In the aftermath of the biggest win of the club’s history, New York City FC were initially thought to once again be underdogs going into the Eastern Conference Finals. The team would be tasked with taking on a strong Philadelphia Union side that would undoubtedly be running high after their own penalty kick win over Nashville SC. Philly was to host, forcing City to once again look for a win in hostile territory.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Days before the clash to decide who would represent the Eastern Conference in the MLS Cup Final, Union head coach Jim Curtin alerted the media that many players had been forced into MLS’s Health & Safety Protocol due to contracting COVID-19. The Union lost 11 players in total, forcing the team to use what was essentially a skeleton crew going into a game that was, historically speaking, of equal importance as it was to NYCFC.
In a matter of hours, New York City went from chippy (yet capable) underdogs, to overwhelming favorites. The table was set for what was sure to be a complete obliteration on Sunday.
Except, that didn’t happen. At least, not in the sense that many thought it would.
Upon the game’s commencement, NYCFC looked lethargic and sloppy. In the first half, they struggled to progress the ball into the attacking third. Left back Malte Amundsen seemed confused and disengaged, almost as if the bright lights of such a massive game were too much to cope with. Striker Héber — replacing the suspended Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos — couldn’t get on the ball and was largely disconnected with the attacking trident of Santi Rodriguez, Jesus Medina, and even the typically unassailable Maxi Moralez. Philly had stuffed the middle of the pitch with as many warm bodies as they could muster, protecting a makeshift back line consisting of MLS old timer Aurelien Collin and Scottish journeyman Stuart Findlay. And it was working.
To make matters even more apocalyptic, Philly were the first on the board due to an unfortunate Alex Callens own goal in the 63rd minute. And for a moment, it seemed like a repeat of the many nightmares NYCFC fans had experienced over the previous five playoff berths. NYCFC were going to blow it to a severely depleted team and once again suffer a defeat on the big stage that fans would be haunted by until an equal or worse failure in the future.
But before that thought could have enough time to manifest itself and move firmly to the front of the City faithful’s collective minds, NYCFC did something we’ve never seen them do in the MLS Cup Playoffs — redeem themselves. Manager Ronny Deila had already thrown in Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Gudi Thorarinsson, and Talles Magno to make a difference.
Be it out of desperation or careful calculation, center back Maxime Chanot would fire off a rocket of a shot from distance. The ball was struck with enough pace and bend, that it forced stand-in goalkeeper Matt Freese into a parrying save. After a deflected follow-up, the ball found its way to the feet of Maxi Moralez who buried the equalizing goal. And from there, City wouldn’t look back.
Tajouri-Shradi, Magno, and Thorarinsson all made a difference on the pitch. And from the equalizer on, NYCFC would seize the control they were supposed to have from the opening whistle. Though not without its share of tense moments, the Boys in Blue rallied against adversity before delivering the death blow.
With time ticking away, a deep-lying Maxi would attempt to switch the point of attack to Thorarinsson down the left flank. At first, the pass seemed destined to be cut out by right back Olivier Mbaizo, Gudi’s hard work and hustle saw him seal out the Union defender before squaring the ball across for Talles Magno to tap into the goal for what would be the deciding moment in a 2-1 win to send NYCFC to the MLS Cup Final against the Portland Timbers.
Unlike in seasons past, NYCFC didn’t melt under the pressure of the moment or fall apart when faced with adversity. Instead, they put their heads down, had an immediate response to a Philly goal, and gave themselves a shot at the league’s top prize.
This was a game that will be talked about for years to come, and NYCFC should be proud of what they’ve done to this point. But the job isn’t done. And it’ll never be done until the Pigeons hoist the MLS Cup.