NYCFC would love to repeat this scene in 2022. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

On Sunday, New York City FC will begin its defense of its MLS Cup title against the LA Galaxy in Carson, Calif.

The Cityzens will try to become only the fourth league side to win back-to-back championships, following in the footsteps of D.C. United (1996-97), Houston Dynamo (2006-07) and LA Galaxy (2011-12).

Can they join those three sides in the MLS Repeat Club?

Of course they can.

As we have discovered in Major League Soccer, anything is possible. But the road to the Philip F. Anschutz trophy, as we have also learned, is filled with potholes and challenges, unexpected and expected.

NYCFC is a tough team. It won three playoff games on the road. The team has depth in many positions. Its resolve showed through last year. And head coach Ronny Deila knows what buttons to push.

As difficult it was to get to the top of the MLS universe, staying there has proven to be more difficult the next season.

Here are some of the challenges the lie ahead for NYCFC:

So many competitions

At the moment, NYCFC will participate in four competitions – in the league, Concacaf Champions League, Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup.

It also will mean Deila will have to rotate several positions when there are three games within a week.

More games also mean the possibility of more injuries. And we’ll get to that subject soon.

Staying put

NYCFC did not add many new faces in the offseason and it remains to be seen if the lack of new blood will affect the team. The club did welcome Thiago Martins, a Designated Player and center back. That will help defensively with James Sands going on a long loan spell with Rangers (Scotland).

It’s great to have the old band back together, but it has been an unwritten rule through the years for teams to upgrade themselves. Plenty of City’s foes have done that.

During the offseason, the Cityzens lost forwards Jesus Medina, who signed with CSKA Moscow (Russia) after his option was not picked up, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (expansion draft), and defender and playoff hero Gudmundur Thórarinsson.

Can NYCFC overcome that loss of depth and ride its team chemistry to glory?

The contenders

After falling short in the opening round, the New England Revolution, the Supporters’ Shield winners, have to be hungriest of Eastern Conference teams. Under head coach Bruce Arena, the Revs might be hard pressed in matching their record-setting 2021 campaign but should be a team to be reckoned with.

The Philadelphia Union, which finished second, is well balanced.  Nashville SC, the king of draws (18 last year), was unbeaten at home (8-0-9) and wound up being a formidable foe for everyone on the defensive end. If Nashville can turn some of those ties into wins, the squad will make life more miserable for opponents.

And knowing Bob Bradley, the gut feeling here is that he will find a way to have Toronto FC battling for a playoff spot.

With a league like MLS, we seem to get surprised every year by a team that comes out of “nowhere.” Come on, who had the Colorado Rapids finishing atop the Western Conference?

Summer transfer window

Will striker Taty Castellanos stay or will he go when the summer transfer window opens in several months? Needless to say, the 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner has been the main man up front and until City has someone to replace him – Heber rounding into scoring form, perhaps – or someone else brought in, the gut feeling here is that the team won’t let him go so quickly.

One reason why many preseason predictions can go awry is the summer transfer window, as a club can bring in a player that can boost it to another orbit.

So, while NYCFC can control its destiny with a player acquisition, it can’t do the same for its rivals.

Injuries

One of the X-factors.

A player turns the wrong way and twists his knee and winds up with an ACL injury. An opposing player rams into your top midfielder, who walks away with a severe ankle or Achilles injury. Your No. 1 goalkeeper slams into the post and suffers a concussion and is sidelined for a while.

Yes, those sound severe and raw, but they do happen.

Even teams such as NYCFC that have depth could be tested if they lose an impact player.

COVID-19

The rates are going down all over the country, but the Coronavirus still can raise its ugly head and bench key players. Just remember what happened to the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year.

I call this the XXX-factor because it can affect anyone anytime.

Heaven help us all if a variant pops up in the coming months.

Late season runs

The regular season can be a rollercoaster ride. Teams could look great one game and then confound their supporters the next.

Teams are supposed to grow during the regular season. The worst thing to do is to peak way too early.

Success in MLS has included squads getting their act together during the stretch run of the regular season and bringing that momentum into the playoffs. As long as NYCFC is in the playoff mix in September, it can position itself to do well in the playoffs.

Lady luck

The regular season is about qualifying for the playoffs and putting a team into position to do well.

Over a 34-game season, there is room for error and correction. If an injured player misses a regular-season game or two, a team can recover.

If a team plays poorly or underachieves, there is always another game.

In the postseason where there is no tomorrow after a defeat, and it can be devastating.

Not taking anything away from NYCFC’s accomplishment in 2021, the team was aided by the fact the New England Revolution, the runaway Supporters’ Shield winners, had a long layoff, due to due World Cup qualifying, and receiving a first-round bye.

Those circumstances certainly didn’t hurt the team’s chances.

Sometimes things need to fall together for teams to make a pathway to the championship game.

Stadium problems

Yankee Stadium availability has gone well beyond ridiculous.

It was difficult enough to schedule games with an historic baseball team being the primary tenant. But when Concacaf deems the venue unworthy of hosting CCL matches, it puts it into another orbit.

This season, NYCFC will play home matches at Banc of California Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, Red Bull Arena and Rentschler Field (Hartford, Conn.).

Five stadiums in four states, which must be an MLS record.

We don’t know what the effects of playing in so many different “home’ venues will have on the team.

Only time will tell.

All I know it is not a good look in so many ways for a league that wants to be known as one of the best in the world.

I give full props to the team’s supporters who have or will follow them from venue to venue.

They and the players deserve better.

Eight years into the club’s existence, this should not be happening. It is mind-boggling, to say the least.

The bottom line

Like I said, NYCFC has many things going for the team. If the club can steer clear of injuries to key players, play well and rotate players when the schedule gets crowded, get momentum going in September, and grab a little luck here or there, it can be a contender again and perhaps join the MLS Repeat Club.

Now, that would be one historic achievement.