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SSFC Spotlight: Tayvon Gray taking full advantage of opportunity

The NYCFC defender emerged as a key player.

MLS: Conference Finals-New York City FC at Philadelphia Union Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Young players can wait years for their opportunity for first-team minutes, hoping to be given a chance to impress the coaching staff and claim a place in the rotation. The moment often comes at an unexpected time, necessity born out of an injury or unexpected transfer. Tayvon Gray stepped into the New York City FC lineup last season, taking full advantage and becoming an integral part of the squad. The 19-year-old defender-midfielder was a key player as the club achieved the first triumph in its history, winning the 2021 MLS Cup.

Born in the Bronx, his father is a former professional who was on the books at Southend United. The younger Gray grew up playing for Soccer Domain FC and Cedar Stars Academy, competing at advanced age levels. He trained with Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur, gaining valuable experience and a sense of perspective as to the talent required to become a professional. In 2017, the defender joined the NYCFC Academy, turning down “multiple offers from European clubs.”

Adjusting to a higher level of play, Gray was forced to develop the technical side of his game, displaying the right “attitude, focus, and desire to play at the next level.” He led the club to back-to-back Development Academy National Championships and was named to the United Soccer Coaches All-America Team. NYCFC invited him to train with the first team during the 2019 preseason, joining the camp in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

In November, the club signed him to a Homegrown player contract. “Tayvon’s been in our academy for the past few years and really developed over the last 18 months and we couldn’t be more excited for him to join our First Team and be with us for the future,” shared Sporting Director David Lee. “Signing the contract is the first step for him to continue his development. He’s got a lot of potential and can play a number of positions – we’ve seen him play as a center back, a right back, and in holding midfield – so we want to support his development and help him to maximize his potential.”

After remaining on the outskirts of the squad during his rookie season, Gray made his first appearance in 2021, playing seven minutes in a 5-0 win against FC Cincinnati. “It felt great making my debut, I’ve been waiting for this time all my life,” he said after the match. “[I’m] just proud that I got that off my chest. Time stuck out on the bench, it’s a good moment.”

As NYCFC struggled with multiple injuries later in the year, the opportunity arose for the young player to stake his claim in the lineup. In October, Gray entered into a match against Nashville SC as a substitute, seeing out a scoreless draw. He played in five out of the remaining six regular season fixtures and registered his first career assist in a 6-0 victory over D.C. United.

In the MLS Cup Playoffs, the teenager took a massive role in shutting down a menagerie of the league’s best attackers, playing every minute during NYCFC’s run to the title despite struggles with a persistent leg injury and cramps. His assist in the quarterfinals, a nifty overlapping run and cross, helped clinch an upset over the Supporters’ Shield winning New England Revolution. Gray put in a stellar performance in the final, constantly involved in the victory over the Portland Timbers. He pressed the opponent, regained possession eight times, and made eight clearances.

“Hey, we’re champions, it’s unreal,” the teenager said at New York City Hall during the championship celebration. “I’d give it all for this feeling right here, without a doubt. I wouldn’t think twice. I’d do it all again.”

Gray opened the 2022 season in a similar manner to the previous year and held onto his spot in the formation. He started two matches in the CONCACAF Champions League as NYCFC advanced to the quarterfinals and featured in the opening MLS fixture against the LA Galaxy. The club has established a reputation for selling players, facilitating progression to Europe. Athletic fullbacks are highly sought after with many managers deploying a 3-5-2 formation, making him an intriguing option for a transfer in the near future.

As an international, Gray is a regular member of the United States program at the youth level and could potentially be eligible for Jamaica through his father, while describing current Reggae Boyz fullback Kemar Lawrence as “like an uncle to [him].” The defender helped the U-17s win the 2018 Sportchain Cup in Spain and put in an impressive performance at the subsequent Nike Friendlies, displaying “aggressive defending” when shutting down Portugal and Brazil. He started two matches at the 2019 U-17 World Cup, a quick and winless exit from the competition.

Gray is capable of playing defensive midfielder, right winger, center back, and right back, the latter his “best bet as a long-term, professional” position. From a young age, he was described as “a leader with positivity, energy, and communication” and stood out as an individual defender. According to 90min, there are “still some kinks in his game to iron out, not least some frustrating decision-making in the final third.” Hudson River Blue noted the need to become “more technical” and “add more assists” in order to “reach a truly elite level.”

“He’s a very strong 1v1 defender with a great mentality and awareness due to his youth experience as a central defender,” wrote Marcus Chairez for Chasing a Cup. “Tayvon’s ceiling is going to be based on how much he can develop offensively. I saw great strides in this area last year where he became a more effective piece of NYCFC’s attack and showed the ability to deliver some dangerous crosses into the box.”

The number of American prospects continues to grow, with Gray emerging as yet another skilled, versatile addition to the player pool. He should gain a full year of experience at NYCFC this season, seeming to be trusted at the right back position. While still a developing prospect, his early entry into the professional game has set him up for a steady rise that could lead to Europe and the USMNT.