With the advent of the 2019 MLS season less than a month away for the boys and blue, for the first time in NYCFC’s history, the strength of their roster lies in the back line and goaltender.
After years of shambolic defending and questionable goalkeeping at best, there is a strong, stout group of players that will have to be the rock of this club. Given the loss of David Villa, scoring for this team might not be as productive as it’s been in the past, but fortunately the players in the back are more than capable of limiting opponents.
This starts of course with the man in goal, Sean Johnson, who has brought much needed consistency to the position after replacing Josh Saunders in 2017. Johnson has the size and athleticism that’s needed from that position and brings with him a steadiness that helps settle everything down. He used to struggle with his passing and playing the ball with his feet, which was a skill that former head coach Patrick Vieira was adamant about with his philosophy of playing from the back. There was a learning curve, but now Johnson’s passing is a valuable asset, which was seen in his appearance for the USMNT against Panama on January 27th. All in all, NYCFC can rely on Johnson to be the rock in net they need and he will be the goalkeeper for every game, except for the U.S Open Cup games, which City has never taken seriously.
Expanding from the net out, this leads us to the center back tandem of Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens. Before Chanot’s arrival to the squad in the summer of 2016, center back position was a gaping black hole of ineptitude where teams would tear City to shreds routinely. That is not the case today, as the combination of both Chanot and Callens is arguably one of the best CB tandems in all of MLS. Callens was signed in the winter of 2017 and immediately stepped into a starting role and hasn’t looked back since, missing only three matches in the past two seasons, known as the ” NYCFC Ironman”.
When they are together on the pitch it leads to very good things. Chanot unfortunately missed significant time in 2017 with a herniated disk in his back and also again in 2018 due to other injuries and some personal things. But he signed a new multiyear contract with the club this winter and he is also a leader in the City locker room. He has worn the captain’s armband in the past and it’s very evident how important he is to the team on and off the pitch. Both men in the middle also can score the occasional goal off a set piece. Chanot scored the only goal against Atlanta United in their playoff loss last season, and in a match in 2017, both Callens and Chanot scored off of corner kicks in the final quarter hour that lead City to a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union. The only issue with the center back position is depth, Sebastian Ibeagha is the third CB and played very well in Chanot’s absence last season, but after that there isn’t a true CB with MLS experience behind him. Left back Ben Sweat and defensive midfielder Alexander Ring have played CB in a pinch before, but it isn’t ideal by any stretch.
City’s fullbacks have historically been pivotal to springing the attack up the wings and also are responsible for defending the wings and their versatility is key for the squad. The right back is Swedish international Anton Tinnerholm, starting his second campaign with the club. Tinnerholm provided excellent offensive production from the right back position, scoring four times and assisting six times, including two nearly identical cracking volleys off of corner kicks that went bar down and in, dubbed “TinnerBOOM” by both the clubs and supporters alike. He is responsible defensively and is the only option at right back going forward.
The left back position is a little different however, Ben Sweat was the starter for most of last season, but Costa Rican international Ronald Matarrita has played that position before that, and has played it well. Matarrita provides more of an offensive spark, but is also very injury prone whereas Sweat hasn’t missed any time really. Neither are great defensively but their offensive prowess helps make up for that. Competition is never a bad thing and should only bring the best out of both players.
There are several questions about the City roster going forward with the season right around the corner, but the goaltending and the defense are a clear strength and provide a rock solid foundation to build the rest of the club on. City completed the signing of Alexandru Mitrita on February 4th, and there are rumblings that they are interested in signing 28 year old Spanish striker Carlos Lopez, from Legia Warsaw in Poland.
Whether that signing happens or not one thing is certain, the City defense will give them every chance to compete in games this season.
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