Chanot's presence at ever-evolving NYCFC has Bronx club looking up again

ORANGEBURG, N.Y. -- Whether it is on the training ground or following a match, Maxime Chanot always leaves the field the same way. The New York City FC center-back, one of the longest-tenured players on the team, drops to one knee and lifts his eyes toward the heavens. What follows for Chanot is an intricate ritual that lasts several minutes, a prayer in which he thanks God not just for the game of soccer but for the path it paved for him to escape poverty.

NYCFC in turn should be thankful for Chanot, a fixture of its defense who has played every minute of this season and turned in several dominating performances so far.

The 29-year-old's rugged defending and crisp distribution in transition haven't grabbed the headlines of the former face of NYCFC, David Villa. Now in his fourth season in MLS, Chanot has become a constant at the club -- even serving as captain last year when Villa was injured -- and his emergence this season as one of the league's best center-backs has helped propel NYCFC in recent weeks.

A team once known for fielding stars is now effectively navigating MLS via its back line, and the Luxembourg international is the centerpiece of a very solid defensive group. It's working, too: New York City's 15 goals conceded are the fourth fewest in the league.

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Familiarity has been a key component to that success, with Chanot and central defensive partner Alexander Callens now in their third season together. Their understanding is paving the way: NYCFC is unbeaten in its past nine games and has conceded just seven goals in that span. After a rough start to the year, it's back among the Eastern Conference playoff places where it belong.

When asked about his form, Chanot is quick to credit his teammates and the stability of the back line, but he also talks about how MLS has forced him to become a more complete player, growing beyond simply man-marking and winning balls.

"I have to be honest with myself and improve on the ball since I've been in New York," Chanot told ESPN FC. "If I compare myself this season in 2019 and compare them before I came here ... I'm more comfortable with the ball. It makes me better as a football player."

That a player capped 32 times by his country has experienced growth in MLS runs counter to the narrative that it's a retirement league. Chanot embraces the idea that Major League Soccer has aided his development as a player. Having played in the first or second divisions in England, France and Belgium prior to his move to the U.S., Chanot points to MLS as the place where he began to grow beyond simply defending.

In Belgium, Chanot was told by a coach that "defending is hard, so just focus on defending." Playing in a system in which the center-backs are expected to be a part of the possession meant that Chanot had to not just adapt but evolve.

"At this club, we like to play out of the back. You need to not only be a good defender but be a good attacker, if I can say, with the ball," Chanot said. "It's a little bit tougher than over in Europe, because in Europe, I only focused on my defending side. In New York, we have to do both.

"I'm happy to play the game the way we do in New York, and it makes me improve myself."

More than his fitness in 2019 -- Chanot has yet to play more than 19 matches in his three full seasons in MLS, but he'll likely eclipse his MLS single-season bests in matches and minutes played by July -- is his versatility that's helping NYCFC. Head coach Domenec Torrent lauds his ability to play three different spots along a three- or four-man back line. Torrent calls Chanot "a leader" who with Callens "are maybe the best center-backs in the league ... that's my opinion."

"For me, [Chanot] is much better than last year," Torrent said. "[Last year] he had a lot of problems. He had pain in the back all the time. He's not 100 percent sometimes, but when his back is better, he has more confidence."

Chanot also feels "at home" with this club, turning down offers from Europe to stay in MLS.

"It was a move forward for me, from Belgium to MLS," Chanot said. "I am very happy with this league, with the way that I've grown."

"What initially drew Chanot to NYCFC in 2016 was the opportunity to play alongside the likes of Villa and Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. None of those three are still with the club, but Chanot has been an anchor amid plenty of change as the team has shifted away from being built upon superstar signings.

"I have [had] the chance to play in the Premier League and a championship team in England with Sheffield [United]. I had the chance to play in France with a first- and second-division team. I had a chance to play in Belgium. From Belgium, I think MLS is better."