New York City FC head coach Ronny Deila celebrates after...

New York City FC head coach Ronny Deila celebrates after an MLS playoff soccer match against the Philadelphia Union, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Chester, Pa.  Credit: AP/Chris Szagola

It was a year of firsts in Ronny Deila’s second season with New York City FC.

The first trophy in club history. The first MLS Cup for a New York-area club. The first championship win by any New York professional team in nearly a decade.

As NYCFC begins a new season, Deila and the club have a chance to stay in the history-making business.

City opens its 2022 campaign Tuesday in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 opening leg, visiting Santos de Guápiles F.C. of Costa Rica at 8 p.m. on FS2. It is the first step in NYCFC’s quest to become Major League Soccer’s first team to lift the continent’s top club prize, a goal not dampened by City’s recent league title.

"It’s not less important, we really want to do it," Deila told Newsday. "It’s tough, nobody’s ever done it before. So again, we can be historical. That’s our goal, to go into that competition and try to win it."

The CONCACAF Champions League features qualifiers from MLS, Mexico and across Central America and the Caribbean in a 16-team bracket, each round consisting of two legs. It will take aggregate wins over four rounds of competition for NYCFC to claim the title, won only by Mexican clubs in the competition’s current format. The journey starts against Santos, which makes its CCL debut after finishing sixth in last season’s CONCACAF League.

NYCFC’s season kicks off just two months after a penalty-kick finish in MLS Cup won the title over the Portland Timbers. After a City Hall celebration, a few player departures and a month of recovery, the club reconvened for preseason training and scrimmages in Orlando and Cancún before heading to San José, Costa Rica, for the CCL opener.

 

Deila said he’s not concerned about a short offseason’s impact on his players, especially since it meant time to train in warmer climates. He also doesn’t expect any sort of mental let-down from the high of the title run.

"I think we've worked a lot about culture," the coach said. "We take away the result and we think about process, getting better, and I think that's into everybody in the club right now. We have been good. We know what we did three months ago is not good enough the next year. We need to improve ourselves, and if everybody can get five or 10% better, then we have a good chance to do something again."

Looking back at 2021, Deila said he believes NYCFC was a deserving champion, "a little bit ahead" of their competition. But recent history for other MLS champions has Deila wary of getting comfortable.

"If we think we are something and start relaxing, then goes two weeks and they are better than us again," Deila said. "We saw that with Columbus last year, you see what happened with Toronto and the two L.A. teams — big teams that are not even coming into the playoffs."

Key to NYCFC’s success will be finding a balance in roster turnover. Ahead of last season, Deila publicly stated his desire for more players to make the team more competitive in matches and training, and the club responded with several signings key to the playoff run.

"We are in a better place now than we were last year, for sure," said Deila. "I think we are still one or two players too few, because we lost five or six players from last year and we’ve only brought in one. But what’s good here is we added a lot of young players last year, they did really well and are now one year older and hopefully one year better and we’ll keep on improving them, and then we have the opportunity to be better than we were last year."

The club did part ways with three MLS Cup starters in James Sands, Jesús Medina and Gudi Thórarinsson, but has natural replacements for the latter two on the roster. Its lone major addition thus far is Thiago Martins, a 26-year-old centerback signed to a designated player contract from City Football Group sister club Yokohama F. Marinos to fill the defensive void left by Sands. A few more players would give Deila the healthy amount of turnover he desires.

"I think that's important, especially when you're winning. If you have the same players, everything the same, it's easy to be a little complacent and just know your place and everything is on autopilot," Deila said. "I think it's better when you get some new faces in and you create different energy and dynamic in the group. Coming in, Thiago Martins is already giving us something, so hopefully we can get some more players in."

That energy will be helpful Tuesday for an NYCFC squad with a target on its back to go with the shiny new championship star above its badge.

"You meet a team in the Champions League away, you know that they're going to go after you at the beginning and it's going to be tough," Deila said. "So we have to defend really well and we have to take our chances when we get them."

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