The battle for the right-back position at NYCFC

Tayvon Gray of NYCFC
Tayvon Gray of NYCFC / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC is in a fortunate position.  No, it is not about their current record, which should and could be better.  Instead, it is regarding the right-back position.  The team has two young and talented right-backs available to start, and at this moment in time, it looks like the battle is ongoing for the starting spot.

Who are the two players?  The first is Tayvon Gray, who has developed well over the last couple of seasons.  The 20 year old American took over when Anton Tinnerholm went down injured back in late 2021, and for the most part he was the main starter in 2022. 

Then, the new guy, Mitja Ilenič, was signed before the 2023 season.  At 18 years old, the Slovenian is a promising full-back, and was signed for his potential. 

So far this season, Gray has started in three games, and Ilenič has started in four.  Hence, there is a clear battle for the spot, and neither have solidified their starting role for NYCFC. 

Who should start for NYCFC in the right-back position?

Both are talented players, but who should start as the right-back for New York City FC? 

Let’s start with Gray.  Gray has really blossomed as a solid defender.  His ability to match his opposition on the defensive end has improved significantly over the last year, and he is not afraid to put his own body on the line.  He also has a higher rate with clearances, which is a needed trait for a defender.    

Ilenič on the other hand does well defensively, but there are games where he is not as on point as he should be.  Sometimes, too many opposing players get around him, and he finds himself chasing in his own half.  In his first few games with NYCFC, he has missed some tackles and interceptions, and that can be concerning.  Fortunately, his fellow teammates have bailed him out. 

Offensively, Gray could use some work.  Again, he has gotten better during his time with the Pigeons, but he still struggles moving up the pitch and getting crosses into the box.  Using terminology, is it difficult to call him an attacking right-back, but he slowly continues to improve. 

Meanwhile, Ilenič is the opposite on the attacking side.  He easily runs and maneuvers himself around other players, and gets the ball forward.  His pace and dribbling aids with moving down the right side of the pitch.  The Slovenian tends to be aware of those around him as well.  His passes toward goal are extremely helpful with adding to NYCFC attacking opportunities, so he can be deemed an attacking right-back.  Like Gray, he could improve with his crosses.

Statically, Gray has the slight edge so far this season with interceptions, while Ilenič has the slight edge with tackles.  Again, the American is better with clearances, while his Slovenian teammate is better with dribbles.  Gray also leads in the passing percentage category. 

Ideally, it would be incredible if NYCFC could take the best of Gray, and then the best of Ilenič, and turn that into their starting right-back.  Truthfully, that player would be the best in Major League Soccer.  Alas, that is not something that can be done, but maybe they can both help each other improve on the aspects of their game that needs work.

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At this moment, both have their positives and negatives.  Both have the ability to start, and only time will tell whether one will win the battle for right-back.  Of course, it could end up that both will share the role, and who starts will depend on the opposing team.  Only time will tell whether there is a winner, or whether there is a draw.  But no matter what, New York City FC is in good hands with Gray and Ilenič.