Looking for a fresh restart under first-year manager Ronny Delia, New York City FC begin Group A play in the MLS Is Back tournament Thursday versus the Philadelphia Union.
Delia took the reins from Dome Torrent in the offseason after NYCFC (0-2-0) finished atop the Eastern Conference but flamed out in the conference semifinals. After advancing in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Bronx Blues failed to score in their three matches prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down play, including 1-0 league losses at both Columbus and Toronto FC.
In attack, that means getting striker Heber and midfielder Maxi Moralez going. Heber had a team-high 15 goals despite playing just 23 matches last year, while Moralez set a franchise record with 20 assists. Fellow playmaker Alexandru Mitrita and forward Valentin Castellanos also are trying to get on track after combining for 23 goals in 2019.
"I go into the games with a good feeling, a good belief," Delia said Wednesday. "When looking back, I wouldn't do anything differently than what we had done since when we started training. I feel I know the players, the squad, the club, and the league much better. I look forward to getting some games now to see where we are."
NYCFC did not report any injuries, but backup keeper Brad Stuver opted out of playing. Sean Johnson remains No. 1 between the sticks, and Luis Barraza will be backup.
"Although it's difficult for me to not be with the team in Orlando, I made the decision to remain home in NY because it was best for my family and myself," Stuver said in a statement released on the team website. "Wishing the guys good luck and a safe and healthy return home."
Philadelphia (0-1-1) fared slightly better than the Bronx Blues did prior to the pandemic, losing at FC Dallas and playing 2019 Supporters Shield winner Los Angeles FC to a 3-3 draw on the road. A high-pressing team that uses a diamond formation, the Florida heat may give the Union some issues as they look to establish themselves in group play.
"It's going to be an exciting game, first and foremost," defender Mark McKenzie told the MLS official website. "It's going to be competitive, we've had this energy pent up for so long. Initially it might not be as smooth as we want it to be, but that comes with the territory of being the first game back."
The long layoff allowed left back Kai Wagner to recover from injury, but Union boss Jim Curtin does have injury concerns up front. His top two options to partner with striker Kacper Przybylko - Sergio Santos and Andrew Wooten - are both dealing with injuries. It is possible Homegrown product Jack de Vries could make his MLS debut alongside Przybylko, who had 15 goals last season.
"I truly believe with our starting XI, we can compete with anyone in this league," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. "But with the heat and humidity, and five subs rule, it'll test the depth of our team. We'll see what everyone can bring to the table. This format will allow guys who maybe don't as much to take a big role and show was they got. I believe in every single one of our players."
New York City FC swept both matches last season as Castellanos had two goals and two assists in the victories. The Bronx Blues have won the last four meetings, but all three of Philadelphia's victories have come on a standard pitch - the Union are 0-5-1 when playing in the narrower dimensions of Yankee Stadium.