Maxime Chanot #4 of New York City FC (right) defends...

Maxime Chanot #4 of New York City FC (right) defends Chris Mueller #8 of Chicago Fire during the first half at SeatGeek Stadium on August 21, 2022 in Bridgeview, Illinois.  Credit: Getty Images/Michael Reaves

Fourteen months ago, New York City FC lifted the MLS Cup, making club legends out of the day’s heroes. Striker Valentín Castellanos scored the team’s lone goal. Midfielder Maxi Moralez assisted that score and later buried his shootout attempt. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson saved multiple penalties. Defender Alex Callens netted the deciding kick, jumping away in celebration of City’s first title.

None of the above players remain in New York. Just three of the 11 players to start in that championship match against Portland officially are with the club. Only four of the 11 to start last season’s Eastern Conference final loss are still in town.

Yet NYCFC remains among the betting favorites entering the 2023 Major League Soccer season, with coach Nick Cushing and veteran centerback Maxime Chanot pleased by the squad’s level entering Saturday’s season opener at Nashville SC.

“The preseason has gone very well. To be honest, I was a little surprised,” Chanot said. “As you say, we lost several key players who’ve been very successful in this club and have a strong legacy. We didn’t know how the young players will adapt to that, but they did very well.”

NYCFC’s season likely will be defined by how it copes with losing those club icons. That starts at keeper, a spot locked down by former captain Johnson for six seasons until his offseason departure for Toronto FC. Who will take up that mantle is unclear entering opening weekend. 2019 MLS SuperDraft pick Luis Barraza served as Johnson’s backup the last four seasons but faces competition from Matt Freese, acquired from the Philadelphia Union this offseason.

“We’ve rolled both of them through the preseason. We’ve got one more training day,” Cushing said. “I’m fully behind my goalkeeping coach Rob Vartughian, whoever he feels fit to be the goalkeeper. Of course, I pick the team, but I respect his opinion. If we go with Luis, we’ll be fully behind him, but like I said, I think it should be a straight shootout between Matt Freese and Luis Barraza for the early part of the season.”

Cushing, an assistant for the 2021 Cup winners, had his interim tag removed for the new season. He guided NYCFC back to the conference final after Ronny Deila’s midseason departure and spent the end of last year and this preseason putting more of his own mark on the team’s playing style. His next task is to assimilate City’s latest signings into what still could be a championship contender.

“I think it’s been a really positive preseason, getting the group together, adding individuals along the way,” Cushing said. “We know that we’re going to add further, but the likes of Braian Cufré, Mitja Ilenic, Tony Alfaro, Matt Freese, they’ve been really positive additions to the squad.”

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