The first 64 minutes against a depleted Philadelphia Union team on Sunday sparked a familiar feeling in the pits of the stomachs of all NYCFC fans. The team looked slow, disjointed, and uninspired. Easy passes were misplaced, second balls were not won, and all of a sudden the Pigeons found themselves down 1-0.
Memories of derby duds passed through my mind, the late penalty conceded in 2019 vs Toronto, shoutout misery in Orlando, and a plethora of times in which the team plain and simply did not show up in pivotal moments throughout club history.
It took Maxi Moralez just 90 seconds to remind me that this team is different. The Union goal sparked NYCFC, a team also facing notable absences, to life in a moment that so easily could have led to a disappointing death.
NYCFC are just one win away from MLS Cup glory. Much will be written before and after that match, with the tone varying largely depending on what happens in Portland on Saturday. However, regardless of that result, 2021 NYCFC is different than any iteration that came before it.
It starts with Ronny Deila. I’ve been critical of Ronny at times for his substitution patterns and squad selection, but this team plays hard for him and I would now run through a brick wall for him. Each match on this improbable run to the final has had at least one moment that shows this, and just look at the way the team responds to him in the video NYCFC tweeted below.
The playoff run really started on Decision Day the last time that NYCFC faced Philadelphia, with a home playoff berth on the line. NYCFC were down a goal and a man within a half hour, the type of nightmare start that has plagued them in the past. Despite that, the Night Owls fought hard and played well enough in the second half to earn a point that allowed them to host Atlanta in the first round.
In the Atlanta match, NYCFC was just OK in the first half. Deila clearly got in the ears of the players at half time, who came out of the tunnel on fire to score 2 goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half. In New England, the team came out to start the match similarly energized and went up a goal on the Supporters Shield winners within 3 minutes.
Even at the end of the match, having just conceded a heartbreaking equalizer that led to penalties, NYCFC did not blink on it’s way to scoring each of their 5 shots.
Deila and his staff have created a mental toughness and strength in character that has frankly eluded this team in the past. Bad moments do not end games, and rather create opportunities to respond, as seen clearly in Philadelphia.
There is also a clear presence of leadership on the field. Sean Johnson has taken over as captain this season, and made important saves every step of the way this postseason while organizing a back four that has performed very well. Callens and Chanot have grown as a partnership in each season, and it’s clear that they have given young players like Tayvon Gray the confidence to express their ability.
James Sands plays like a player who could captain this squad some day should be not try his luck in Europe, while Maxi Moralez is a calming influence who dictates the tempo of the team. Up front, Taty Castellanos’ relentless pressing and ability to win duels is almost as impressive as his golden boot. His energy sets the tone for the rest of the squad.
While NYCFC teams of the past were cursed with fragility, poor fortune, and an inability to rise to big occasions, this squad has changed that narrative entirely. New York City is going into their biggest match ever, in a difficult environment, against a terrific team. While this would have frightened me in the past, this squad has turned that pit in my stomach to a sense of real belief.