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NYCFC return to Portland in search of another Providence Park moment

The moment MLS Cup 2021 was won. Photo via NYCFC.com

Matchday 20 brings New York City FC back to Portland’s Providence Park for the first time since MLS Cup 2021, the biggest day in the club’s history to date. 

That final against Portland Timbers back on December 11, 2021 will live forever in the hearts and minds of all those connected to NYCFC–players, staff, and supporters, be they there on the scene that day, back in New York City, or watching from elsewhere.  

A first post-Cup trip back to Portland offers NYCFC fans a glorious opportunity to partake in some nostalgia therapy. The first rematch with the Timbers means a legitimate reason to re-watch the final in its entirety, or even just the penalty kick shootout that decided it.

This is an opportunity for NYCFC fans to cope via happy memories, and it comes at a good time, as NYCFC have not win since April 22 and are mired in their worst run of results since their inaugural 2015 season. Fresh off a last-minute capitulation to Atlanta United that extended NYCFC’s winless rut, this feels like an ideal time to welcome back some of the warm and fuzzy memories of 2021’s championship triumph.

That 2021 team’s run to the title still feels surprising, coming after a burst of late-season success for a team that had plenty of talent but had failed on the biggest MLS stages. NYCFC was looking more likely to miss the MLS Cup playoffs entirely than to win the league’s top trophy, yet a run that started with a Gudmundur Thórarinsson free kick to earn a draw at Atlanta United culminated in a historically gritty and resilient performance in Portland.

The scenes produced out in Portland before, during, and after that fateful Cup final remain seared in the minds of many an NYCFC supporter. From the pre-match march to Providence Park on, the day brought with it memory after memory, likely peaking when Alexander Callens’s decisive penalty was blasted into the back of the net to hand NYCFC a first major trophy.

This 2023 meeting with the Timbers won’t be anything close to a rematch of that 2021 final. The vast majority of players from the championship-winning version of NYCFC are gone, a fact you are likely to be reminded of frequently during the AppleTV broadcast of Saturday’s match.

It’s an unavoidable fact that only six members of NYCFC’s 20-man MLS Cup 2021 match day squad – and four players from the Starting XI – are still on the roster now in 2023.

The team has undergone a massive post-Cup makeover and is now struggling to create a new identity for itself. Perhaps a trip back to a venue that still conjures up lots of positive NYCFC feelings will provide an unseen, unquantifiable boost to this struggling 2023 version of NYCFC?

That 2023 version looks like it could use any and all boosts to help it find its footing during what has turned into a slog of a season. The core that won the Cup in 2021 is long gone, and the new version of the first team is still looking for a signature win, a performance that stands out as indicative of what this young group of players can realistically achieve together at the MLS level.

It might be better to compare this year’s NYCFC not to the 2021 MLS champions, but instead to the first iteration of the Boys in Blue who traveled to Providence Park and emerge victors.

I’m referring to the less-heralded 2016 team, one that was slow to find itself under the new leadership and play style of first-year manager Patrick Vieira.

That NYCFC team fell flat out of the gates, only winning one of its first eight matches to start Vieira’s first season in charge. The slow start dissipated by late April, and NYCFC traveled to Portland riding a two-game winning streak while facing the daunting task of a first-ever trip into the rowdy home of the then-defending MLS Cup Champion Timbers.

What followed was arguably the first attention-grabbing road win in NYCFC’s early history. The visiting NYCFC squad absorbed tons of pressure from the Timbers on the day, and were outshot while losing the possession battle comfortably. Yet NYCFC’s defenders and goalkeeper Josh Saunders all put in 90 minutes of commitment that earned something of a shock victory over the defending MLS champions.

That 2016 win came thanks to two brilliant goals, one scored in each half. There was the iconic RJ Allen assist (following a likely handball in the build-up that went uncalled) to David Villa to give NYCFC the early lead, then an almost incomprehensible curling strike from distance by Tommy McNamara that handed NYCFC the three points and announced the arrival of Vieira’s new squad on the wider MLS stage.

It’s unfair to expect a similar outcome when NYCFC again visit Providence Park this weekend, as NYCFC are in putrid form and Portland remains one of the tougher places to go play for teams from the Eastern Conference given the lengthy travel, raucous home crowd, and dodgy turf playing surface.

The inherent difficulties of the assignment don’t change the fact that NYCFC have enjoyed two “signature” wins at Providence Park (the less said about the 3-0 NYCFC loss there in 2018, the better) that each carried with them different levels of significance for the team’s respective seasons.

Obviously in 2021 the win at Portland decided the winner of the most coveted trophy in MLS, so the stakes don’t get much higher. That win in 2016, though, served as an important statement of intent from an NYCFC side that hadn’t yet broken through as a perennial playoff participant and contender towards the top of the table in the Eastern Conference.

NYCFC’s current moment is calling out for a tide-turning result, a positive performance and outcome that can inject life into what has become a too-often-lifeless team struggling to stay in the race for a playoff spot.

It’s no sure bet that the stars will again align for the team at Providence Park, as it’s still no easy task to go into Portland and win. It can’t be expected that a trip back to the place where MLS Cup became NYCFC’s will magically cure all that ails the team.

With all that said, it still feels as though there’s something of a mystique-and-aura-tinged connection between NYCFC and Providence Park. The stadium has been kinder to NYCFC than it’s been to most other visitors.

Now, as NYCFC remain desperate for things to start going their way in 2023, the team will hope Matchday 20 sees it continue making positive, perhaps season-defining memories on the turf at Providence Park.

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