NYCFC’s biggest questions before 2022 MLS season

New York City FC will open the 2022 season against the LA Galaxy on Sunday with a far brighter outlook than a year ago. Past penalty failures were avenged in last year’s playoffs on two occasions, and a roster which coach Ronny Deila complained about in the spring is now a reigning champion teeming with young talent. 

Nevertheless, that title-winning crew is not completely the same, with further changes possible as the season gets underway. Here are some question marks facing the squad: 

New-ish look attack 

NYCFC ended the regular season with a Golden Boot winner in Valentín “Taty” Castellanos, while Jesus Medina finished second on the team with nine goals. Medina is now with CSKA Moscow, and there’s a real chance Castellanos will be sold abroad this summer. Even NYCFC’s third-highest scorer from last regular season, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, is now with Los Angeles FC. 

Castellanos can be counted on to produce before any potential move, but things will get dicier if he goes. Young attackers Santi Rodriguez, Thiago Andrade and Talles Magno all can be expected to chip in with some goals in their second seasons with the club, and Magno has moonlighted as a striker already. But if NYCFC want to win another title — especially if Castellanos is moved — the club will need Héber, its 2019 top scorer to return to form. 

“Héber’s been a guy — whether he was injured or healthy — he’s always been a shining light in our locker room,” captain Sean Johnson said Thursday. “He’s always bringing good energy. He’s a quality player.” 

Héber Araujo dos Santos
Heber, seen here against the Philadelphia Union in last season’s playoffs, may assume more responsibility if Taty Castellanos departs.
Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After leading the line with 15 goals in his first MLS season, Héber’s ACL injury has led to a couple of forgettable campaigns. He has one goal in the last two seasons (zero last year), in which he has made just 11 regular season starts. 

Ronny Deila had the benefit of easing Héber back in last season, but with top clubs swarming for Castellanos, the Brazilian may soon be needed back at top shape. 

Finding the right midfield 

James Sands’ departure on loan to Rangers was a massive advertisement for NYCFC’s academy, and more broadly, MLS’s ability to develop players. Unfortunately for the defending champions, it also leaves a big hole in midfield. 

Sands was a stalwart at defensive midfield for the club, and despite being increasingly used on defense over the last season, he played in midfield during the playoffs when it counted. 

The 21-year-old will be tough to replace, but luckily for Deila, the club already got a peek at life without Sands in midfield last season. Alfredo Morales and Keaton Parks often worked as a midfield duo last year, and they’re a good bet to continue that partnership once Parks has full fitness back following a surgery for a blood clot in his leg. 

Nevertheless, Deila will need to rotate with the club now participating in the CONCACAF Champions League. Sands’ departure will force other guys up the pecking order. Nico Acevedo started both Champions League games so far against Costa Rica’s Santos de Guapiles, and the oft-injured but talented Gedion Zelalem got a rare start in the first leg. Sporting Director David Lee also said Thursday that NYCFC are hoping to make a couple more signings before the transfer window closes. 

“I think we’re well prepared,” Lee said. ”I think we have a lot of belief in our roster. We’ve managed to keep some important players.” 

Deila will have options to rejig his midfield — they just won’t include Sands. 

Replacing Anton 

NYCFC’s defense also will start the season without some key contributors from last season. 

The list of departed players includes playoff super-sub Gudmundur Thórarinssonm, who is no longer with the club, but also, more importantly, right back Anton Tinnerholm, who remains out after an Achilles tear before last season’s playoffs. Though Tayvon Gray filled in admirably for him during the team’s title run, Tinnerholm’s absence may be strongly felt over a larger stretch of games. 

Anton Tinnerholm
Anton Tinnerholm will be unavailable for a large chunk of the season.
Andrew Katsampes/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The Swede has been a constant attacking outlet for NYCFC during his time in MLS, with nine goals and 19 assists in the regular season. Gray, 19, largely excelled in last season’s cagey postseason matches, but with just three career regular season starts, it’s unclear how equipped he is to NYCFC’s more expansive style of play. Tinnerholm, when healthy, is instrumental to how NYCFC attack. Gray will have big shoes to fill until he returns.