There have been stretches, for Jesus Medina, when things appeared to click.
The Paraguayan ended last season with five goal involvements (three goals, two assists) in the final five regular season contests. A similar hot flash burned in the summer of 2018 – five contributions in five matches again – as he was still making his first impression in New York.
The player that emerged since that debut campaign in MLS has impressed as well as frustrated, though maybe not in equal parts.
A designated player signing at just 20, Medina was always going to have high expectations surrounding him, especially after the club struck gold with its first DP signing in David Villa. Still, Medina has not quite lived up to his billing in New York, with the stench of inconsistent performances sometimes masked by star attackers around him.
That depth is no longer there, and NYCFC now needs Medina to be the star it’s paying for.
Alexandru Mitrita is out on loan. Hebér, still recovering from a torn ACL, is unavailable to start the season. Maxi Moralez started just 10 games last year, and is a year older at 34.
NYCFC still has enough talent to be a playoff team, maybe even a contender if things break right. But it won’t get there unless Medina takes a step forward.
“I think Jesus had a lot of improvement last year,” coach Ronny Deila told reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday. “For me, he’s very valuable because he works really hard, he’s one of the guys who runs most on the pitch. At the same time, he’s [started] to get better in the last third of the pitch, he’s involved in goals and chances all the time.”
Nineteen goal involvements (chiefly from Mitrita and ex-captain Alex Ring) have departed from last season, and Medina and Taty Castellanos are the only players who had at least five goals last season (The next highest remaining on the team, Anton Tinnerholm, had four on an xG of 1.5, suggesting some regression could be coming).
While Castellanos will be relied on for goals at striker – especially before the return of Hebér – he’ll need healthy support from Medina, who has never topped more than six goals in an MLS season. Especially with the stalwarts remaining elsewhere on the pitch, it’s not an understatement to suggest NYCFC’s hopes of being a real contender live and die with Medina.
Newly minted captain Sean Johnson is still in goal, Tinnerholm returns after a stellar season at right-back, and James Sands and Keaton Parks figure to continue their midfield partnership – at least for now. The spine of a very good team is there – if it can find a way to score and create consistently.
Medina, now 23, will need to answer that question not just in stretches or bursts, and not just later on in the balmy summer months of the season.
After NYCFC’s gentle opening pair vs. DC United and then Cincinnati FC, the team has a five-game gauntlet featuring Philadelphia, Orlando City, Toronto, Columbus and LAFC. Last season’s disastrous four-game losing streak to open the season (it would eventually become six losses in eight) confined the team to a fifth-place East finish – and difficult postseason matchup – even after a strong end to the year.
NYCFC should improve further when Hebér returns, but it can’t afford a slow start to the season. That means getting a consistent Medina.
“Right now he’s good,” Deila said, “but he can be much better.”
New Red Bulls signing could bring balance to attack
The Red Bulls will have a lot of new faces around this season, but the one I’m most intrigued by is left-back Andrew Gutman.
The former Indiana University standout arrives on loan from Atlanta United, but spent his last two seasons with FC Cincinnati (while being owned by Scottish giant Celtic), starting 20 games across two difficult seasons for the team.
Gutman has recorded just one MLS assist and zero goals, but in theory, offers an attacking threat that would foil the energetic Kyle Duncan on the right. While Gutman’s counting stats are unimpressive, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about his future impact.
The ex-Hoosier completed an impressive 60.5 percent of his dribble attempts last season, and also 80.1 percent of his passes, per FBref. Those figures far surpass the dribbling (37.1 percent) and passing (69.7 percent) prowess of Jason Pendant, the team’s primary left-back last season.
A productive Gutman on the left flank would vastly lessen the burden on Duncan, who the Red Bulls relied heavily on for offense last season. Beyond his counting stats (three goals and two assists), the right-back led the team in progressive passes, successful dribbles, attacking third touches and pass targets (passes intending to go to him), as I detailed last year.
Gutman seems to like the fit as well.
“I’ve always wanted to play for Red Bull… I just always felt my quality as a player fit the Red Bull system,” he told the team’s site.
Clearly, the Red Bulls think the same of the 24-year-old – and why not take a flier on a former collegiate Player of the Year?
Gutman could get his first start Saturday vs. Sporting KC.