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Roundtable discussion: Looking back at the 2021 season

Hudson River Blue’s panel of writers look at NYCFC’s title-winning season

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson with MLS Cup poses and greets fans...
A man of the people.
Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Welcome to the Hudson River Blue Roundtable, in which Arjun Ahuja, Noah Kassell-Yung, and Oliver Strand look back on New York City FC’s title-winning season.

First, let’s go way back to the start of the 2021 regular season. How did you think this year would unfold?

Arjun Ahuja: In terms of where we rank in the Eastern Conference Table, 4th sounded about right. But the beauty of MLS and is that the 4th place team had a chance to show that it was a lot better than its record.

Noah Kassell-Yung: Expectations at the beginning of every season for an NYCFC fan are high. The coaches, players, and front office are always voicing the championship aspirations of the club. But coming off another devastating playoff exit last year, paired with the previous uninspiring season of play under Ronny Deila, my expectations were low. I expected a playoff team, but not a championship-winning one.

Oliver Strand: What did I think at the start of the season? Easy: Make the playoffs, out in the first round. That’s what we do, right?

What was the biggest moment of the regular season?

NKY: The Gudmundur Thórarinsson free kick along with Thiago Andrade’s last-minute winner. Both are tied for the moment of the year. However, the Taty Castellanos goal against the Philadelphia Union on Decision Day was crucial. If NYCFC lost to Philadelphia they would have slipped to 6th in the East and would’ve had to play away games all through the post-season. City only played that one game at home, but the comfortable win against Atlanta United cemented belief in the team.

OS: Demolishing DC United 6-0 in front of the home crowd. Thórarinsson’s goal against Atlanta stopped the club’s freefall, but this game was the 180-degree-turn that put NYCFC into title-winning form. Remember, NYCFC were counted out of the playoffs at the point—DC United were expected to squeak in. It helps that I was in the stands with my son and his pals, and they were jumping around like a pack of wild animals. It was a personal catharsis.

AA: That drubbing of Orlando City at Yankee Stadium. It showed that when everything was clicking, City could reach a level of football that could compete with some of the best on the continent.

What was the lowest point?

AA: The two straight disappointing Hudson Derby results. After getting absolutely robbed at Red Bull Arena with a phantom handball call, City came out flat at home to round off a horrible string of results. Good to know things would pick up from there.

NKY: That’s right, the inability to defeat the New Jersey Red Bulls stands out. First, the extremely late undeserved penalty, and then the following two defeats. They were a part of the poor run of fixtures NYCFC had where they consistently failed to play at their best.

OS: I think the game against the Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium hurt the most. NYCFC looked so good at the start of the game, so intense, with Castellanos making so many frenetic runs at goal, but it came to nothing. Then the Red Bulls did their Red Bulls thing and snatched a win that they probably deserved.

Now for the playoffs. What was the biggest moment of the postseason?

NKY: Sean Johnson’s penalty save against Adam Buksa against the New England Revolution truly set the playoff run into motion. The save broke two curses: A penalty shootout win, and a place in the eastern conference finals. Both feats the club has failed to overcome.

AA: Sean Johnson’s performance against the Portland Timbers. I have yet to rewatch the game because I don’t think my heart is ready for that just yet. But some of his saves were season-changing, stand-on-your-head type of stuff.

OS: Maxi Moralez converting his penalty in New England. We’ve seen Maxi fail in the penalty box so many times, in so many ways, and here he had to step up in what was probably the most important penalty in his career up to that point because NYCFC didn’t really have any attackers left on the field. He was the desperate choice. I couldn’t watch because I was sure he was going to miss, and it would have been ok, even expected, because who thought he could beat Matt Turner? It took tremendous mental strength to make that shot.

The lowest point of the postseason?

OS: The first half against the Philadelphia Union. NYCFC was garbage against a second-string team. It felt like a return to August.

NKY: It’s difficult to imagine a less straightforward cup-winning run. With every high there seemed to be an inevitable low. Taty’s red card and late Tayvon Buchanan equalizer against the Revolution, Alexander Callens’s own goal against the Union. However, none gets worse than Felipe Mora’s game-tying strike in the final—just seven seconds away from winning the title. It’s hard to concede a more painful goal.

AA: I don’t think I’ve ever been part of such a terrible moment as when Portland equalized in stoppage time. What a moment for them, but wow that really sucked. Our heroes ended up on top though, so win some, lose some.

The turning point of the postseason?

AA: Maxi’s penalty in New England. Winning at Gillette especially via Penalty Shootout gave some players at the club confidence to show that they, in fact, could win a penalty shootout. The loss in the Leagues Cup this year in penalties was tough, but Maxi stepped up like the consummate professional he is, and buried his penalty.

OS: The win against Atlanta. It was NYCFC’s first convincing postseason win ever, a comprehensive dismantling of a legit playoff squad. It was a regal end to NYCFC’s postseason yips.

NKY: The Revolution was the best team on paper that NYCFC faced all postseason. Winning in that fashion against the best regular-season team in history, illustrated perfectly how this season was different than previous ones.

Now for individual players. Who was the player of the year?

AA: No other than our very own starboy, Taty Castellanos. The Golden Boot winner showed his full arsenal this season which will no doubt go down as the stuff of MLS Legend. He was willing to hold up play, do the dirty work, and boy was he entertaining. Taty was worth the price of admission and more. With him inevitably moving on, I wish him nothing but the best wherever he goes.

NKY: Sean Johnson deserves an honorable mention, and his playoff heroics secured his NYCFC legacy, but you cannot look past Castellanos. The Golden Boot winner exhibited his talent through the final stretch of the regular season and playoffs. He carried the team, placing the ball in the back of the net at the most crucial times, with three goals in three games in the playoffs.

OS: Sean Johnson. Not just for his regular-season play and playoff heroics, but for the leadership he brought to the team. NYCFC won the title in good part because of the squad’s cohesiveness—Johnson was asked on the field at Providence Park to sum up the team, and he said “family.” That’s it, one word. I think that sense of family was the difference between this and previous NYCFC squads.

Who was the most improved player?

NKY: James Sands easily had the best season of his career at both club and international levels. He featured in many different positions for NYCFC. He played center-back, right-back, defensive midfield, and even at times a ball-progressing midfielder. That flexibility and talent cannot be understated.

OS: Tayvon Gray. The 19-year-old homegrown was an understudy who became a star. Now we know what he’s capable of doing, but did anybody think at the start of the playoffs that he would be able to match up against the best forwards in MLS, never mind feeding NYCFC’s attack?

AA: Sean Johnson. There have been big moments in past playoff games where it seems like our #1 had cost us points, and results. None of that this playoff run. In fact, he made many big saves in almost every game that kept City alive and fighting.

Who was the greatest disappointment?

AA: It’s hard to be disappointed with much. But I’d say I was disheartened to see Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm miss out on such a magical run. Both of them were so vital to the type of football that we play, and I wish they could have played a larger role.

NKY: Jesús Medina’s inability to take his game to the next level has been a disappointment. He started the season off strongly, scoring five in the first seven games but then proceeded to only score four goals for the rest of the season. His inconsistency has been frustrating as moments of brilliance are followed by head-scratching plays.

OS: Medina. You look at his tricky flicks with Maxi in the box and you think, the kid’s got talent. Then he misses a sitter and you think, yep here we are again.

Any thoughts on the front office, and how the club’s executives handled this season?

NKY: They deserve a lot of credit for acquisitions. Both Malte Amundsen and Alfredo Morales were slotted in beautifully, while the midseason additions of Thiago Andrade, Talles Magno, and Santiago Rodríguez brought depth and talent to the roster. All of these players slotted into the starting lineup for stretches through the regular season and postseason contributing heavily.

AA: We’ve seen that the 3.0 model in MLS is to build a deep and talented squad bolstered by young talent. David Lee, and City Football Group in general, are some of the best in the business. Nothing less than this City and the obvious passion for football it possesses deserves. Stadium next, please?

OS: This title-winning season was set in motion when Ring was traded in December of 2020. His departure brought in money for key singings, freed up Parks and Sands to handle the defensive midfield, and allowed Johnson to become the leader in the locker room. The front office gets full credit for making that bold move.

Try to be honest: Where did you stand on #RonnyOut this season? How do you feel now?

AA: I was never #RonnyOut. I don’t think it’s rational to call for a manager’s head based on results in Major League Soccer. There is so much parity and scheduling wonkiness in the league that could adversely affect results. The underlying numbers (yes stats go brrr) behind the football that his side was playing were excellent. Historically excellent. This Cup run was not a deviation from those numbers, but a vindication of them.

OS: I was one-hundred-percent #RonnyOut, and now I’m one-hundred-percent #RonnyIn—I’ll get my tattoo changed next week. Still, I don’t understand why he didn’t make timely subs this year—there are some games we coulda, shoulda won that are on him. In my defense I’ll say that I always thought he was a good coach: He makes players better. Just look at Castellanos, who we forget was a Plan B—he won the Golden Boot because Deila turned Héber’s backup into the best attacker in the league.

NKY: I have been #RonnyOut since midway through his first season. This feeling did not change drastically this year, especially when the team looked like it wasn’t even going to qualify for the playoffs. My opinion fully switched however in the playoffs. His game plans were well thought out, his substitutions against Philadelphia won NYCFC the game. His ability to keep the team motivated and galvanized through painful late equalizers forced me to rethink my opinion. I am now #RonnyIn.

Let’s leave this on a pithy note. Can you summarize NYCFC’s season in one sentence?

AA: Sure. Ahem, CAMPEONES, CAMPEONES, OLE, OLE, OLE!

NKY: This was the year that expectations finally met reality through the defeat of historically insurmountable obstacles for the Boys in Blue.

OS: Family.