ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — Through the beads of sweat dripping off his body and the shortness of breath he felt after training on a hot and humid July morning in New York, Gary Mackay-Steven flashed a smile.
It was one of relief because, despite feeling slightly uncomfortable in the moment, the Scottish winger was thrilled to be with his new teammates at New York City FC.
“Absolutely delighted to be here,” Mackay-Steven said as he tried to catch his breath after stepping off the training pitch Wednesday. “It’s amazing feeling to finally be out and training with the boys. So I’m happy it finally got over the line.”
If the 28-year-old had his way, he would have been with NYCFC for the start of the season, when the temperature was a bit more frigid. The club’s initial interest in him came in January, near the end of the transfer window.
The window closed and Mackay-Steven continued his season with Aberdeen in the Scottish Premier League, hoping another opportunity would materialize.
It finally did when his contract expired.
“It was disappointing, obviously, but you can’t dwell on it. Football can change in an instant. So I just had to focus on getting my head down and playing football, and try and do as well as I can and opportunities come up,” Mackay-Steven said. “And certainly when it came up again, I wasn’t going to let slip through my hands again.”
Mackay-Steven broke though with Dundee United, where he had 27 goals and 36 assists in 131 appearances. He moved to Scottish giant Celtic, where he won three league titles before his move to Aberdeen.
He wasn’t lacking options of remaining in his comfort zone. Aberdeen was keen to re-sign him and there was an offer from Portsmouth. But Mackay-Steven wanted a new adventure. He wanted to come to the United States.
His interest was piqued when he got a chance a few late nights to catch MLS matches on Sky Sports in Scotland. He’d visited the States on holiday and liked everything about the county, its vastness, the different cultures and people.
“I knew that this league was a great standard,” Mackay-Steven said. “There’s a lot of great players here, technical players, it’s a huge country, and certainly New York, although it’s a new club, the facilities here already are second to none. I knew that from afar, and certainly it’s hit home being here how big an organization it is.”
Like so many others weighing the option of big overseas move, Mackay-Steven did his homework. He spoke with fellow Scots Johnny Russell from Sporting Kansas City and Alex Cooper, a close friend who competes for Fresno FC in the USL Championship.
“He couldn’t speak highly enough of the league, the standard, the facilities, the level of training,” Mackay-Steven said of Russell, who he’ll reunite with next Friday when the teams meet at Yankee Stadium. “He feels he’s improved as a player, and certainly from the snippets I’ve seen of him, he’s kicked on again. I’m looking forward to catching up with him.”
Of course, there’s been a transition period for Mackay-Steven, the most obvious being the oppressive summer heat in New York and the different climates in cities around the league.
Then, there’s the playing style, which is less different than the weather in Scotland compared to July in New York.
“Back home it was was quite physical and fast-paced,” Mackay-Steven said. “Here it’s very technical, but also fast-paced.”
Having finished an injury-plagued season with Aberdeen in mid-May, Mackay-Steven is working his way back to full fitness. He said Francesc Cos, NYCFC’s director of performance, sent him a regimen to follow while he waited for his P1 Visa.
It was mostly gym work back in Scotland, but it helped him adapt quicker when he was finally able to join his new team after the secondary transfer window opened earlier this month.
“My levels are better since the first day I got in the door,” Mackay-Steven said. “I’ve had a good week’s training and a little bit of match fitness, but ultimately that takes a little bit time to get your sharpness and get to the levels of fitness I know I want to be and where I feel I can contribute best.”
Mackay-Steven’s debut came Sunday night, when he got his first taste of the Hudson River Derby. While it’s not quite the Old Firm Derby between Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers, he was nonetheless impressed with the passion and atmosphere inside Red Bull Arena.
“Obviously I watched the majority of the game, but you could really feel the crowd getting behind the boys,” he said. “You want to play football in atmospheres like that.”
With NYCFC chasing a late equalizer, Mackay-Steven was introduced in the 84th minute, coming on for Taty Castellanos. Even though it was a short stint — nearly 15 minutes with the nine minutes of stoppage time — Mackay-Steven impressed his new coach and teammates.
“I’m very happy with him because he played 15-20 minutes and he did clever passes and I’m sure he will be a good, good player for us,” Dome Torrent said.
“You see that he has something good, but still we have to be patient,” fullback Anton Tinnerholm added. “We know that he didn’t play that many games this year. So we have to give him time. He’s not in top shape now, but you see some details, both in training and in the game, that he has something really good.”
Now comes a different challenge, one at high altitude, where Mackay-Steven may again have trouble catching his breath as NYCFC look to bounce back against the Colorado Rapids Saturday night.
Torrent said his newest signing is “very, very tired right now,” but that he could provide 30-40 minutes against the Rapids.
Mackay-Steven knows he has a lot to show, and a lot to prove, But it’s one step and one deep breath at a time.
“Right now, it’s head down,” Mackay-Steven said. “And when I get my fitness levels up. first and foremost certainly make an impression on the team and help every way I can.”