MLS Cup Final and Playoffs Review
New York City FC clinched their first MLS Cup title after beating Portland Timbers in a tense penalty shootout at the weekend. It was just their seventh season after joining the league as an expansion team in 2015, and it capped a meteoric rise to prominence for the franchise. We have reviewed their journey to MLS Cup glory and rounded up some of the key things we learned during an entertaining 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
NYCFC Built Up Momentum at the Perfect Time
New York City FC made a bold decision to offload former captain Alexander Ring and experienced defender Rónald Matarrita in the offseason. The club invested heavily in talented young Brazilians Talles Magno and Thiago Andrade to bolster the squad, while left-backs Malte Amundsen and Chris Gloster arrived to replace Matarrita.
NYCFC made an inauspicious start to the season, losing 2-1 to DC United, but they grew in confidence over the course of the campaign. They were in danger of falling out of contention after embarking on a six-game winless streak in the fall, but they ended the season with three wins and two draws from their final five matches, which saw them clinch fourth place.
They carried a great deal of momentum into the playoffs, which ultimately proved crucial. Star striker Taty Castellanos, who won the Golden Boot after banging in 19 goals during the regular season, opened the scoring in their First Round clash with Atlanta United. Alexander Callens then put the Five Stripes to the sword in a 2-0 win for Ronny Deila’s men.
NYCFC was a huge underdog for the Conference Semi-Finals showdown with the New England Revolution, who won the Supporters’ Shield in record-breaking fashion, but Deila’s team had forgotten how to lose by that point. They went toe-to-toe with the Revs on a cold, wet night at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and it finished 1-1 at the end of regulation time.
Castellanos put his team 2-1 up with 11 minutes left of extra-time, but he was then sent off for a reckless challenge, and Tajon Buchanan grabbed a last-gasp equalizer. It went to penalties, and NYCFC held their nerve.
Covid Outbreak Dented Philadelphia’s Chances
NYCFC came up against the Philadelphia Union in the Conference Finals. The Union finished second in the standings, three points clear of Deila’s men, so they were handed home advantage for the game.
Philadelphia beat the New York Red Bulls in the First Round and then got the better of Nashville in a penalty shootout following a tense Conference Semi-Finals clash, but their chances of success were seriously damaged by a Covid-19 outbreak. It meant that goalkeeper Andre Blake, backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik, captain Alejandro Bedoya, starting defenders Kai Wagner, Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes, Jamaican forward Cory Burke, and squad players including Ilsinho, Alvas Powell, Sergio Santos and Quinn Sullivan were missing.
Philadelphia Union were handed Mission: Impossible with such a long list of absentees. A depleted team battled bravely but they ultimately succumbed to a 2-1 defeat. It was cruel luck for Philly, who had another terrific season and might have gone on to lift the MLS Cup were it not for the outbreak.
NYCFC Defy the Odds
New York City FC deserve great credit for defying expectations throughout the playoffs. They came up against a talented Portland Timbers team in the MLS Cup Final, and once again they were the underdogs.
That made sense as Portland had the best home record in the west throughout the regular season, with 11 wins, three draws and three defeats from 17 games at Providence Park. The Timbers eased to victories over Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, and Real Salt Lake in the playoffs to tee up the final showdown with NYCFC.
The home team had won the MLS Cup Final in eight of the past 10 years, however the Pigeons were the more composed team throughout the game. Castellanos was back in the team after serving a one-game suspension for his red card, and he led the line with aplomb. His header on the stroke of half-time put NYCFC 1-0 up and briefly silenced the boisterous crowd. It looked as though they might hold on for the win, but Felipe Mora pounced on a loose ball and swept in a dramatic equalizer in the 94th minute.
Their heads could have dropped, but they rallied in extra-time and defended stubbornly for 30 minutes. “I think we had full control of the game,” Deila told ABC. “We were broken… but this bunch of players, they are winners, they are standing up for each other, they are fighting.”
It went to penalties, and goalkeeper Sean Johnson held his nerve to save spot-kicks from Mora and Portland legend Diego Valeri, who was possibly playing his last game for the club. NYCFC prevailed, sparking joy among the players. “We’ve been in that position before,” said Johnson, as he reflected on the late goal they conceded. “That’s what I told the boys, don’t put your heads down, there’s a lot of the game left to be played. Embrace the moment.”
Deila Strips and Savarese Laments His Team’s Luck
The players certainly embraced the moment after the game. Deila delivered upon his promise to strip off his clothes if his team won, and he wielded the trophy aloft while the Oregon rain pelted his naked torso. He then dropped down and performed a set of push-ups in front of the Cup.
“You have to celebrate victories and today was a big victory,” Deila said. “I said maybe too much when I got hired here [promising to strip], but I don’t regret that. It was a big moment and I will do it again if we keep winning trophies.”
It was a cruel end to a glittering Timbers career for Valeri, who was denied a fairy-tale end to his time in the MLS. The Argentinean maestro has accomplished a lot with Portland – an MLS Cup winner and MLS Cup Final MVP in 2015, a four-time MLS All-Star – but he could not turn the tide of this game in his team’s favor. “This guy helped grow the culture and the team to a different level for the club, for the community,” said teammate Diego Chara as he reflected on Valeri’s contribution to the club since joining in 2013. “It’s been a great experience to play with Valeri for eight years. He’s amazing.”
“Soccer can be cruel, because only one can win and when it's in PKs, it's even worse,” added Portland head coach Gio Saverese. “So we'll have to just make sure that we don’t forget the most important part is that this group today showed why it's in the final. It’s difficult not to lift the trophy at home.”
Garber Delighted with the Outcome
MLS Commissioner Don Garber reveled in the atmosphere on a rain-lashed night in arguably the most passionate soccer city in the United States. Portland’s fans made the game an exhilarating affair, but the Cup ultimately went back to the Bronx.
Garber described the atmosphere as among the best in the world. “This is everything that you want a championship game to be, a city that’s basically been taken over with excitement for their club,” he said on ABC.
He is feeling bullish about the future. The league expands to Charlotte next year and St Louis in 2023, with Las Vegas the current frontrunner to secure the final expansion berth. With the USMNT set to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, and the United States co-hosting the showpiece tournament four years later, things are looking good for the MLS as it works on new media deals.
The Revs will be back next year, as will Portland – probably beginning a post-Valeri era – while Seattle should also rebound quickly from their disappointing end to the campaign. Lots more teams will strengthen in the offseason, so 2022 promises to be another extremely exciting and competitive year.