This was Cascadia unleashed, with all its humid and hazy sound and fury. Rain was pounding Providence Park. The gusts of wind that lashed the renovated stadium proved too much for the big inflatable MLS Cup trophy, which meekly crumbled during the pre-match ceremony on Saturday afternoon. And the crowd was vintage Portland, loud and busy, ready with flags, drums and smoke. Some supporters had slept on the sidewalk to make sure they secured their seats. A long night out of Providence Park is one of many quirky and ingrained football traditions typical of a city and region that have embraced the sport differently, and arguably with more fervor, than any other country.
This is what New York City FC has had to face. A club that had known little but playoff failure in its short seven-year history had to manage an environment steeped in decades of devotion, not to mention symbolically inhospitable weather (including a well-aimed flying beer can), the controversial, a draw in extremis and then, finally, the tension of penalty kicks caught between the teeth of the Timbers Army.
It’s hard to think of any New York team as underdog or upstart, especially the one backed by the wealthy and ambitious City Football Group conglomerate. But the contrast between this year’s MLS Cup contestants was real. The Timbers are a Portland institution. NYCFC is essentially homeless – it will be commuting to baseball stadiums next season – and it strives for relevance. Winning a title in that context, and burdened with that pedigree, seemed like a big demand for any finalist in the championship’s 26-year history.
Pedigree and relevance change with the leagues. The brands are enriched with a star on the shirt, and the NYCFC will have earned the one it will wear starting next year thanks to the gritty triumph on Saturday. The visitors were undaunted. They didn’t crumble. The New Yorkers took the final in Portland on their home ground and took the lead with a first-half goal from a young CFG star. NYCFC then swept away the punch goal in the hosts’ stomach to prevail, 4-2, on penalties after the 1-1 draw. US national team goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who has been in the Bronx since 2017, made two saves on penalties and then, as captain and Cup MVP, hoisted the trophy over hostile territory they had captured. Keeping a promise he made to his players, NYCFC manager Ronny Deila stripped off in his underwear and pushed up to celebrate.
The NYCFC win denied Portland a second MLS championship and, instead, took the title to the largest market in the country for the first time. Rivals New York Red Bulls, who are also familiar with the frustration of the playoffs, fell in their only MLS Cup final in 2008.
For the winners, it was a championship campaign of continued resilience, marked by significant injuries to several key players and the hassle of commuting between Yankee Stadium and Red Bull Arena. With only five games remaining in the regular season, NYCFC had only won one of nine and were below the league’s generous playoff line. A death draw in Atlanta seemed to ignite a spark, however, and NYCFC finished with three wins in four games and fourth-seeded Eastern Conference.
A relatively stress-free 2-0 win over Atlanta in the playoff opener then, somehow, seemed to set NYCFC on a different playoff path. Despite having the most regular season points in MLS since 2016, the Bronx Blues had only won a single postseason round in five previous Cup races. It was as if they were saving all their balance and luck for this fall.
And so, when Supporters’ Shield-winning New England Revolution looked rusty after a long hiatus, NYCFC took advantage, scored two goals and advanced on penalties at Foxborough. Then in last weekend’s Eastern Final, the Union of Philadelphia was decimated by the coronavirus and succumbed late to the depth and pressure of the visitors. NYCFC deserved to advance on both occasions. He figured out how to stay in knockout matches and then see them out. So as the penalties approached on Saturday, Johnson told his teammates to consider the opportunity. Against all odds, they were on the verge of a championship.
“We said before penalties, don’t look at it as a pressure situation. Embrace the moment, “Johnson told ABC during the Providence Park camp.” I just wanted to stay there and do what I can to help the team. We came forward great. I was able to get a couple of saves and the boys they buried the rest. “
The Timbers denied by Johnson from 12 yards, Felipe Mora and Diego Valeri, are respectively top scorer and icon of the league. The big names of NYCFC have gone differently. And these are big names in relative terms, not huge figures like David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, the legends who signed when the club launched in 2015 (only Villa fared well). Despite CFG’s generosity, NYCFC has evolved in its approach, prioritizing finding the kind of second-tier stars that thrive in the United States and Canada and that so often inspire MLS champions. Think of the likes of Valeri, Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, Seattle’s Nicolás Lodeiro, Atlanta’s Miguel Almirón and Columbus’s Lucas Zelarayán.
NYCFC has a duo in veteran playmaker Maxi Moralez, 34, and 23-year-old forward Taty Castellanos, who won this season’s MLS Golden Boot. NYCFC certainly spends money, but not extravagantly. His payroll was the sixth-highest in the league this season, according to the MLS Players Association, and Moralez, once selected as Best XI, was ranked ninth individually. CFG’s resources and benefits are as much about scouting, experience, connections and reach as they are raw roster expenses.
When he signed from Club León in early 2017, Moralez said he couldn’t miss the opportunity to work with the likes of Villa, Pirlo and then manager Patrick Vieira. Castellanos, who was a steal at $ 776,000 this season, hailed from CFG’s Uruguayan club, Montevideo City Torque. With 10 teams in 10 countries, CFG can transfer and loan players up and down the leaderboard. And while NYCFC is yet to see one of its products remain in Manchester, it has developed the likes of Gio Reyna and Joe Scally by benefiting from the pipeline below. The titles are also being won. CFG teams from Manchester, Melbourne, Mumbai and now New York are reigning league champions.
Moralez limped conspicuously towards halftime in Portland, but remained in the game and struck a perfect free-kick in the 41st minute that fell on Castellanos’s head wide open. His header went through the hands of Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark. Saturday’s final was the Argentine’s seventh consecutive match with a goal. Jesús Medina was hit by the can while celebrating NYCFC.
Moralez remained standing to convert his penalty into shooting. His young compatriot, Castellanos, was also successful.
Once dressed, Deila praised Moralez at his post-match press conference.
“He would never get out of that field. This was Maxi’s game. It has been here for many years. … Now he gets the big trophy and he deserves it, ”said the manager. “There wasn’t a thought in my mind that was about to explode.”
Determination in the face of pain, and in the face of the elements, crowds, setbacks and perceived injustice have proven to be the difference. NYCFC protested unsuccessfully against Portland’s 94th-minute draw. Timbers central defender Larrys Mabiala appeared to have fouled Maxime Chanot during the frenzied buildup, but neither the referee nor the VAR agreed and Mora was there to sweep the ball home. Chanot was furious. NYCFC then scored a bit, Deila acknowledged, but was able to survive the revitalized Timbers and another 30 minutes inside Providence Park. NYCFC then went 4 out of 5 on penalties.
“When you come back from there, through the two extra times and then at the end even with the penalties in this stadium, on the artificial [surface], with the time they love to do, and the vibe was electric, “Deila said.” So faith, discipline and hard work, honest hard work, are paying off and it’s good to see. “
It was an appropriate microcosm of a season, one when the comforts of home were hard to find, and when there were often many clouds present before the sun finally came out.
“It all came together in the end. What we have done in these playoffs and also the month before we reach the playoffs is truly impressive. I’m so proud of the guys, “Deila said.” You can see the honest work, how they deal with tough times during the game. They come back. They support each other, they give everything for the club and for each other. It was great. And now they are winners. They are winners and this will be there forever. “
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