That really happened: New York City FC defeated the New England Revolution on penalty kicks after a tense and aggressive 120’ of regulation play in the Eastern Conference Semifinal of the 2021 MLS Cup. NYCFC not only knocked out the top team in the league–the Revs set the MLS record with 73 points this season–it ground out a playoff win in the frigid and hostile environment of a mostly-empty football stadium next to a mall. That wasn't rain you heard on Tuesday night, it was the sound of salty New England tears dripping into plastic cups of Sam Adams.
If NYCFC’s comprehensive dismantling of Atlanta United last week proved that the club could convincingly win a playoff game in the comfort of home, this game demonstrated that City could go on the road outplay what was arguably the most complete team in the league, a squad that most pundits and oddsmakers picked to win the MLS Cup.
The talking heads backed New England right up to the final kick. A penalty shootout without Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos, or goal-scorer Santi Rodríguez? Facing Matt Turner, 2021 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year? Against a fully-stacked Revs squad? No worries, manager Ronny Deila will ask center-back Alexander Callens take the decisive penalty and bury the shot that will take the team to the Eastern Conference Final.
Five penalties attempted, five converted. NYCFC’s postseason yips are history.
Simply put, NYCFC was not supposed to win this game. New England lost only two games on the plastic field at Gillette Stadium this year; NYCFC won just four games on the road—and that includes wins over the punching bags that are FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami FC. In fact, NYCFC’s 4-5-8 road record is dead average in MLS. Writing for American Soccer Analysis, Jamon Moore breaks down the league and shows that the away team wins about 25% of the time, draws about 25%, and loses about 50%. When it comes to away games, NYCFC’s form is normcore.
New England almost always win at Patriot Place mall, and NYCFC rarely win on the road: Got it. But those numbers don't take into account what we learned from NYCFC’s performance in the September 11 loss to New England at Gillette Stadium, when an untimely injury derailed City. As explained in The Bielsa Report: Five things NYCFC supporters should know about the New England Revolution, soccer is a sport in which luck figures heavily: The low scores mean that a game can be decided by a funny bounce or a bad call. In the case of September 11, it was a hamstring injury. Rodríguez scored just 11’ into the match, then limped off the field five minutes later. New England controlled the rest of the game.
Tuesday’s Eastern Conference Semifinal was something like a multiverse replay of the same game only without the injury: Rodríguez scored just 3’ into the match, stayed healthy, and bossed the midfield for the next 110’. Even Rodríguez’s two goals are strikingly similar: Cross from the right, quick shot to Turner’s left, done.
The September 11 game is logged as a loss, but it contained the source code for beating New England at home: Fast start, pressure Turner, keep the ball. It’s as if Deila spent those 34 preseason games workshopping different lineups and tactics to see what clicked so he would know what to do when it really counts. Three-dimensional chess? More like four-dimensional Go.
As for NYCFC’s normy four road wins? One of those was a 0-2 shutout of Philadelphia at Subaru Park.
Sean and Santi and Tayvon and Tony
While New England’s squad was filled with marquee players in the prime of their careers—Poland international Adam Buksa, former Aston Villa playmaker Carles Gil, forward Gustavo Bou, Club Brugge-bound Tajon Buchanan, USMNT starter Turner–the best player on the field was NYCFC’s Rodríguez, a 21-year-old attacking midfielder from Uruguay who tips the scales at 137 pounds. He joined the club in June.
WhoScored.com gave Rodríguez a rating of 8.33 for Tuesday’s game, higher than anybody else on the field. Not only did he score the opening goal, his blistering pace and relentless work rate wore down the New England defense. Not bad for a player who didn’t get his first start until August.
Safe to say, NYCFC won because of Rodríguez. And also because of 19-year-old backup-turned-starter Tayvon Gray. Not only did the Bronx native help shut down the most potent attack in MLS, he assisted Rodríguez’s goal. And because of Sean Johnson, Turner’s understudy on the USMNT. He saved the game at least twice: Once with a diving stop in 68’ when Bou’s deflected shot took the kind of funny bounce that can squiggle in, and again in the penalty shootout when he scooped up Buksa’s attempt. And because of Callens, the center-back who scored just one goal in the regular season, and drilled the deciding penalty into the roof of the net.
While the Revs had their ideal FIFA 21 lineup, City fielded a team with a good number of second-choice players, but you wouldn't know that from the quality of the game. Remember, even golden boy Castellanos is a backup striker, a repurposed forward who was asked to play out of position until Héber returned from injury. He’s adjusting nicely.
NYCFC is now playing like the team supporters knew it could be. Give credit to Delia and his staff for cultivating the technical ability of the entire squad, developing players who are demonstrably better today than they were at the start of the season. (Rather, the pre-season.) Timing is everything, and NYCFC is opening the throttle at the right moment.
About that red card
Speaking of timing, let's talk about that double-foot challenge from Castellanos. It wasn't the striker’s best moment, and while you could argue that his first card was soft and that this tackle should have been his only yellow of the game, the only people who will agree with you were wearing sky-blue shirts on Tuesday night.
However, you could claim that Alfredo Morales put him in the position of making that careless challenge. With less than eight minutes left in regulation overtime and NYCFC leading thanks to a slicing header from Castellanos, Morales inexplicably charges up the left flank at a dead sprint and is stripped of the ball in the attacking third, opening NYCFC to a counterattack. Momentum takes Morales another seven strides past the play—not only did the defensive midfielder give away the ball, he’s now NYCFC’s most advanced player. You can see it in the video below.
Morales should be playing keep-away in his own half, watching the clock, shutting down the game. His lone wolf sprint into enemy territory is mystifying. How do you say “park the bus” in German?
Castellanos sees the danger, responds. Unlike some goal scorers from Argentina, Castellanos tracks back and defends, but his reckless tackle earns him a personal day. It also takes away the closest thing in MLS to a guaranteed goal: Castellanos is on a six-game scoring streak that dates to October 23. We can’t rewrite history, but maybe we can better understand how this red card came to be.
This coming Sunday, NYCFC will have to get a goal out of somebody not named Taty.