En route to capturing their first-ever MLS Cup championship, New York City FC was tasked with defeating the formidable Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference Final. The Union was coming off of what was a scrappy Eastern Conference Semifinal in which they defeated Nashville SC in penalty kicks (Nashville notoriously missed all of them). NYCFC and the Union had played three times to this point in 2021, with the teams splitting the regular-season series 1-1-1, including a dramatic Decision Day draw at Yankee Stadium in which a 10-man New York City was able to salvage a point and solidify a 4th place finish in the East.
Both teams came into the Eastern Conference Final about as evenly matches as two teams could be. Neither team had made it this deep into the playoffs in their respective histories. Even though they had to play the game on the road at Subaru Park, NYCFC was teeming with confidence having dispatched the record-breaking, Supporters Shield-winning New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium the week prior. City had also managed a 2-0 win on the road against Philly earlier in the season.
The Eastern Conference Final matchup was set, and it was destined to be a classic. Then, out of nowhere, the inexplicable happened.
Days before the Eastern Conference Final, Union coach Jim Curtin revealed to the media that the club had been missing several players from training due to an outbreak of COVID-19. 11 players in total — including stars Alejandro Bedoya and Andre Blake — were later revealed to be the players missing from training — them being cleared to play in time for the match was next to impossible. In a crisis, the Union fielded players buried in the depth chart, were allowed to sign free agents and even called up some players from their academy. The even matchup had swung completely into NYCFC’s favor, with their victory being all but imminent.
The match itself turned out to be scrappier than usual, with Philly going on the board first after an Alex Callens own goal in the second half. Less than two minutes later, however, City was able to net an equalizer. From there, they would grab control of proceedings before Talles Magno tapped in the late winner after Gudi Thorarinsson capitalized on a Union defensive miscue.
Philadelphia Union fans have refused to accept their loss to NYCFC
The rest is history as NYCFC would go on to defeat the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final in penalties, and the story ends there. At least, one would think.
Since NYCFC’s big win in Philly, many Union supporters have called into question the validity of New York City’s MLS Cup win due to their team being ravaged by COVID-19 in the leadup, and have made a litany of excuses as to why their team didn’t get it done.
This type of vitriol exchanged between the two clubs’ respective fanbases isn’t an anomaly. Even today, some three weeks removed from NYCFC winning the MLS Cup, Union fans have declared City’s big championship win to be tainted due to their team missing a platoon of players due to COVID-19 protocol.
Obviously, to neutral and/or casual viewers, two full-strength teams would’ve been ideal and made for a decent matchup. And it’s extremely unfortunate that many Philadelphia players had to watch the Eastern Conference Final from home. However, NYCFC can only play the team put in front of them. Rescheduling this game was never gonna happen as the MLS Cup Final was to take place less than a week from this game. The MLS Cup win doesn’t get erased just because they beat a team that wasn’t at full strength.
NYCFC and the Philadelphia Union’s back-and-forth is a recipe for a new rivalry
To date, outside of their New Jersey-based counterparts in the New York Red Bulls, NYCFC hasn’t really developed a rivalry with another team. Orlando City was an early contender for secondary rival due to the two teams’ concurrent joining of MLS in 2015 and with the latter not really having much in the way of competition in their immediate vicinity, geographically speaking. However, it hasn’t really amounted to much, and Orlando might have their hands full with both Atlanta United and their new Florida neighbors Inter Miami.
For NYCFC, their rivalry with the Red Bulls will be hotter than ever due to the added storyline of the former accomplishing in 7 seasons what the latter has failed to do in 26. But some side drama with the Union as a result of their back-and-forth could lead to some heated and intense fixtures throughout the upcoming 2022 season.
NYCFC and the Philadelphia Union becoming rivals would be the latest chapter into the historical sports rivalry shared between the two cities — joining the likes of Giants-Eagles, Mets-Phillies, and Rangers-Flyers — and would mark the first occasion in which the NY-PHI rivalry is present in the ‘beautiful game’.