The days of Lampard and Pirlo have gone for NYC FC. And the team is better than ever

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<span>Photograph: Chris Szagola/AP</span>
Photograph: Chris Szagola/AP

David Villa never delivered MLS Cup for New York City FC. Neither did Andrea Pirlo or Frank Lampard. Those names put NYC FC on the map in the first few years of the club’s existence, but celebrity counts for little in the playoffs.

Now, the names are not so recognisable, but NYC FC are preparing for their first MLS Cup final on Saturday, when they will take on the Portland Timbers. Ronny Deila’s team are just one win from the title and vindicating the change in approach that took place after Villa, Pirlo, Lampard and the rest exited.

Being under the City Football Group umbrella, NYC FC were always likely to boast one of the biggest budgets in MLS. This was certainly the case in 2017 when the club had the second largest payroll (nearly $18m) of any club in the league behind only Toronto FC. The way to draw attention, and to achieve instant success it was believed, was to spend big.

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The team got the attention but not the success. While Patrick Vieira’s side finished the 2017 season in second place in the Eastern Conference, they failed to make it past the Conference semi-finals in the playoffs. When Pirlo, Vieira and Jack Harrison left within the next six months, it was clear NYC FC had missed their chance to turn star power into silverware as the LA Galaxy did with David Beckham, Robbie Keane and co.

The difference was that NYC FC found themselves caught in the midst of a league-wide transition. The LA Galaxy approach grew outdated. If MLS 2.0 was defined by the star names that were attracted to North America in the post-Beckham age (Kaka, Didier Drogba, Sebastian Giovinco, Steven Gerrard), MLS 3.0 saw clubs focus on creating their own stars through better scouting and shrewder recruitment.

Atlanta United showed the way by ploughing their considerable resources into signing the best young players from South America they could get their hands on, winning MLS Cup in only their second season. Los Angeles FC followed this model when they joined MLS, with NYC FC also altering their strategy to the new landscape.

Just two months after Villa left the Bronx for Vissel Kobe in Japan, NYC FC spent $9.1m on promising Romanian forward Alexandru Mitrita and around $4m on Brazilian striker Heber. The following year saw the club sign Uruguayan youngster Nicolas Acevedo for around $3.5m, then came the $8m addition of Vasco de Gama teenager Talles Magno in 2020. The transfer policy at Yankee Stadium had clearly changed.

Deila’s appointment as head coach was also proof that NYC FC were taking a different approach. Despite winning back-to-back titles during his time as Celtic manager in Scotland, the Norwegian was an unknown to most MLS fans, unlike Vieira who had a brilliant playing career with Arsenal and France. Deila didn’t even have the links to CFG like Domenec Torrent, Pep Guardiola’s former assistant at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, had.

Cut free from the expectations that came with being Manchester City’s American outpost, NYC FC have done a good job of carving out their own identity in recent seasons. Yes, they still play in sky blue and even use the ‘Cityzens’ nickname also used by the Premier League champions, but the loan traffic between the two sister clubs has stopped. There is no suggestion that Guardiola’s successor has been sent to the States to learn his trade, as was the case with Vieira. NYC FC, on the surface, appear to have greater autonomy.

There were signs throughout the 2021 regular season, particularly in the final month, that NYC FC were gearing up for a playoff run. Indeed, Deila’s team ended their campaign on a four-match unbeaten run that included a 6-0 thumping of DC United. A strong summer stretch also saw them claim noteworthy wins over the Columbus Crew, Orlando City and the New England Revolution.

In Taty Castellanos, NYC FC have the 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner and a player who embodies how they have changed as a club. There wasn’t much fanfare when the young Argentinian arrived in the Bronx on an initial loan deal from Uruguayan club Torque in the summer of 2018, but solid scouting recognised his potential. Good coaching has pushed him even further.

Veterans such as Maxi Moralez and Sean Johnson are reliable performers while the likes of Jesus Medina, James Sands, Malte Amundsen, Santiago Rodriguez (on loan) and Keaton Parks give the team a young core. While MLS often suffers from the number of lopsided rosters across the league, a problem exacerbated by the salary cap and other roster restrictions, NYC FC have achieved a good balance.

Of course, there is still work to be done. That they still call Yankee Stadium home and play on a field that has no place at the top of North American soccer is an embarrassment. MLS should be grateful that Saturday’s final is taking place at Providence Park and not in the Bronx, as would have been the case had Real Salt Lake won the Western Conference.

Nonetheless, the sight of Deila and his players celebrating in Portland on Saturday would be proof of how NYC FC have matured. Growing pains have led to growth. NYC FC had fallen behind the curve, both in terms of their off-the-field approach and on-the-field results, but now find themselves at the vanguard of MLS. Big names might bring attention, but the right names bring trophies.