Leg one of Preseason 2019 came to a close over the weekend as the Boys in Blue flew back to New York from Abu Dhabi.
Among the traveling party were five NYCFC Academy players who joined the squad to gain experience on preseason life as a professional soccer player and of course for an opportunity to catch Head Coach Domènec Torrent's eye.
2018 Academy Player of the Year Nico Benalcazar was joined by Alex Rando, Tayvon Gray, Veljko Petkovic and Dante Polvara in the UAE and the NYCFC Digital Team took the opportunity to chat to them about the experience of being an NYCFC Academy player on preseason with the seniors...
On being in the Academy since the beginning…
Veljko Petkovic (VP): It’s been very progressive. You can see many talents improve. The organization has improved.
Benalcazar (NB): It’s definitely grown since the first day. There was only one team in the beginning. Our first orientation had like 20 people, and this year there was like 400 people. The Academy has definitely grown and it has become more of a family. We’re always together. The younger teams practice ahead of the older teams so it’s more like a family than just different teams.
Rando (AR): It’s great to see the club develop. The facilities have changed for the good over the year and it's great having the opportunity to train at St John's and sometimes the first team facility. It’s always great to have great, professional facilities to train on.
On growing up together over the years and being with the same group…
Tayvon Gray (TG): It definitely brings us closer. We’re always together, no matter what age. 15s, 17s, and 19s, spend a lot of time together. It’s a family, for sure. On the field stuff just comes once you have it off the field. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s a nice family we have here.
NB: Most of us see our teammates as more than our family. This past year it connected more than it ever has. We all had one goal. We knew what it took to get where we were at which was win. The younger teams see us all connected, and it motivates them to become that and accomplish what we did.
On the importance of having a bond off the field…
VP: It’s way easier to play with people you know. You have that bond. A bond that’s made off the field helps you create a bond on the field.
TG: It’s always easier to play with someone you know. You know their strengths and weaknesses.
Dante Polvara (DP): I genuinely find that the guys that I have the most chemistry with on the field tend to become some of my best friends off the field, and vice versa. The guys that I relate to a lot off the field in what we do and how we carry ourselves, you find that you have much more success on the field together and you enjoy the sacrifice, progress, and hard work that it takes to win a national championship. I think it’s because we all developed a good bond over the months leading up to that, and it really helped lead to our success. When the game starts getting hard and you look at some of your best friends and see that they’re struggling too, it gives you more motivation to win.
On enjoying playing together…
DP: You see with a lot of kids our age, they dread going to practice. For me, I wait all day until I finally get to do something enjoyable. Although it takes a lot of commitment, it makes up for it because I think we can all say we enjoy practice. Even when we get frustrated in training, we can still go home and say we achieved something.
On how the Academy has impacted their development…
NB: NYCFC has a clear plan. They want to keep everything connected the whole way through. Even coaches that I don’t have try to help me out and give me advice that I can take in on and off the field. It’s important to listen. If you come into NYCFC with a positive attitude, they’ll do everything it takes to help you become a better player.
On repping New York City's team…
TG: Representing NYCFC is something I definitely do not take lightly. There are a lot of people who would love to be where we are right now, so I never take that for granted.
NB: With social media now, sometimes I’ll get messages from younger players asking me about how to join the Academy so seeing that makes me more thankful for what I have and motivates me to work harder.
AR: I live in Manhattan and when you play for the team in the city that you grew up in, it means a lot. It offers a different dynamic because it’s where we live and the name of our hometown is on the crest. It’s not just any other club.
On the experience of first team preseason…
NB: One thing I’ve taken away from this experience has been seeing how well the guys take care of their bodies off the field. Whether it’s sleeping well or eating healthy, they all take it very seriously and it makes me want to follow that.
DP: I’ve learned how important discipline is. Both preseason trips I’ve managed to be late to at least one event, and it really sticks with you. Ever since then I’ve tried to be 10-15 minutes early to everything because you just want to carry that professionalism around with you and you don’t want to let anybody down and make it seem like you’re taking this opportunity for granted. You learn the importance of punctuality, discipline, and character.
VP: Off the field, things have been a major learning key. I got the experience to play the first 45 against Copenhagen. I struggled in the beginning, and it was a big learning experience. At a professional level, you see everything is done at high speed. Tactics are even more specific. At a professional level, you need to know how to do your job as specific as possible. Every little thing matters
TG: Discipline and attitude is everything, on and off the field. On the field, you have to perform. At the professional level, if you tune out for a second a lot can go wrong.
NB: On the field, all the players demand so much from each other. If one person doesn’t do their job correctly, then the whole team messes up. It’s important in a team environment for everyone to hold themselves accountable.
Describe the NYCFC Academy…
TG: Togetherness. They keep the first team close to the Academy. If you’re playing well at the 17s, they’ll push you up to the 19s, and if you’re playing well at the 19s, they’ll push you up to the first team training sessions.
AR: You could call it a family. There’s a sense of unity when you play, even when you’re warming up on the sidelines. Everyone is together as a unit.
NB: Barcelona says they’re “More Than a Club” and I feel like that’s similar to us. Our coaches don’t only care about what happens on the field. Our first year in the Academy, they made us turn in our report cards. Seeing them care about our daily lives shows us that we should care about progressing as a player. This club sacrifices everything for us, so we have to give respect and give everything for the club which has given everything for us.
DP: I would say expectations. There’s expectations on every level, specifically with the Academy. The coaches expect us to do the right thing throughout the day, behave ourselves on the weekend, eat well, sleep well, get our work done so we’re not missing practice, get to practice on time. They expect us to be giving maximum effort, 100% focus. Being one of the older guys on the team, I expect a lot from the other players in the Academy. I expect them to want to be at practice and to want to win scrimmages, and different things like that. We get here to first team preseason and the expectations for us are the same any of the top players. They don’t treat us like we’re younger. We’re expected to be able to perform at the same level as their other teammates. Whether that’s on or off the field, we have that duty to carry out. We’re obviously really lucky to be here and we’re not going to waste away an opportunity like this.
TG: They don’t treat you like a kid. You can’t expect to mess up and for them to say, “It’s okay, he’s on the Academy.” The players will hold you accountable. The energy the players bring every day makes you want to be better. It’s that type of atmosphere when you’re playing with them.