New York City FC were 25 minutes away from glory.
After a disjointed and tense first half, NYCFC opened the scoring in the 57th minute when a charging Maxi Moralez took his chances from outside of the top of the box and buried his shot past MLS Goalkeeper of the Year André Blake.
It was an improbable goal that shifted the tide in a game that Philadelphia Union were widely expected to win. Unfortunately for NYCFC, that change in momentum lasted just eight minutes. A focused Philadelphia scored on a quick restart that caught NYCFC napping, then scored again two minutes later when a rattled Sean Johnson was exposed by his defense. Philadelphia substitute Cory Burke scored a third goal just nine minutes after that, sinking any lingering hope that NYCFC might pull off an upset and advance to the MLS Cup Final.
It was a disappointing result, but not entirely unexpected for a team that was hit hard with injuries in the win over CF Montréal last week, and that made the trip to
Philadelphia Chester with a squad that wasn't at full strength in the defense or attack. NYCFC simply didn't have what it took to become the first time to beat the Union at Subaru Park this year. Give credit to Philadelphia for having the skill and mental fortitude to come from behind and win 3-1, but you can’t help but think that NYCFC were one or two healthy players from turning an already competitive game into a match they could have won.
NYCFC: 13 shots, 4 on goal, 65.1% possession, 580 passes, 85.9% accuracy, 9 fouls
Montréal: 10 shots, 6 on goal, 34.9% possession, 308 passes, 68.8% accuracy, 19 fouls
To be honest, the game looked lost last Friday, when NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing announced that Maxime Chanot, Maxi Moralez, and Talles Magno were doubtful for the Eastern Conference Final against Philadelphia. New York City’s recent scintillating run of form was directly tied to playing with a mostly-healthy squad after enduring months of injuries to key players.
Moralez made the game-day lineup, scoring NYCFC’s only goal and playing the full 90 minutes, but neither center-back Chanot nor forward Talles Magno even made the bench.
Without Chanot, Cushing asked Justin Haak to fill in at center back — even though the 20-year-old Homegrown who spent most of the season at NYCFC II is a natural midfielder, and had never started as a defender in his career. He was strong at times, shaky at others, but he simply couldn't offer the on-field leadership that Chanot provides.
That caught up to NYCFC in Philadelphia’s second goal, when mental lapses from all three central defenders allowed the Union to take the lead: A lofted cross to Union striker Julián Carranza was headed down into the path of an unmarked Daniel Gazdag, who had a clear shot from inside the goal area.
First, Thiago Martins kept Carranza onside: If he had stayed even with Haak and Alex Callens then the cross would have been offside. Then a jogging Callens let Gazdag make his run without marking or impeding him — instead of sprinting to recover and mark him inside the box, he holds up his arm for an offside call that will never come. Finally, Haak let himself get pulled towards Thiago Martins and Carranza, letting Gazdag float behind him and get into position.
When the goal was scored there were seven NYCFC players in the penalty box, but they were completely outfoxed by Carranza and Gazdag.
It’s hard to imagine this happening with Chanot marshaling the defense. But he was in the stands, watching Philadelphia humiliate the NYCFC defense along with the rest of us.
Good Starting XI, bad substitutions
We’ve often said that we admire Cushing’s tactical acumen: We believe him to be an intelligent and creative coach who has worked miracles with a limited and injury-ravaged squad. There is no doubt that his Starting XI was the best this team could muster, and that he did what he could to prepare them to face a Philadelphia that scored 72 goals and allowed 24 goals in the regular season — that's both the most scored and the fewest allowed in MLS.
For more than 60 minutes, it worked.
Philadelphia were the better side in the first half, but they also looked frustrated and out of ideas. Alejandro Bedoya limped his way to the halftime whistle only to spend the second half on the bench, and NYCFC had to like their chances without the Union talisman on the field: Philadelphia have scored just one goal in their three most recent games when Bedoya wasn’t in the lineup.
Moralez’s goal in the 57th minute was opportunistic, and maybe a little lucky, but it was also the product of an NYCFC that was successfully keeping possession of the ball, and doing well enough in recovery when Philadelphia’s press forced a turnover. Cushing was out-coaching MLS Coach of the Year Jim Curtain.
Until he wasn’t. Curtain brought on Cory Burke for Mikael Uhre in the 62nd minute, and the direct, physical play of the 30-year-old backup striker would rattle the NYCFC defense, and prove to change the course of the game. Three minutes after Curtain’s sub, Cushing brought on Keaton Parks for Gabriel Pereira. Philadelphia would even the score just seconds later.
It wasn't Keaton’s fault, but the choice to sub him on looks like a mistake in retrospect. NYCFC had done the unthinkable – they had taken the lead at Subaru Park – and the prudent thing to do was to hold on for a little bit longer with the team that earned that lead, or bring in a defensive player to try to grind out a one-goal win.
Instead, Cushing brought on the attack-minded Keaton to replace a Pereira who had worked hard to stretch the Union defense on the right. Usually, Keaton is always an upgrade, but his addition threw off the rhythm of the players on the field. NYCFC’s chemistry was never the same.
It felt like Cushing was sticking to a script: If it’s the 65th minute, then bring on Keaton. A coach who can be flexible and responsive suddenly seemed to make a rigid decision that let Philadelphia get back into the game.
Out of the ashes...
Losing is painful, but the lessons you learn when you come up short can prepare you for the next contest. That is, if you're smart about it.
We hope that Cushing is back next year without the “interim” in front of his title: He deserves to be the head coach of NYCFC. We hope that the front office steps up and acquires the players this club needs to contend again, and that the inadequate number of signings made this year is an aberration — Cushing’s NYCFC added just four players this year, while Ronny Deila’s NYCFC added 11 in 2021.
NYCFC Record by Year, All Competitions
Mostly, we hope that a normal, calm offseason will allow the players and staff players to relax, take stock, and prepare themselves to win the MLS Cup in 2023. This is been an unusually long and busy season: NYCFC have played 47 games, the most in MLS this year and the most in club history. By comparison, Philadelphia have played just 37 games — the MLS Cup final will be their 38th.
Cushing took this tired, injured team to within 25 minutes of winning the biggest upset of the season. We like his chances of doing even more next year with a healthy, balanced squad that is rested and ready for 2023.
NYCFC, Maxi Moralez 57’
Philadelphia, Julián Carranza 65’
Philadelphia, Daniel Gazdag 67’
Philadelphia, Cory Burke 76’
Philadelphia, José Martínez, bad foul, 39’
Philadelphia, Jakob Glesnes, yellow card, 90+3’
Referee: Allen Chapman
Assistant Referees: Kyle Atkins, Cameron Blanchard
Fourth Official: Victor Rivas
VAR Referee: Edvin Jurisevic
Assistant VAR Referee: Thomas Supple