To win the M.L.S. Cup, New York City F.C. had to play a long game. The journey, as far back as 2015, was meant to lead here, to big events, finals, and trophies, according to New York City Football Club executives. That was always the plan, they claimed.
Those who haven’t been paying close attention to New York City F.C.’s roster progression over the last several years may be startled when they look at the Manchester City-backed team’s squad ahead of Saturday’s M.L.S. Cup final versus the Portland Timbers. There are no more Andrea Pirlos, Frank Lampards, or David Villas on the N.Y.C.F.C. roster, the type of boldfaced European signings who once provided the team a flash of star power in its early years.
Instead, two relatively unknown Argentine players have led the team to its first appearance in the Major League Soccer championship game this year: Maxi Moralez, a 34-year-old midfielder who won a youth World Cup alongside greater lights like Sergio Agüero and ngel Di Mara, is the highest scorer in the M.L.S. this season. They have led N.Y.C.F.C. to the brink of its first title, together with a supporting cast of teammates with lots of talent but little name recognition.
However, the team’s roster strategy change since its initial season in 2015 — an overhaul that matches the league’s recent shift toward cultivating young talent rather than importing established stars — was not the result of a sudden epiphany.
It had been the idea all along, according to a top team executive on Friday.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Ferran Soriano, CEO of City Football Group, which comprises not only Manchester City of the Premier League and New York City FC, but also nine other soccer clubs in 11 countries. “And the long term isn’t five years,” says the author. It isn’t ten. “It’s the year 50.”
The fact that this year’s iteration of N.Y.C.F.C. made it to the final is thus less of a long-awaited breakthrough for the team’s ownership group and more of an expected stride along a lengthy, well-mapped journey.
“To put ourselves in position to win the M.L.S. Cup after being at this club for five years and realising the standards this club has means everything,” goalkeeper Sean Johnson said.
“We’re really thrilled to be in the final – very happy,” Soriano added. It’s a representation of what we’ve accomplished. However, the effort has remained consistent year after year.
The outcomes did not always reflect this. Despite making the playoffs in five of its first six seasons, the New York City Football Club only won one playoff round. In 2021, it has won three more postseason games than it did in its first six seasons combined (two).
Soriano admitted that the early New York City Football Club teams were disadvantaged on the pitch by their top-heavy design, which saw lower-cost players fill out rosters alongside multi-million-dollar stars like Villa, Lampard, and Pirlo. As a result, regular-season victories were regularly followed by early postseason exits, resulting in regular-season disappointments.
Soon, however, team management worked within Major League Soccer’s maze of roster and compensation restrictions to make wise additions like Moralez and bring City Football Group’s riches to bear in more positive, productive ways.
Castellanos, a 23-year-old Uruguayan, joined on loan from Torque, which is also owned by City Football Group, in 2018 as a youngster and later inked a permanent agreement to stay in New York. For Castellanos, the promotion was a step up the C.F.G. ladder, which is a ranking of leagues produced by the company using data and analytics.
The linked club structure is not without its flaws. Soriano said Castellanos’ management at Torque fought the transfer, and the Uruguayan team struggled when he left – a scenario that may befall N.Y.C.F.C. if and when ownership decides it’s time for their newest star to leave.
But the system also takes patience from a fan base that hasn’t always grasped the importance of players like Jack Harrison, who is now at Leeds United; Yangel Herrera, who departed New York for La Liga in Spain; and others to progress beyond M.L.S.
M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber remarked, “This is an important game for the City Football Group.” “They’re considering their investment in Major League Soccer over the course of a generation.”
At first, this meant investing in star power in the hopes of attracting attention to the newest City-owned club. But it also meant investing in an academy that aided in the development of stars like Gio Reyna and Joe Scally, as well as the assumption that a steady churn of talent would result in a more talented team year after year.
“What we perform in the regular season is how we measure the work we do every day,” Soriano added. “It’s a good indicator of what we do.” Then it’s on to the playoffs, where you might get lucky. However, if you attend the playoffs on a regular basis, you will eventually win.