New York City FC defeated the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference Final in a nervy and often clumsy game, scoring in the 88’ to grab the away win. NYCFC now has its first piece of silverware in club history, and will play the Portland Timbers in the 2021 MLS Cup Final on Saturday, December 11.
NYCFC won 1-2 at Philadelphia, but that scoreline flatters the Pigeons. Officially, the Union didn’t score a goal–Philadelphia’s 63’ shot ricocheted off Alexander Callens for an own goal–but a squad drastically depleted by COVID health and safety protocols held its own against NYCFC in the first half, and looked the better of the two in flashes throughout the game. Nevertheless, key NYCFC second-half substitutes Talles Magno, Ismael Tajouri Shradi, and Gudmundur Thórarinsson jump-started an attack that had stalled, and City sealed the away win.
It wasn’t pretty, but it still counts.
If NYCFC’s comprehensive dismantling of Atlanta United proved that the club could orchestrate a polished playoff win in the comfort of home, and City’s nervy shootout win over the New England Revolution demonstrated that they could outplay what was arguably the most complete team in the league, this game shows that the Pigeons can win ugly if that’s what it takes to get the job done.
No rest for the weary
NYCFC played on short rest, and looked tired from the opening whistle: The energy and passion on display in the game against New England were completely absent. NYCFC enjoyed 65% possession, but the squad often gave away the ball and couldn't string together a coherent run of play—never mind put together a dangerous attack. The highly technical team we saw outplay Atlanta was nowhere to be seen.
In part, it could be because NYCFC’s spectacular 2021 playoff run has taken place over a grueling travel schedule. NYCFC played New England away at Patriot Place mall last Tuesday, then traveled to Philadelphia to play the Union just five days later. The Union, by contrast, had seven days between two consecutive home games.
The cumulative impact of those charters and hotel rooms could be seen in NYCFC’s lethargic play tonight. Nobody on the starting XI covered themselves in glory, but 23-year-old Malte Amundsen was particularly disappointing. While the left-back was one of the brightest lights in these playoffs, today he looked lost and confused.
It isn't going to get any easier for NYCFC. The squad will play the 2021 MLS Cup Final on Saturday, when it travels to Portland to face the Timbers. Portland won the Western Conference Final yesterday, and likely spent today sleeping in, drinking anti-inflammatory turmeric smoothies, and listening to true crime podcasts while working the rollers. Not only will NYCFC play its third away game in a row, it will do it on short rest.
A sub ain't nothing but a sandwich
Today's game changed dramatically in the 58’ when When Amundsen, Héber, and Jesus Medina were pulled for Magno, Tajouri Shradi, and Thórarinsson. Granted, Philadelphia scored 5’ later, but NYCFC’s fresh legs animated a sluggish side that looked like it was going to give away what many thought should have been a straightforward win. (See below.)
Thórarinsson’s 65’ assist to Maxi Moralez let City even the score just two minutes after the Union’s goal, deflating the home team and silencing the crowd at Subaru Park. Then Thórarinsson did it again when his cross was launched into the back of the net by Magno for the 88’ game-winner.
The subs literally won the game.
It was a welcome change of narrative for manager Ronny Deila, a gaffer so averse to making substitutes it sometimes feels like he doesn’t realize that swapping out players is within the rules of professional soccer. While most managers will remove a less-good player for a more-good player if the tactics or scoreline call for it, Deila will resolutely stick with his starting lineup. It’s a level of commitment you rarely see outside of adult swans.
Deila’s substitutions saved the day. Supporters looking ahead to Portland will likely hope he remembers that bringing on new players early enough in the game to make a difference can, in fact, make a difference.
Last week, this matchup was shaping up to be a tough slog for two very different teams. It was going to be NYCFC’s elegant attacking sequences vs Philadelphia’s grinding defense, or as Joe Lister of the Brotherly Game put it to us, the Union was going to follow “a slow, grueling path towards one, maybe two goals” and the win.
The oddsmakers agreed. Thanks to a red card in the New England game to Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos, NYCFC was without as close to a sure goal as you’ll find in the MLS. Starters Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm were injured, and out for the season. While City had pieced together two solid wins, this was going to be a (Commodore Barry) bridge too far.
Then the crystal ball clouded up on Friday, when news broke that a number of Union players were held back from training with the team because of COVID health and safety protocols. Yesterday, it was announced that 11 players were ineligible for today’s match, including key starters Alejandro Bedoya, Andre Blake, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, Alvas Powell, and Kai Wagner.
NYCFC would be without its major scoring threat, but the Union would be without its star goalkeeper, and most of its defensive line. The Union had just 13 active players on its roster, and invoked a hardship clause to add three more. The oddsmakers flipped the numbers, and NYCFC was favored to win.
If only it was that easy. Philadelphia deserves credit for playing like the rightful #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and not a team of backups patched together the day before. NYCFC deserves credit for finding a way to score without its talisman, and coming back from behind in the unfriendly confines of Subaru Park.
But should you want to game out the wouldas, couldas: Did the Union’s improvised lineup lull NYCFC, which lost its focus? Would NYCFC have met the challenge of a full Philadelphia roster and found a way to grab a win? Did the COVID health and safety protocols offset losing Castellanos and playing on short rest, delivering the game to NYCFC?
Those are what-ifs. What's certain is that Moralez scored a banger, Magno danced the winner into the goal, and the NYCFC front office will need to call the architect who’s been on retainer all these years and make sure the stadium that’s going to be announced any day now will have a trophy case large enough for the silver cup Sean Johnson, Alexander Callens, and the rest of the team lifted earlier today in front of a nationally televised audience.