ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — Before Tayvon Gray reached his 12th birthday he would go to Valley Park near his home in the Bronx for kick-arounds with his father, Kevin and other older men. The setting was informal — outside of a regular club team environment — and was a critical component in his growth.
Gray, a New York City FC Academy product, signed a Homegrown contact on Tuesday with NYCFC. He is the fourth Homegrown for NYCFC and the first from the Bronx. Gray will join the first team full-time for the opening of preseason on January 11.
“Oh yeah all the time,” Gray told Pro Soccer USA when asked about playing pick-up with his father and twin brother Kayvon.
Kevin Gray is a former England professional for Southend United, currently in League One under the management of Sol Campbell.
“I think that helped my competitiveness,” the younger Gray said. “It was just so competitive that when I come here, there was not anything that I couldn’t handle.”
The 17-year old Gray started with the Bronx Youth Soccer Club followed by Tab Ramos’ club, Cedar Stars Academy, in New Jersey.
He joined the NYCFC Academy in 2017 and eventually played on back-to-back U-19 U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championships.
Gray credits playing up in age by three years, and then two, for his development in the NYCFC Academy.
“It was more playing up and playing where the game is faster and then that’s how you develop,” Gray said. it. “You realize you have to step your game up to play with the older guys.”
Of course, he was accustomed to that, getting bumped around in the streets and parks in the Bronx — which also helped prepare him for the international level. Gray started a pair of matches for the U.S. U-17 National Team in World Cup qualifiers this fall and subsequently received multiple offers from European clubs.
Instead, he chose the 20-minute subway jaunt to his new soccer home, Yankee Stadium.
“We worked with him and his family to make sure he’s comfortable and try to give him the time and space he needs to make the right decision for him,” NYCFC’s newly-named sporting director David Lee told Pro Soccer USA. “It’s obviously a decision we wanted and we’ve spoken to him regularly over the last 12 months to make sure he knows how much we value him.”
While identifying the physical dimensions at last year’s preseason camp in Abu Dahbi and in numerous training sessions with the first team, Lee suggested there were intangibles which also led to Gray’s first professional contract.
“First and foremost, he’s a great personality,” said Lee, who was promoted from technical director following the departure of Claudio Reyna last week. “He’s a terrific person and is a really good leader.”
Sam Pugsley, NYCFC’s academy director, made similar observations of the winsome Gray.
“What’s quite evident is his joy of being on the field and he’s always playing with a big smile,” Pugsley said. “And I think that transfers to everyone else in the academy. I remember the 19s were sharing some space with the 12s and Tayvon sat down with the 12s and started asking their names and doing different handshakes with them. It was unprompted. For me, that’s the type of family atmosphere and the type of leadership that you want from your older players.”
Next for Gray is to prolong his development, which began at NYCFC under the tutelage of U-17 coach Rodrigo Marion.
“When I went to Rodrigo, he’d say I made a mistake and I didn’t want to hear it,” Gray said. “And then I kind of grew with him and got better because I was doing something right. So, through that process he definitely helped me a lot.”
Matt Pilkington then guided Gray at the U-19 level.
“A lot of the credit is to Rodrigo and Matt for getting him prepared for this,” Pugsley said.
The selection of Gray’s next coach is pending following the exodus of Dome Torrent. Regardless, Lee suggested not to make playing time assumptions even though the central defender depth is a strength for a team that finished atop the Eastern Conference. Homegrown James Sands, Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens and Sebastian Ibeagha all return for New York City.
“I think we never want to put a time on it,” Lee said about the emergence of Gray in MLS. “I think if you asked the coaching staff before preseason last year, did they think James would have been in the starting XI the first game of the season? Tayvon will have a lot of competition and we’ve got to make sure his development is at the right pace, but we’re also going to provide him opportunity if he’s performing and doing well. That’s the motto for the club, to make sure we give these young players the chance to play when they deserve to play.”