LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – New York City FC will need to step up their play from last season if they hopes to repeat as MLS Cup champions, head coach Ronny Deila said ahead of the start of the new campaign this weekend.
NYCFC were road warriors during last year’s playoffs, winning three consecutive games in hostile environments including a penalty shootout victory over Portland in the Cup Final to claim the franchise’s first trophy.
But as the North American league kicks of its 27th season more competitive than ever and with a new team in Charlotte, nothing will come easy.
“The goal, of course, is to win again. But MLS now is really, really competitive,” Deila told reporters on a video call.
“Last year we were the best team, and we want to be that this year as well, but we need to improve from what we did last season.”
While their defense, spearheaded by veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson, was solid last season, the team has work to do on the other side of the ball.
“I think we can be better in our offensive play,” Deila said
“Our passing could be better. We can create even more chances than we have done. So it’s about relations. It’s about positioning. It’s about knowing what’s happening before the ball is coming.”
That defense will be put to the test when they visit an LA Galaxy team that includes Mexico striker Javier Hernandez and new additions Douglas Costa and Mark Delgado in their season opener on Sunday.
“We’re going to meet a very good football team,” Deila said.
“They look much tougher than they did last year. They have good individual players. They have a style of play that causes problems if you don’t defend well.”
NYCFC comes into the season opener on a roll after thumping Costa Rica’s Santos de Guapiles 4-0 in Los Angeles on Wednesday to reach the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
This MLS season will highlight the league’s growth and will be different in several ways.
The Feb. 26 start is the earliest ever due to the unique timing of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The MLS Cup will be held Nov. 5, a little over two weeks before play gets underway in Qatar.
The expansion team in Charlotte is expected to draw an MLS record crowd of nearly 75,000 fans for its home opener on March 5, and two more soccer stadiums will open in Nashville and St. Louis, bringing the number of stadiums built for MLS clubs to 26, including nine since 2016.
In 2004 MLS had 10 clubs, and since then it has nearly tripled the number of teams with 28 in 2022.
St. Louis is set to join in 2023 and the league is in talks to place a 30th club in Las Vegas as soccer’s popularity continues to grow in the United States.
“We’ve experienced an incredible shift, a seismic shift, that is showing us all that there’s really no limit to where Major League Soccer can go in the years ahead,” Commissioner Don Garber said.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, editing by Ed Osmond)