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577 Days Later

Saturday’s home opener against Cincinatti marks City’s first game at Yankee Stadium (with fans) in over a year and a half

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I still remember September 25, 2019 quite well. I remember stepping off of the D train at the legendary 161st St. and River Ave. stop. I remember walking up the stairs onto 161st and smelling that signature South Bronx aroma. I remember checking in with the two nice ladies at the press gate before taking the elevator up to the press box a few levels above.

But most of all, I remember that indescribable sound — 25,000 strong at Yankee Stadium.

This was no ordinary game. At the time, New York City FC were in a tight battle for tops in the Eastern Conference. A win on this night — their final home game of the 2019 regular season — against the dangerous Atlanta United could clinch the East should the Philadelphia Union do anything less than beat the San Jose Earthquakes on the road.

It wasn’t ideal, either.

James Sands had been out for a while with a broken collarbone. Anton Tinnerholm was unavailable due to a concussion. Primary striker Héber would start the game on the bench having recently returned from an injury. And Keaton Parks was listed as questionable with a hamstring injury. This forced manager Domé Torrent to play Tony Rocha in the midfield, as well as going against all conceivable logic by putting Sebastien Ibeagha — usually a center back — at right back.

But the soccer gods would be in favor of NYCFC that night. Though he didn’t offer much in the attack, Ibeagha would hold strong at the right back position. Tony Rocha was extremely dependable in the midfield. And DP winger Alexandru Mitrita left Atlanta’s attack in ruins with a first-half hat trick.

Though the Five Stripes would pull one back, the Bronx Blues would bury the dagger late-on with a returning Héber cruising past the opposing keeper, burying an easy shot, and capping off a triumphant 4-1 in City’s final home match of the season. Captain Alexander Ring would triumphantly address the supporters after the final whistle. Oh, and Allen Chapman gave out 9 yellow cards. Great job, champ!

We were all elated. As we travelled down to the home locker room, we could hear the cheering from the Boys as Domé addressed them. We could see Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak make his way into the locker room. Once we were finally granted access to the locker room, every player was super excited to talk about how excited they were to have the Eastern Conference title, a first-round playoff bye, and a 2020 CONCACAF Champions League berth potentially in their grasp.

It wasn’t meant to be, unfortunately. Not on that night. Philly won on the road in San Jose and City would clinch on the road the week after. Regardless, what a way to end the 2019 season!

Little did we know, this would the last time we’d experience this in the South Bronx for a while.

NYCFC would play their sole home playoff game that year at Citi Field in Queens due to the Yankees’ playoff push. A game that would end in a soul-crushing 2-1 defeat after some interesting defensive decisions from one Ronald Matarrita.

It’s been a long time since that glorious day in September of 2019 — the NYCFC now is vastly different than the NYCFC then. Coach Domé Torrent “mutually” parted ways with City before the 2020 season, and in his place came Ronny Deila. The world has descended into chaos following the COVID-19 pandemic. New York City is no longer the powerhouse they once were and are instead projected to be teetering at the edge of playoff qualification.

But the road back is upon us as Saturday, April 24, 2021, marks the first time in 577 days that NYCFC will host a game at Yankee Stadium with fans in attendance — 7,000 total. It’s not much, but it’s something. City will face FC Cincinnati where a certain disgraced left back now calls home.

I’m kinda bummed that I won’t be able to be there for that as I’ve since moved from New Jersey to Florida during the pandemic. But I’m sure that however many people that are there will come out in full force in my absence.