NYCFC is in many ways built on big names. There's worldwide stars such as David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. There's its manager, Euro- and World Cup-winning Patrick Vieira. There's its owner, City Football Group, which includes Manchester City under its umbrella. There's Argentine DP Maxi Moralez and rising star Jack Harrison, who just received a call-up to England's U-21 squad. The club plays in Yankee Stadium.
But as NYCFC looks ahead to the MLS playoffs, the club’s second postseason appearance in its three-year history, it can point to one of its lesser-heralded signings as one of the reasons for its success in 2017. Peruvian defender Alexander Callens played every single minute of the 34-match regular season, and his presence at the back has helped New York City concede 14 fewer goals this year than it did in 2016.
Callens has much praise for Vieira, and what he has done for this team throughout the season. The 41-year-old French manager instills a training environment where there are no favorites, and Callens says that when you arrive at training, your reputation means very little.
“When you come here and train, you have to show up as it was your first day,” the 25-year-old center back told SI.com. “You have to work everyday, you have to be a professional everyday, so one day, after all the hard work, Mr. Vieira places that faith in you. And once you get it, you do everything you can to stay there.”
His words resonate with reality as Callens, who since arriving at NYCFC in January from Numancia, in Spain’s second division, has been a fixture in the club's lineup since his arrival.
“He’s a really good character in the dressing room,” Vieira said earlier this month. “The players love him, he’s played all the games and as a team we’ve improved our defending because of Alex Ring, Alex Callens and Sean Johnson. They improved the stability of the team and Alex has been terrific.”
Not everything is going well for NYCFC, however, as the team is not entering the playoffs in the best of form. Vieira’s men ended the last seven matches of the season with just one win and face an energetic Columbus Crew, who outlasted Atlanta United in a dramatic knockout affair last week.
Emotions will be high on Tuesday evening for the first leg at Mapfre Stadium, given the recent development that the team may be relocating to Austin, Texas, in 2019. But Callens pays no mind to what is going on with his opposition.
“The most important thing is to worry about ourselves and to focus on the details during training. If we take care of what we need to take care of then we’ll be fine,” he says.
Having played in Spain for six years, Callens has a lot of praise of MLS. Sure, he states there are still plenty of areas that need improvement, but to disregard it as an inferior league is to ignore the level of talent that already exists.
“I think many people love to talk and criticize, but to really understand this league, you have to play in it. First learn what it’s like to play it, then you can compare it to something else.”
The Peruvian is also happy to see other countrymen in the league, as this year MLS also welcomed the arrival of Yordy Reyna and Yoshimar Yotún who arrived at Vancouver and Orlando, respectively.
“To me, more Peruvians in the league can only be a good thing as the whole world can see that we belong and can be respected as international players. I talk to them all the time and am so happy they are also here in the United States.”
Thanks to the hard work of head coach Ricardo Gareca, the country’s reputation has undoubtedly increased in recent months, as thanks to a fifth-place finish in CONMEBOL's World Cup qualifiers, La Blanquirroja are preparing for an intercontinental two-legged World Cup playoff series against New Zealand. It’s an incredible achievement and opportunity for a country who had to fight for a playoff spot in what is arguably the hardest qualifying group in the world, and it's on the cusp of its first World Cup since 1982.
But it’s bittersweet for Callens as he hasn’t been part of the national team setup since being called in Peru’s preliminary roster for last year’s Copa América Centenario.
“I’ll be honest, in the beginning of this year not being selected really affected me. I questioned myself asking, ‘Do I need to change something or improve my game in some way?’ So I kept questioning myself. But in the end I left that kind of thinking behind and only focus on my club. He (Gareca) never gave me a reason why I’m not selected, but I have to be realistic and respect the fact that certain coaches have certain preferences and the other guys are playing really well so if he didn’t select me now, he’s probably never going to do it.”
Callens is very matter of fact when he talks of Peru and totally understands Gareca’s decision making. There are no complaints coming from him. If anything, you can’t argue with results and the added fact that the central defensive position for Peru is very deep, with Christian Ramos and Alberto Rodriguez solidifying the starting roles, backed by the fact that Gareca is leaning more towards young players who play domestically, such as Miguel Araujo and Luis Abram. But the truth is that Callens, at 25, can still make an impression on the Argentine coach, and if Peru does beat New Zealand, Callens could yet work his way into World Cup contention.
For now, Callens’s attention is fully on helping NYCFC reach its first MLS Cup final and the chance to play for the trophy. Perhaps then, his name will be even more well-known, both at home and abroad.
“The best teams in the league are in the playoffs so the key difference between winning and losing will be the small details. So all we need to do is minimize the errors and play the way we know how to play. We’ve maintained a good rhythm all season and the fact that we ended second in the conference justifies that.”