NYCFC owe Eastern Conference Final place to Sean Johnson and defense

Oct 23, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, Canada; New York City goalkeeper Sean Johnson (1) looks on during
Oct 23, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, Canada; New York City goalkeeper Sean Johnson (1) looks on during / Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, New York City FC traveled up to Canada to face CF Montréal in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals.  It was expected to be a tough challenge for the Pigeons, especially since their opponent has had a fantastic second half of the season. 

Meanwhile, Talles Magno was back on the bench, but Tayvon Gray and Alfredo Morales were still not available.  Surprisingly, Keaton Parks did not start, as many thought he would since he has been great off the bench.  Yet, Nick Cushing put out a good starting XI, and the team had a chance to win on the road. 

Truthfully, CF Montréal played the better match.  They had over 63% of the possession, consistently were on the attack, and had 18 shots with eight on target.  They won the majority of the duels, barely gave up the ball, and had a higher passing accuracy.  The difference, though, was that NYCFC had a superb defensive performance. 

The defense allowed the Pigeons to stay in the game, and in the end, Montréal could not capitalize on their dominance.  As a result, the Bronx side won, 3-1, and will move on into the Eastern Conference finals for the second year in a row.

New York City FC’s defense secures win against CF Montréal

New York City FC first started the fixture outplaying the home side.  They controlled the pace of play, and were hungry for a goal.  Consequently, they went up in front early in the sixth minute.  Once again, they had a team goal, and Maxi Moralez was the final player to touch the ball, for he easily put it in the back of the net.

After the goal, the momentum completely shifted to Montréal.  To make matters worse, NYCFC was forced into an early substitution after an injury to Maxime Chanot.  The center-back went down injured after an impressive team defensive effort, and as such, Parks came on.  This forced the Pigeons to go back to four in the defensive line for the rest of the first half.  In the second half, Justin Haak was brought on and, at points, acted as the third center-back.

But especially after Chanot was subbed off, the home side was on the offensive prowl for most of the match.  Between the work of Sean Johnson, and the entire team, the Pigeons were able to hold off Montréal.  Yes, the change made a difference in the team’s play, but the defense stayed strong. 

In fact, Johnson himself had seven saves.  Three of those saves happened from the 88th minute on, and the second to last save was extremely critical.  Mason Toye was right in front of goal, and headed it on target.  Without Johnson’s quick reaction, and then the clearance afterwards by Alexander Callens, Montréal likely would have added another goal. 

Needless to say, the result would have been completely different without Johnson’s top-tier performance.  He did not do it alone though, for the defense had 32 clearances in total.  Those clearances were critical, for Montréal never stopped.  They just kept attacking and attacking, but that did not scare NYCFC into backing down. 

It was a defensive effort, but New York City FC scored goals too  

Despite the consistent defensive effort, New York City FC still took their opportunities when given, and luckily they were able to double the lead before the end of the first half thanks to a counter-attack. They even added a third thanks to a penalty kick in the second half by Talles Magno.

It was the second goal by Héber though that solidified the direction of the game.  For most of the first half, it looked like Montréal would level the score, and get their first goal.  The entire half was an action-packed, edge of your seat, kind of fixture, and it is somewhat unbelievable that no goal came for the Canadian side.

Hence, the Pigeons took their chances when given, and at the end of the first 45 minutes, plus stoppage time, they were able to get the ball back in the defensive third and start a counter-attack.  Santiago Rodríguez started it for NYCFC, and moved the ball up the right side.  At the same time, Héber made the run down the middle of the pitch. 

Eventually, Rodríguez passed the ball to Moralez, who then swept the ball to the midfielder.  Rodríguez then made the through pass to Héber as he continued his run.  With one touch, the Brazilian rolled the ball pass the opposing goalkeeper.  That would be the winning goal, for the dominant Montréal could only secure one goal late in the match.

Now, for the second year in a row, the Pigeons will travel to Philadelphia and play in the Eastern Conference finals.  Although, this year will be a whole new challenge, for the Philadelphia Union is playing fantastically, and has had a year to remember.  They are also predominantly healthy , and will not be without numerous players due to COVID like in 2021.  Plus, NYCFC lost both of the games against the Union in 2022, so it will be a tough wall to climb. 

Nevertheless, New York City FC has done it before, so anything can happen.  And as seen on Sunday, they can be out-played, and still come out on top.