New York City FC win 2-1 to become Eastern Conference Champions

Dec 5, 2021; Chester, PA, USA; New York City FC celebrate after beating the Philadelphia Union to win the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2021 MLS Playoffs at Subaru Park. New York City FC won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 5, 2021; Chester, PA, USA; New York City FC celebrate after beating the Philadelphia Union to win the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2021 MLS Playoffs at Subaru Park. New York City FC won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports /

On Sunday, both New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union played in the Eastern Conference final for the first time in their clubs’ histories.  Going into the fixture, Philadelphia was missing 11 players due to COVID-19 Health and Safety protocols.  Meanwhile, NYCFC was without Valentín Castellanos due to a red card against the New England Revolution.

To the surprise of many, Ronny Deila made the choice to replace the Argentine with Héber, who has barely played since returning from his ACL injury.  Still, the lack of playing time does not undermine the Brazilian’s talent.  Additionally, James Sands, despite being substituted out from injury in the last game, was also able to start, thus leading to just the one change at the top.

Alas, it was clear NYCFC had the advantage going into the final with many Philadelphia players missing.  However, the underdog mentality of the home side made the match a difficult contest, and anyone watching would have never thought the Union was without key starting players.  Nonetheless, NYCFC fought, and ended up winning 2-1 to become the Eastern Conference Champions, and move on to the MLS Cup Finals.

The first half was nowhere near NYCFC’s best.  While they did lead with possession, Philadelphia held the Bronx side to just two shots.  The team struggled immensely in the attack, and the lack of service and accurate crosses on the wing was noticeable.  This decreased Héber’s ability to take chances.  Yet, with few of the main starters starting for the Union, credit must be given when due.

Second half changes led New York City FC to a 2-1 win, leading the team to their first MLS Cup final appearance

As such, the Philadelphia Union did well to keep New York City FC at bay in the first half.  In the second half, NYCFC came alive, especially when Deila made substitutions in the 58th minute, bringing on Talles Magno, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and Gudmundur Thórarinsson.  Immediately, the three changes made an impact.  Tajouri-Shradi helped immensely in the attacking midfield, Thórarinsson made the left side more of an attacking threat, and Magno led the team to become the Eastern Conference Champions.

It was Philadelphia who struck first though.  In the 63rd minute, Alexander Callens scored an own goal to put the home side in front.  However, that did not last long, and in the 65th minute, Maxi Moralez tied the game for the Pigeons.

From that point on, NYCFC kept attacking.  Philadelphia did have some opportunities, but the Pigeons used their possession, and their experienced defenders, to keep the Union from scoring another.  Excluding the own goal, Callens was once again exceptional, tracking down defenders, making vital clearances, and even moving the ball into the midfield.

But the moment of the match, and the moment that led NYCFC to their first MLS Cup final, was the 88th minute goal by Magno.  Moralez swept the ball toward the left side of the box.  It was not a perfect pass, but Thórarinsson recognized where the ball was going, and immediately got around Philadelphia’s Olivier Mbaizo.  He passed the ball to Magno who was standing right in front of the goal.  The Brazilian then reacted, and put the ball into the back of the net, scoring the winning goal.

Again, it must be highlighted that a Philadelphia Union team that was missing 11 players made the game challenging.  There was no guarantee NYCFC would move on, and the team had to battle it out.  What Philadelphia did out there with their players was incredible, and the team deserves recognition.  Despite NYCFC’s 65% possession and attacking strength in the second half, it truly could have gone either way.

Ronny Deila was a big part of the win

Many have criticized Deila throughout the season, and rightfully so.  New York City FC had the terrible streak where they could barely score and win that only ended less than two months ago.  He often waits too long to make substitutions, and sometimes does not make the right choices. He can also struggle to make adjustments as well.

But in the Eastern Conference final, Deila did everything right.  When NYCFC was struggling, he made early, at least for him, substitutions.  The led to a recognizable change in the play of the game, and increased the attacking opportunities tremendously.

Plus, he took off the right players, for Héber, Malte Amundsen, and Jesús Medina were the players struggling the most on the pitch.  Héber was clearly limited with his minutes, and he was laboring at the start of the second half.  Amundsen was himself defensively, but extremely lackluster in the attack, and had a few too many giveaways too.  Then, Medina was just not playing well at all.

So, the three substitutions of Magno, Tajouri-Shradi, and Thórarinsson were the most important changes Deila made in his career as the head coach of NYCFC.  All three impacted the attacking play with not only moving the ball and opportunities, but the goals as well.  Tajouri-Shradi ended up with the assist on the first goal.  Then of course, Magno scored the winning goal, and Thórarinsson’s ability to maneuver on the pitch led him to get the assist on that winner.

And once again, Thórarinsson proved himself to be the better option at the left-back position.  It has been said many times, but the Icelandic left-back should be the starter, and hopefully this match will lead to that in the MLS Cup final.  Like every game so far, the Portland Timbers will be a formidable opponent, and the Pigeons have only beaten the Western Conference Champions once in all competitions.  So, Deila needs to field an attacking lineup.

The MLS Cup final will be another challenge for New York City FC.  No matter the result, at least the team will have one trophy in 2021, for they are the Eastern Conference Champions.