When New York City Football Club began their Major League Soccer journey in the spring of 2015 no one knew what to expect. Frank Lampard and David Villa filled up billboards in Times Square inviting Manhattan-based sports fans to attend MLS matches at Yankee Stadium. The initial product looked poor as the team seemed almost as unfit as the sand-based, misshaped turf that they played on. NYCFC have been fun to watch on occasion, but in their Jason Kreis-led first season in the MLS, they were terribly inconsistent, finishing with the second lowest points tally and missing out on the MLS playoffs.
The hiring of former Arsenal and Juventus midfielder Patrick Viera as a head coach along with the free agent signings of Andrea Pirlo and Iraola were signs of intent from the franchise. This showed that they were playing to win as well as sell merchandise. The irony is that while everyone was clamouring to get a glimpse of Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lombard at NYCFC. The franchise may have done their best piece of business in the MLS SuperDraft. In trading their 4th pick and allocation money for English-born winger Jack Harrison from Chicago Fire, they acquired a true talent on a minimum contract.
Harrison, who has spent most of his first season injured, stole the show in this weekend’s Hudson River Derby. In scoring the first and setting up David Villa for the second in the 2-0 victory, he swept away any performance anxiety that may have been lurking from the 7-0 reverse against the New York Red Bulls from a few weeks ago.
The ownership group of NYCFC went all in on David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo, but only David Villa had put in the MVP caliber performances that the salaries being paid would expect. Despite being top of the Eastern Conference, the team look leggy in the final quarters of games and their pace in often lacking in key areas. This is understandable for a team with a midfield with a combined age of over 90. This style of roster building must be on the way out for franchises looking to win in the MLS Cup format.
Future Building With Players Like Jack Harrison
Players like Jack Harrison should be the way forward for franchises like NYCFC. The strategy of MLS teams is changing. The teams who are not tied to the aging designated players are inherently more consistent in the competition. The quick marketing style signings of aging players from Europe is a business plan which looks to be on the way out in the MLS. Players like Sebastian Giovinco have shown where the value in the market is. Soon franchises will see that younger potential stars will pull in the crowds in the long term while creating winning sides that can challenge immediately.
In Jack Harrison, NYCFC have a player that they may be able to pin their franchise on once the household-name veterans leave the Big Apple. His performance against NYRB this weekend may be a watershed moment for the MLS. The sooner Jack Harrison has his own billboard on Times Square, the sooner MLS can shed the retirement village image it has worldwide.