When David Villa announced his departure from New York City FC on Nov. 28, the last vestiges of the club's star system went with him.
Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo -- the other members of NCYFC's high-profile triumvirate that characterized the team's early years -- had already left, having failed to live up to their considerable hype.
Villa, by contrast, proved to be worth every penny during his four seasons at Yankee Stadium and won the league's MVP award in 2016, but his absence figures to cut deep, from the goals he scored to his leadership and how he represented the club in the community.
But NYCFC has been moving away from stars for a few years, and a process that places greater emphasis on youth and more modest imports seems to have accelerated this offseason. Young players such as 21-year-old Americans Keaton Parks (via a loan from Benfica) and Juan Pablo Torres (19) are on board, while Justin Haak (17) has been signed as a homegrown player, joining fellow academy products Joe Scally (16) and James Sands (18) in the first team.
"We made a strategic decision early on to bring in players that were recognizable and were known in world football," sporting director Claudio Reyna said from the team's training base in Abu Dhabi. "But now I think we're in a different stage as a club. We've matured, and our fans are aware that more than anything they want to see a good team that gives 100 percent for the club and for the jersey. That's what excites me. That's kind of been our focus, and that's where we are today with this team."
So, are the days of NYCFC signing a big-name player gone for good? And does the team need such a figurehead to resonate in the New York market? The team's average regular-season attendance did tick up in 2018 to 23,189 from 22,321 fans the previous year, but that was far off the 29,016 mark drawn in 2015, its inaugural campaign.
Reyna does not rule out the possibility of bringing a big name to the team, but his words and actions reveal that he is under no pressure to do so. The emphasis is on quality and value, not notoriety. Indeed, New York is by no means the only MLS team taking this approach.
"There seems to be a continuing inflation with salaries and transfer fees for the top-tier players. There's just some of it that just doesn't make sense to us as a club," Reyna said. "That's why we evaluate all players -- players with big names and big résumés as well as younger players -- that are coming through in different regions of the world. I'm very much focused on the soccer side of it, wanting to have a good team and a good group, a good atmosphere, players working for each other."
How young the Cityzens will go in terms of minutes played is an open question. In addition to Villa (37), midfielder Rodney Wallace (30) and forward Jo Inge Berget (28) have also exited, as has midfielder Yangel Herrera (21). With forward Alexandru Mitrita on board, the projected lineup is mostly filled with players in the 23-29 age range; Maxi Moralez (31) is the lone exception.
Reyna, though, insists that the youngsters will get minutes and counts five instances this season when NYCFC will play three games in a week. This summer's Gold Cup figures to force manager Domenec Torrent to rely on the team's depth even more.
"They're here to play," Reyna said. "You can see it already. In particular, Sands and Torres are professional players; they fit in and are competing to play. I don't think [Torrent] has any worry or issue to play those players. He feels really comfortable with the midfield we have moving into the season, and he's been impressed with the first couple of weeks and how they've started the preseason."
Yet the question remains: Given that Villa netted 77 times in 117 regular-season games, how do you replace his goals? Reyna, who stated he is still looking for a No. 9 but declined to address reports linking NYCFC to Legia Warsaw striker Carlitos, expects the scoring load to be more evenly distributed. It is certainly true that plenty of attacking talent remains.
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi scored 11 times last season, and Moralez added eight along with 16 assists. Jesus Medina figures to have a higher comfort level given this is his second season in MLS, and Reyna says he expects Mitrita, who will likely line up on the left wing but has the versatility to occupy other positions, to score 10-15 goals.
"[Mitrita] is a player that I think Dome wants to give freedom within the area of the field that he'll start because he's really mobile, difficult to pick up on 1-v-1 situations," Reyna said. "We certainly want him around the goal and creating chances and being the threat that he is."
It is testament to NYCFC's attacking options that winger Jonathan Lewis, who has impressed with the U.S. national team recently, is almost an afterthought. His ability to beat players one-on-one is special, but his impact in 2019 will be more to do with his head.
"I think Lewis has gone from someone who perhaps didn't take responsibility in terms of why he didn't play to holding himself accountable now and demanding more from himself, not only in games but in training day in and day out," Reyna said. "It's part of being a young player and growing up, and you could see that growth. I'm excited. I think he's come in after the Costa Rica game and the January camp looking really sharp."
Off the field, Villa was the captain and public face of the club, and it remains to be seen how the team will cope with his departure. Midfielder Alex Ring has been named captain in his stead, having worn the armband at times in previous seasons.
"There's great professionals here who set a standard similar to David day in and day out, so I don't think [leadership] is going to be an issue," Reyna said.
The 2018 campaign ended for NYCFC in the Eastern Conference semifinals, after a regular season that saw Patrick Vieira depart halfway through. Torrent won five of his first six games, but New York faded down the stretch to win just three of its last 13 before the playoffs began.
The run looks even less favorable if you consider that, at the rival New York Red Bulls, Chris Armas replaced Jesse Marsch in midseason and led the team to the Supporters' Shield. But in mitigation, the Red Bulls staff stayed largely the same, as did Armas' message to his players, whereas Torrent brought a new coaching setup and had to get up to speed on a new team and league.
Reyna added that there were other reasons for the uneven form. A scheduling quirk meant there was a three-week break between games at one point, and key injuries -- Medina and Herrera among them -- also had an impact. Every team deals with such setbacks, though, and a full preseason makes it doubtful Torrent would be able to use those factors as explanations again.
The bottom line is that NYCFC has a talent edge against most of its direct competitors in the Eastern Conference. If Reyna can find his striker and others step up, a system lacking in stars might be exactly what is needed to win the club its first trophy.