NYCFC playoffs win Eastern Conference by beating Philadelphia to advance to MLS Cup

New York City FC beat the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference Final in a nervous and often awkward game, scoring in the 88 ‘for the away victory. The NYCFC now have their first piece of silverware in club history and will face the Portland Timbers in the 2021 MLS Cup Final on Saturday, December 11.

NYCFC won 1-2 in Philadelphia, but the score flatters the Pigeons. Officially, the Union didn’t score a goal – Philadelphia’s 63 ‘shot ricocheted Alexander Callens for an own goal – but a team significantly exhausted by COVID health and safety protocols held their own against NYCFC in the first half, and looked the better of the two in flash throughout the game. Nonetheless, key second-half NYCFC substitutes Talles Magno, Ismael Tajouri Shradi and Gudmundur Thórarinsson launched an attack that stalled, and City sealed the away victory.

It wasn’t pretty, but it still matters.

If the complete dismantling of NYCFC Atlanta united proved that the club can orchestrate a playoff victory from the comfort of their own home, and City’s edgy victory over the New England Revolution demonstrated that they can top what were arguably the most complete team in the league, this game shows that the Pigeons can win lousy if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

No rest for the tired

The NYCFC played on a short rest and looked tired from the opening whistle: the energy and passion displayed in the game against New England was completely absent. NYCFC enjoyed 65% possession, but the team often gave the ball away and couldn’t get a consistent streak of play, let alone a dangerous offense. The highly technical team that we saw surpassing Atlanta was nowhere to be found.

In part, this could be due to the fact that the spectacular 2021 NYCFC playoff run took place during a grueling travel schedule. The NYCFC faced New England at the Patriot Place Mall last Tuesday, then traveled to Philadelphia to play against the Union five days later. The Union, on the other hand, have had seven days between back-to-back home games.

The cumulative impact of these charters and hotel rooms could be seen in NYCFC’s lethargic game tonight. No one in the starting XI covered themselves in glory, but Malta Amundsen, 23, was particularly disappointing. While the left-back was one of the brightest lights of these playoffs, today he looked lost and confused.

It’s not going to be any easier for NYCFC. The team will play in the 2021 MLS Cup final on Saturday, when they travel to Portland to face the Timbers. Portland won the Western Conference final yesterday and probably spent the day sleeping, drinking anti-inflammatory turmeric smoothies, and listening to real crime podcasts while working the rollers. The NYCFC will not only play its third straight away game, but it will do so on a short rest.

A sub is nothing but a sandwich

Today’s game changed dramatically in 58 ‘when Amundsen, Héber and Jesus Medina were taken out for Magno, Tajouri Shradi and Thórarinsson. Granted, Philadelphia scored 5 ‘later, but the fresh legs of the NYCFC animated a sluggish team that looked like they wanted to reveal what many thought should have been a straightforward victory. (See below.)

Thórarinsson’s assist to Maxi Moralez in 65 ‘allowed City to equalize the score just two minutes after the Union goal, deflating the home side and silencing the crowd at Subaru Park. Then Thórarinsson did it again when his cross was thrown into the net by Magno for the winner of the 88 ‘.

The subs have literally won the game.

It was a welcome change in storytelling for manager Ronny Deila, a blunderer so reluctant to make substitutes that he sometimes feels like he doesn’t realize that swapping is part of the rules of professional football. While most managers will take a worse player out for a better player if tactics or scoring require it, Deila will steadfastly stick to her starting lineup. It’s a level of engagement you rarely see outside of adult swans.

Deila’s replacements saved the day. Fans who are considering Portland are likely hoping he will remember that bringing in new players early enough in the game to make a difference can, in fact, make a difference.

Missing entries

Last week this game was shaping up to be a difficult task for two very different teams. It was going to be NYCFC’s sleek offensive streaks against overwhelming Philadelphia defense, or like Joe lister fraternal play told us, the Union was going to follow “a slow and exhausting road towards one, maybe two goals” and victory.

The punters agreed. Thanks to a red card in New England’s game against Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos, the NYCFC wasn’t as close to a safe goal as you’ll find in MLS. Starters Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm were injured and sidelined for the season. While City had pieced together two solid wins, it was going to be a bridge (Commodore Barry) too far.

Then the crystal ball darkened on Friday, when news broke that a number of Union players have been barred from training with the team due to COVID health and safety protocols. Yesterday it was announced that 11 players were ineligible for today’s game, including main starters Alejandro Bedoya, Andre Blake, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, Alvas Powell and Kai Wagner.

NYCFC would be without its main scoring threat, but the Union would be without its star goalie and most of its defensive line. The Union only had 13 active players on their roster and invoked a hardship clause to add three more. The bettors reversed the numbers and NYCFC was the favorite to win.

If only it was easy. Philadelphia deserves credit for playing as the legitimate No.2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and not as a backup team assembled the night before. NYCFC deserves credit for finding a way to score without its talisman and come back from behind into the hostile confines of Subaru Park.

But if you wanted to play on the willas, couldas: Did the improvised Union programming appease the NYCFC, which has lost its focus? Would NYCFC have taken on the challenge of a full Philadelphia team and found a way to win? Did COVID health and safety protocols make up for the loss of Castellanos and playing on a short rest, delivering the game to NYCFC?

These are hypotheses. What is certain is that Moralez scored a bang, Magno danced the winner in the goal, and the NYCFC front office will have to call the architect who has been under contract all these years and make sure the stadium which will be announced overnight will have a trophy case large enough for the silver cup that Sean Johnson, Alexander Callens and the rest of the squad won earlier today in front of a televised audience at the nationwide.

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