This wasn’t the way you’d want to happen...but in their fifth year, New York City FC are the regular season Eastern Conference champs.
This, despite a dispiriting 2-0 loss to a New England Revolution squad that hadn’t particularly distinguished itself in the run-up to the MLS playoffs. Going into this evening’s game, the Revs hadn’t won a game since August 24th. Given that NYCFC had just routed Atlanta - the defending league champions - 4-1 on Wednesday, you wouldn’t have been faulted for thinking New England would lose.
Instead, the game got a bright start, both teams going at each other. The first set of scoring chances fell to New York City in the 11th minute, as they repeated tested the Revs defense and their keeper, Matt Turner. The final chance in that sequence fell to Pigeons’ DP Alexandru Mitriță, who sent his shot well over the bar.
Despite the free-flowing nature of the game, with both sides having chances throughout the first half, halftime found New York City and New England locked in a scoreless draw.
The first couple of clear scoring chances came New York City’s way in the second half. In the 54th minute, Scottish winger Gary Mackay-Steven took a crack from long distance, forcing Matt Turner to make a leaping save. Eight minutes later, in the 62nd minute, Mitriță lined up a free kick just outside the Revs penalty area. His shot seemed certain to score, but yet again, Turner made a wicked reaction save to deny the Romanian.
New England finally broke through four minutes later on a breakaway. Cristian Pennilla and Gustavo Bou worked the ball through New York City’s defense, setting up Teal Bunbury to finally score, giving the Revs a 1-0 lead. Wilfred Zahibo nearly doubled the lead in the 71st minute as he got on the end of a Carles Gil free kick, but couldn’t convert the chance.
In the 76th minute, manager Dome Torrent made his only substitution, withdrawing a largely anonymous MacKay-Steven for striker Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. However, the Revs defense was stout, and the Libyan couldn’t make a mark in the game.
Finally, in the 89th minute, New England forward Gustavo Bou slammed the door on any possibility of a Pigeons’ comeback, scoring to make the score 2-0. The win secured a playoff berth for the Revs, and made possession of the regular season Eastern crown uncertain, if only briefly.
I say briefly because, thanks to a severe weather delay, the second-place Philadelphia Union - next week’s opponents - were still playing the Columbus Crew. As the NYCFC-New England game ended, the second half was just beginning at Columbus. In order to have a shot at first place, the Union needed a victory.
That shot was thrown away in a manner of minutes. In the 69th minute, substitute Youness Mohktar scored to give the Crew a 1-0 lead. Four minutes later, Pedro Santos scored a seeing-eye goal through a thicket of legs to double that lead and close the scoring out. With Philadelphia’s loss, New York City won a first-round bye, and consequently an excellent opportunity to rest players in preparation for a playoff sprint to what could be the team’s first silverware in their five-year history.
In addition to the first-round bye, the loss by Philadelphia means that New York City will be playing in next year’s edition of the Concacaf Champions League for the first time.
Next up for the Pigeons: the season curtain-closer away at Philadelphia.