New York City Football Club enjoyed a historic 2021 season that culminated in the Club's first ever MLS Cup trophy. Sporting Director David Lee sat down to reflect on last year and look forward to the 2022 campaign with the Boys in Blue.
Q.) Now some time passed, how do you reflect on MLS Cup?
Firstly, it is the greatest day of my career. It was a whirlwind few weeks right through the playoffs. We work hard every single year, but to finally have that moment to celebrate all the hard work and everything that everyone has sacrificed to get to that moment was special. To do it with a group of people that all really care about each other was unbelievably special.
I think one massive takeaway for a few days afterwards was that I was just so proud of everyone; the staff, the players, everybody around the team. I was so proud of everything they all did to make that happen. There's so much work that goes into getting a team ready to produce performances like that and in the biggest pressure moments. I think everybody did everything they possibly could to make it happen which is why we got the result we did.
Q.) What do you feel re-watching Alex’s penalty back knowing the outcome?
I said before the game there is absolutely no way I want this to go to penalties. No chance. I don't think my nerves will handle it.
That said, if you guarantee we will win I'll take penalties all day because it's amazing when that winning penalty goes in. However, there's a flip of a coin that you might lose and that’s probably the worst feeling in the world, so I'd rather not live with that coin flip. But that's the way the game went so that's what we had to deal with.
Q.) The club made some big changes to the roster in the offseason. What were the considerations behind the incomings and outgoings recruitment-wise?
Yeah, they were big decisions.
I think probably at the time, we didn't reflect on quite how big they were because we were so convinced they were the right decisions to move our team forward.
Firstly, we have salary cap considerations. We have challenges like every other team does to try and build a roster and spend our dollars most effectively to build a team to try and win.
Ultimately, we felt like it was a disappointing 2020 season. We finished fifth and got to a playoff game before we unfortunately lost in Orlando, but we were disappointed by the season and I think when that happens then change is inevitable. In MLS that means that players need to leave to create space for the new players to come in.
Alex and Mata were fantastic servants for us and played brilliantly while they were here. We really appreciate everything they did for the club, but our job is to be a little cold at times and think ruthlessly about what's going to move our team forward. Like I say, at the time I didn’t reflect how big those decisions were but we felt it was necessary to improve as we went into 2021.
Q.) What pleased you most about the players' contribution to last season?
I think there was an enormous amount of development from so many players - Taty being a major example of that. I think his performances from 2020 to 2021 saw him take a massive leap in confidence. The impact he was having on the team grew and ultimately he was the talisman for us finishing where we did in the league, and then throughout the playoffs as well.
There were also so many strong performances last season. In the playoffs we had a group of players that were performing at their absolute maximum and they put absolutely everything into every single performance that came their way.
They were so focused, so diligent, and followed the game plan to a tee. That’s not easy to do back-to-back, and particularly in the position that we put ourselves in around September/October - needing nine performances in a row to qualify for the playoffs, get a home game in the first round, and then win MLS Cup. You couldn't speak highly enough of that group. They were phenomenal to a man. I was just so proud of them.
One of my jobs is to try and put a group of people together and make the sum of the whole greater than the sum of its parts and I think we did that. We had very good individuals but they were a real collective through the playoffs and that made me proud.
We have such a diverse group both in terms of nationalities but also acquisition methods. You had young players from the SuperDraft and young talent from South America. You had senior talent and more experienced players we brought in through trades like Sean Johnson. Then there are those that we’ve brought in from Europe and Americans signed from outside of MLS like Alfredo Morales and Chris Gloster. It was about trying to utilize every acquisition method that we could to build and bring that group together.
To have a group that cared about each other as much as they did when they're so diverse, I think was really special.
Q.) Heading into 2021 what did you feel like was the biggest challenge the team needed to overcome to win MLS Cup?
We talk about culture and environment a lot. I think we have always had a good culture here. I've been here since the very beginning and I believe our environment is good. We treat people well, with respect, and try and do the best we can.
I think what we really looked at was how do we move our environment forward? How do we move from a results-based environment to a performance based environment?
A lot of the conversations we have are about how are we going to perform at our best. When we entered into the playoffs this year we were very clear; if we play our best football we think we've got a really good chance to win. We may not, but we think we've got a really good chance to win. If we don't play our best football we're probably not going to win. We can't actually impact that win or loss as much as there are so many outside factors involved, but we can impact our performance.
The focus was not on winning, the focus was on performing and that was a really big change. All the decisions we made about the players we signed looked at how they would fit into that environment. Then ultimately from the beginning of preseason from everybody - but in particular Ronny and his staff -it was about a push on building that culture, building that environment and making sure the players understood what was expected of them every day and how we were going to build that resiliency, that togetherness, that spirit that we knew we needed for that type of run to win an MLS Cup as well as the quality and the good football and the performances and all those things that that we do anyway.
Q.) To go back for a moment, how pleased were you with the roster heading into the first game of the regular season?
I think I would say I was content, probably more content than Ronny was. I'm able to take a slightly longer view of the team than any coach can. Any coach has to live for the next seven days because that's the way that you get the best performances. By that point we knew Talles Magno would come, we knew Santiago Rodríguez would come, even if it wasn’t as quickly as we would like.
We needed more depth, but I think one thing that got a little bit lost is that when you look at the team that started the MLS Cup final there was only two new players compared to our 2020 season - Santi and Alfredo. We also saw was huge development from a number of players from 2020 to 2021 and that also made the roster much stronger overall and is a huge part of what we’re trying to accomplish where players improve year-over-year because of the work we do every day.
So the core of our roster that started the final was the same we’d had the year prior. What we added was a lot more depth, competition, and quality. Now all those things in training everyday go to help produce the result on the field, even if they're not all seeing the field right now. Those are the things that when you reflect back I think the squad was really strong that we brought into the season. What we we're able to do was just add quality and depth and raise the overall level of the group. I think that really gave us a boost through the season as well.
Q.) What has impressed most about Ronny Deila while you’ve worked with him?
There’s honestly a lot. Hiring Ronny was really one of my first major decisions after I became Sporting Director and across the two years we’ve worked together, he has delivered against everything we spoke about during our interviews.
Firstly, he's a really good person to work with. It's a very simple and easy thing to say, but he's somebody that I enjoy spending my time with. We may not always agree on things - I think we do far more often than maybe normal for sporting directors and head coaches, because I think we see things very similarly - but he's a person I enjoy spending my time with. That helps as a very basic starting point.
Then I think you get into his qualities, of how clear he is and his ideas of what an environment should look like, what a performance environment should look like, what a training environment should look like to develop a team and develop individual players, I think those are quite unique.
He wants to work with young players. I like signing young players and that's a good fit for us. We like developing people, we like giving young people, players, and staff opportunities. Ronny is absolutely invested into that process as well.
Combining all the various elements of a head coach's job is unbelievably difficult. Ronny manages to combine all the demands, from managing individuals, to setting the team up, to making tactical decisions, to making your squad decisions and managing players who are disappointed and staff, all the different elements that go into just the normal week for any coach.
I think Ronny just manages that so effortlessly, and I know it's not effortless, but it looks effortless. Ultimately when it came down to those moments where we needed performances, and we were in a difficult position in September and October, I think he found the right messages to get through to the team.
That's what a coach needs to do. You’ve got to find a way to pick the right team and motivate them to get the performance that you want. He did that and was fundamental to our success.
Q.) Aside from MLS Cup, what was your favorite moment from last season?
I have a few favorite moments. I think for the importance of it, Gudi’s free kick in Atlanta was a favorite moment. It was towards the end of the difficult run we’d had and we knew we needed something to get us out of that and I think that gave us the spark that we needed to come back.
Thiago’s goal against D.C. United to win the game - even though I didn't think we played particularly well in that game and I was quite frustrated. To have a moment of real magic win that game is special. Isi’s [Tajouri-Shradi] goal against LAFC early in the season to win that game was a massive win.
I loved the Pumas game [in League’s Cup]. I thought we were brilliant in that game. We deserved to win that game three or four nil. The performance level against a top Liga MX team was unbelievable and something I was really proud of.
I think that the last one other than the final will be New England in the playoffs. I've been here from the very beginning and got to the Eastern Conference semifinals so many times, and not got past that. Now you're playing away against the Supporters’ Shield winners, in a difficult environment, a very good team.
I'll go back to something I said earlier - the performance level was top class, we deserved to win that game, in 90 minutes, in 120 minutes. If we'd gone out it would have been a travesty because we played so well.
Q.) We saw our Homegrown players rack up over 4000 minutes in MLS, how pleasing was it for you to see our academy play such an important role in 2021?
They all stepped up at different moments. James was incredibly consistent throughout the whole year and was a vital part of our team. He went away with the national team and played so many minutes in total last year between New York and the national team.
He had a really heavy load for a 20/21-year-old. I think when it came to the playoffs he was outstanding in those games, but he’d already been a consistent presence for us and covered so many positions and played at such a high level every single time.
Tayvon is a special story. When Anton goes down injured and Tayvon has had maybe one start prior the whole season; to step in and give his performance level as he did throughout the rest of the regular season and through the playoffs was remarkable. I thought he was excellent.
I think it's testament to the work the academy does to get these players ready. The coaches worked so hard to make sure that he was ready and then it comes down to the player. Tayvon was always ready to take that step and believed in himself that he was ready. I think the academy is just such an enormous part of what we do now and what we will do in the future.
To see them play such a critical role in winning a trophy is amazing. It’s what you dream about as a kid that you could join an academy and help your hometown team go and win a trophy and develop yourself.
Q.) Is that the greatest evidence to you that we give kids a chance?
Absolutely. We’re selling pathways, opportunities, dreams. Ultimately, these kids want to become professional players and play at the highest level and compete for trophies.
They’re passionate about NYCFC and playing for New York and playing in their hometown. What we've got to show to them is that we've got this vision, and we can develop fantastic players who can play in our first team and beyond and we can also help win.
The expectation on our club is to do both of those things. My job is to manage and integrate both of those as best as I can. It comes with challenges sometimes where the goals aren't always perfectly aligned between developing players and winning. My job is to try and manage that and try and manage both of those goals as best I can.
Ultimately, when we sit with parents, we show them and say, “We want your son to experience these things, to experience these things with us as part of their journey in football, wherever that might may take them.”
James’ pathway and development is for us the perfect story. He signs, he plays, there are some challenges, he gets into the team, he grows each year and just gets better and better until he becomes one of our most important players last year, certainly one of our better players throughout the course of the season.
To ultimately result in a trophy was special and something that I can't wait for the next group of academy players to have that have those moments as well.
Q.) What do you think this win does for the club moving into 2022?
I think it shows what we are capable of. If we get all the elements of our club moving in the right direction together in the right way, I think we have limitless potential.
Every season brings new challenges, and we’ll have ones that we haven't faced before coming our way. It's a reminder for everybody how special our Club is and what a unique place that we all get to work and play and what a fantastic group of fans we get to represent every week.
I think it raises expectations and of course our job is to deliver against those expectations as best we can. I think it also leaves us really humble because when you have those moments where you get to celebrate in Portland like we did - I want another one, and I want to celebrate that again.
My life won't be complete If I sit here in 50 years time having retired and I only got to celebrate one MLS Cup trophy with NYCFC, then I probably will be disappointed. I think everybody here is driven by that same goal. We want it, we want to have that moment again, because it's so special.
You work so hard, and there are many difficult moments to deal with and stresses and strains throughout the season. When you get those moments, everything's worth it and I can't wait for the next one.