For a second, it looked grim; like it might not be meant to be. Having dominated the Portland Timbers for a majority of the game, with a 1-0 lead after a Taty Castellanos header to show for it, New York City FC conceded a goal in the dying moments of stoppage time to send the game into extra time. The City Curse that had haunted the team since its inaugural MLS Cup Playoffs seemed to have come back, this time on the biggest stage. But on this day, NYCFC wouldn’t be denied.
Early on, the game was everything a well-informed pundit would expect. NYCFC, one of the best possession teams in MLS, held the ball for a majority of the run of play. Portland, one of the worst possession teams in the league, hedged all their bets on beating City on the counter. And by the end of the first frame of 45 minutes, Ronny Deila’s system reigned supreme.
In the 41st minute, Tayvon Gray utilized some nifty footwork to his advantage, drawing a foul from a frustrated Portland defender. That foul proved important as on the ensuing free kick, midfield maestro Maxi Moralez delivered a beautiful in-swinging ball towards the far post. There to meet it was none other than 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos who put just enough pace on his header to beat goalkeeper Steve Clark. With Taty’s 22nd goal in all 2021 competitions, NYCFC was up 1-0 going into halftime in the biggest game of its history.
For a majority of it, the second half produced more of the same. Though the Timbers were not without their chances, the center-back pairing of Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens held strong as City’s attack continued to provide pressure and threaten Portland’s defense. All things considered, the Boys in Blue had outplayed their Cascadian opposition for the majority of the game.
But NYCFC would be dealt a blow in the dying minutes of regular time that almost seemed to signify doom.
In the fourth and last moment of extra time, Portland had sold out to get a goal. All City had to do was clear the ball into touch, and the win was theirs. Unfortunately, chaos in the box saw a deflected shot fall to the feet of the wide-open Felipe Mora who effortlessly slotted his shot past a diving Sean Johnson. Chanot and many of NYCFC’s defensive corps angrily protested referee Armando Villareal and his crew for a foul on Portland’s Larrys Mabiala, but they fell upon deaf ears. Within a matter of seconds, NYCFC went from imminently crowned champions to having to grab another goal in extra time.
For most of extra time, New York City looked like a deer in the headlights. The momentum had completely shifted in the Timbers’ favor. Johnson would be forced into action on multiple occasions and it seemed inevitable that Portland would eventually break through and rob the Night Owls of the glory.
But it didn’t happen. Despite their shellshock, NYCFC managed to wither the storm and force the game to penalties. But even then, history wasn’t on their side. Despite City’s PK win over the New England Revolution, this game was still just one year removed from perhaps the biggest PK embarrassment in football history when NYCFC would be eliminated by Orlando City in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, despite an outfield player being in net for half of it.
In order to win their first-ever MLS Cup, the Boys in Blue would have to conquer the demons of their past.
NYCFC won the coin toss and elected to go first. Naturally, Taty Castellanos was the first to step up to the spot. Tay’s pacy strike to Clark’s right rooted him to the goal line, giving the Boys in Blue first blood. Sean Johnson came up big in response, denying stoppage-time hero Felipe Mora, giving NYCFC a 1-0 lead after one frame.
Things took a dark turn when Alfredo Morales would have his shot saved by Clark, but SeanJohn again came up clutch, saving a shot from the one and only Diego Valeri in what could be his final match with the Timbers. After two sets of penalty kicks, NYCFC still led 1-0.
Maxi Moralez was next. Maxi’s tumultuous history of shooting from the penalty spot had been well documented, even if his stone-cold take against the Revs’ Matt Turner did a little to quell the concerns. Maxi went right, Clark went left. The diminutive Argentinian playmaker had officially put to bed the criticism.
Portland’s Santiago Moreno would score Portland’s next PK, followed by Talles Magno converting his on a wonderfully executed stutter step. Cristhian Paredes would follow up with a PK goal of his own, bringing it to the fifth and final frame. Alexander Callens — who scored the game-winning PK against the Revs weeks prior — now had a chance to have the final say. If he scores, NYCFC win their first MLS Cup. If he doesn’t, Portland can even it up with a goal of their own.
But the Peruvian Ironman stepped up big once again, putting his laces through the ball past a helpless Clark to put the City Blue flag at the top of the MLS mountain.
Emotions ran wild. NYCFC fans rejoiced. MLS Twitter got salty. Oh, and Ronny Deila made good on his promise and stripped down to his skivvies! A team nobody thought had any real chance of making the playoffs, much less winning the top prize, at the beginning of the season had silenced the naysayers and the so-called “experts”, reducing anyone’s backtalk to mere white noise.
Not only is New York blue. So Is MLS. It’s been a hell of a ride, City fans. We’re glad to have experienced it with you.