The player introductions at Yankee Stadium for New York City FC's home opener were relatively tame on Sunday afternoon for the first home match of the 2019 season. Modest cheers permeated the venue as each name rang through the speakers, witn NYCFC captain Alexander Ring drawing the loudest applause, even if it wasn't exactly thunderous.
Missing from those pre-game proceedings was the traditional roar of applause that traditionally greeted the announcing of David Villa, the Spanish star who pulled off the rare feat of living up to the hype of a marquee designated player signing. Villa's four seasons at NYCFC saw him win over notoriously-fickle New York fans with his reliable goal scoring and trademark passion.
Villa has moved on to Japan, joining Vissel Kobe and old friend Andres Iniesta, and has left behind an NYCFC faced with the difficult task of forming a new identity without the player who became so synonymous with the club. There is no other star on the roster with the drawing power or cache to step in and take over Villa's role as the team's leading draw.
Sunday's Eastern Conference clash with D.C. United didn't offer much in the way of a clear vision for just what NYCFC's identity is now. NYCFC's head coach, Spanish boss Domenec Torrent, figured to put his stamp on the team after having his first full preseason with the squad, but his implementation of an effective possession-based style is still a work in progress. NYCFC settled for a 0-0 draw on Sunday, creating some chances that were thwarted by an outstanding performance by D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, a result that leaves NYCFC with two draws from its first two matches of 2019.
NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson was the star for the home team, making a handful of top-shelf saves on a day when his teammates created chances but failed to beat Johnson's counterpart in the D.C. net.
NYCFC did create some chances, but overall didn't outplay their rivals from the nation's capital. D.C. United looked like a more cohesive team, and looked far more comfortable playing at Yankee Stadium than we had grown accustomed to seeing visiting teams look in the past. D.C. even trotted out its own superstar in Wayne Rooney, whose presence only served to magnify the reality that Villa is long gone.
So what is NYCFC's identity now? The talk in the preseason was of how the team was going to be focusing on developing young talent, which wasn't exactly the message fans accustomed to big-name stars was excited to hear. The reality is NYCFC is a good team, with plenty of talent. Maxi Moralez is one of the better playmakers in MLS, Ring is a rock solid presence in central midfield, goalkeeper Sean Johnson has developed into a USMNT pool player, Alexandru Mitrita has the look of a difference-maker in attack and teenage midfielder James Sands already has the look of a veteran.
The challenge now is for Torrent to mold that collection of talent into a well-oiled machine, one with a clear identity and style. As much as Villa's departure has left a gaping hole where NYCFC's identity once resided, you can make the argument that Patrick Vieira's departure for OGC Nice last summer had an even more significant impact on NYCFC's struggle to maintain a clear identity than Villa's departure. Torrent never got a good grasp on the team he inherited last year, and two games into the new season it seems as though Torrent's team is still trying to figure things out.
One thing Torrent made clear after Sunday's draw was that NYCFC still needs a striker. Through two games into the season NYCFC has managed two goals, both by defensive midfielders. Mitrita has yet to find the net, but Torrent was quick to point out that those who see Mitrita as a like-for-like replacement for Villa are misguided.
"People think (Mitrita) will replace David Villa but that's not true," Torrent said. "Mitrita is a top player. If he plays amazing on both sides (of a number 10), or as a 10, but I don't expect (Mitrita) to score 30 goals or 25 goals. We have to score as a team.
"Everybody knows 'You need a striker, you need a striker', okay, but I'm very happy with my club because we have the right people at the club working (on) that," Torrent said. "I think maybe in the next two or three weeks we'll be able to sign another player."
It remains unclear who NYCFC will bring in to fill the striker void but what we do know is NYCFC won't be bringing in any international stars the caliber of Villa this season, so it will be up to the collection of talent on the roster to come together and try to fill the void left by Villa's departure. On a day when NYCFC sorely missed Villa's reliability in front of goal, his absence resonated as clearly as the absence of the chants that used to fill Yankee Stadium singing his name.