on Sunday], and will use the squad. Again, I picked out a team in the weekend that was available and I think was the best to play in that game, and now we have more people available, so we'll see what we pick tomorrow."

Deila is showing he’s not afraid to spread the opportunities around, including to prospects. Against the Revs, he determined his best lineup to win included a pair of players making the starting 11 in an MLS match for the first time. Lake Grove-raised homegrown player Joe Scally took his place at right back for Tinnerholm, held out to preserve his legs on the artificial surface at Gillette Stadium, while young Uruguayan midfielder Nicolás Acevedo served as a replacement for the suspended Sands.

"During the week we do different things with tactics to face the other team, I realized I was in the lineup," Scally said after the match. "I had nerves, but I was very excited because I've been waiting for this start."

Acevedo echoed Scally’s excitement Tuesday, acknowledging he needs to get used to the speed and intensity of MLS compared with his past experience in Uruguay. While he hopes to be included moving forward, he’s happy to provide exactly what NYCFC needs right now — depth.

"I want to play as many minutes as I can and help the team," Acevedo said through a translator. "What one tries to do is to be part of the team and to add to the team, be part of the group and be somebody positive for the group."

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