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New York City FC opens MLS season Sunday against Sporting KC

Coming off a 2017 second-place finish in the East, NYCFC has retooled its back line and added a scoring threat.

David Villa returns in 2018 as the undisputed

David Villa returns in 2018 as the undisputed top option in NYCFC's offense. Photo Credit: Daniel De Mato

New York City FC opens its season Sunday against Sporting KC in Kansas City, Kansas.

The framework from last season’s second place Eastern Conference finish remains in place, but if the Blues want to challenge Toronto FC for the conference crown and chase the MLS Cup, they’ll have to avoid some familiar pitfalls and answer new questions. Here are three keys to NYCFC building on last season’s progress.

Replacing Harrison

Jack Harrison emerged as a qualified complement to star striker David Villa in 2017, scoring 10 goals. Over the offseason, NYCFC sold him to Manchester City, who in turn loaned him to Middlesbrough in England.

That’s left a gap for a No. 2 scorer. It could be Jonathan Lewis, who scored twice in 11 games during his debut season, or new addition Jo Inge Berget, who led Swedish club Malmo FF in scoring en route to its second consecutive league title. However, Berget will miss the season’s start with a quad strain.

Defensive strength

The back line kept NYCFC in a lot of close games in 2017. It’s gone through a bit of a rebuild this offseason with a slew of signings.

The leader remains in keeper Sean Johnson, who ranked sixth in MLS with 96 saves. The defense allowed one goal or fewer in 19 MLS matches.

Saad Abdul-Salaam is a major addition. He was KC’s top defensive player in 2016 but had a limited role in 2017. His reemergence could be a harbinger for NYCFC’s success.

Stay on the field

NYCFC has depth this year, so now it’s all about remaining healthy.

The Blues cruised into second place in the East despite the injuries piling up, especially on the defensive side. With backup signings like Sebastien Ibeagha, Cedric Hountondji and Anton Tinnerholm on the back line and Jesus Medina and Ebenezer Ofori in the midfield, the Blues may be taking hard-learned lessons to the bank to challenge for the conference title in 2018.

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