New York City FC wins first MLS Cup on penalties

PORTLAND, OREGON - DECEMBER 11: Members of New York City celebrate after defeating the Portland Timbers to win the MLS Cup at Providence Park on December 11, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OREGON - DECEMBER 11: Members of New York City celebrate after defeating the Portland Timbers to win the MLS Cup at Providence Park on December 11, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /

It was only about two months ago where the idea of New York City FC going to the playoffs was on the line.  Going into that turning point game against Atlanta United, the Pigeons had only won once in their previous nine games.  At that point, the season looked to be over before it was even completed.

However, the Gudmundur Thórarinsson goal to grab a point in Atlanta changed everything.  And now, NYCFC played in their first MLS Cup final this past weekend, finally proving they are a team that can compete in the playoffs.  The Pigeons had to travel to the incredible Providence Park to take on the Portland Timbers, and like every match in the playoffs, it was a challenging task.  Portland’s home ground is a hostile environment, and the fans make it difficult to play there.

Yet, it is not impossible for an away team to win at Providence Park, for it was done four times in 2021.  The challenge for NYCFC is that they have only beaten the Timbers once in their history.  Hence, the team would have to give it their all on the pitch.

After a challenging and thrilling match, and despite the hostile and poor weather environment, NYCFC shocked Rose City, and won the MLS Cup final after a 4-2 penalty kick shootout.

For the first time in club history, New York City FC won the MLS Cup

One part that did not help the game was clearly the weather.  The wet and windy conditions caused multiple players to slip and slide on the pitch.  Since Providence Park has turf and not grass, this gave an edge to Portland as NYCFC players were the ones who fell the most.

Nonetheless, it was New York City FC who struck first.  In the 41st minute, the Argentine connection led to a goal once again.  The Pigeons had a free kick and Maxi Moralez, as he has done with most of the free kicks, went ahead and took it.  He drove the ball into the box, and Valentín Castellanos was there.  He jumped into the air, and headed the ball down toward goal.  Portland’s goalkeeper Steve Clark got his hand on the ball, but in the end could not make the stop.  The ball crept in, and put NYCFC in front.

From that point on, the Pigeons played their hearts out.  They continued to attack, but defensively they were on point.  Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot were putting on another defensive masterclass, for they made vital clearances and helped regain possession numerous times.  At least, that was the case until the dying seconds of the second half.

Unfortunately, the Portland Timbers were able to pull one back before the final whistle blew.  Felipe Mora scored off of an attacking sequence, and Sean Johnson could not stop the goal.  There was controversy though, for it looked like Maxime Chanot was fouled right before the goal.  It was not called, and instead the final went into extra time.  The Pigeons also fell asleep when Chanot was fouled, and did not play, or in this case defend, until the final whistle.  Sometimes the sport is cruel, but the team should have done better in that moment.

Extra time, the penalty kick shootout win, and looking at the season

Meanwhile, extra time was an even battle.  At first, New York City FC was tired, and made some poor mistakes and fouls.  Instead, it was Portland who was the more together side, and had the help of their fans.  They controlled the pace of the match, but in the second half of extra time, NYCFC found themselves again, and retook control.  Still, neither side could find the back of the net, and for the second time in the 2021 playoffs, the Pigeons found themselves in a penalty kick shootout.

NYCFC was able to capitalize on four of their five shots.  But it was Johnson who was the hero, for he saved the first two penalty kick attempts.  He was clearly in the zone, and made the saves he could make.  Then, for the second time in the playoffs, Alexander Callens stepped up to take the winning penalty, and put the ball right past Clark, sending the goalkeeper the other way.  The center-back, who had a phenomenal game, secured the MLS Cup for NYCFC.

When looking at the match from a fan perspective, New York City FC was merely seconds away from winning it all.  But this entire season has been insane and full of challenges, tribulations, and triumph.  It was fitting that the final went to penalty kicks, and the team had to continue their fight to become champions.  Plus, the Pigeons were not supposed to even be in the final.

The fact the Bronx side turned the season around, won three of their last five regular season fixtures and drew the other two, and also went to the MLS Cup final, is an incredible accomplishment.  Most predicted the team to finish much lower than fourth place, and very few thought these players could even win multiple playoff games.

Additionally, NYCFC and Portland were equally formidable opponents to one another.  Putting the environment of Providence Park aside, it truly could have gone either way, and it ended with NYCFC on top.  Minus the goal allowed, the Pigeons played well for most of regulation and extra time.  And then, Johnson came out for the penalty kick shootout, and made those two saves.  More importantly, the usually unreliable penalty kick taker Moralez executed his second penalty in these playoffs.

Finally, there is the big elephant in the room.  It would be foolish to think Castellanos will not make the jump to Europe after his incredible Golden Boot winning campaign.  He deserves to follow his dream, and should take the next step this winter.  But instead, he can do it as a MLS Cup champion.

This season was a whirlwind for fans.  There was a time where the playoffs were in question.  But now, the team, the club, and fans can celebrate.  New York City FC are the MLS Cup Champions, and finally after almost a decade, a trophy is coming home to New York.

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