That changed in a pretty bizarre way.
A wild final act that started with the rarity of a trainer getting a red card and incorporated a PK equalizer for the visitors ended with a pinballing winning goal for the Union – and a 2-1 final that propelled the hosts atop the Eastern Conference table.
The win extended the Union's current unbeaten streak to nine matches – but the win, adding to the weirdness of the narrative, is only the second victory in that stretch against seven draws.
Jim Curtin, responding to the chaos in the post-match press conference, quipped: "Long story short, I probably lost four to five years of my life during these 90 minutes, but we'll take the three points."
The Union head coach declared the opening half "our best half of soccer that we've had, against a really good team, the defending champs that, if you give them time and space, they pick you apart."
But then came the unexpected stretch at the end, beginning with Union trainer Paul Rushing getting a sendoff after mixing it up a bit with NYCFC players while trying to tend to Julian Carranza, to which Curtin remarked: "I put our training staff up against anybody. It looks like a bunch of MMA fighters that we have on the sidelines that could do some damage."
Despite the jolt that brought to the match – energizing the crowd and making Rushing the talk of MLS on a day in which Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini and Carlos Vela made headlines for LAFC – it was a Kai Wagner handball deep into regular time that really changed the match's complexion and made Curtin wonder if his squad was headed to another draw.
"I felt terrible for the guys on the bench because you could rewind it to the emotion of, 'We seem organized, we seem stable, that kind of a play from nothing to a cross happens, and you think there might be something there on Kai's handball,'" Curtin revealed. "You're going, 'Really?' 88th minute, we just defended our butts off against these guys, the guys deserve a win here. And we're going to lose it off of a ball that's point-blank kicked in a guy's hand.'"
Valentin Castellanos did indeed score the equalizer on the PK given to NYCFC, but there were still several acts to go.
What was ultimately the winning goal came from Jose Martinez, who banged the ball off a stationary Cory Burke for a fortunate deflection in the sixth minute of extra time – but that goal went under a lengthy Video Review to determine who the ball caromed off and whether that player was offside. And then, as the Union faithful were waiting for the final whistle to come, the Cityzens worked the ball into the Union box for one more chance, and the match paused again for Video Review to determine whether the Union's Nathan Harriel's hand on the ball was penalty worthy.
This led Curtin to several episodes of what he described as "the sick feeling in your stomach" as he waited out whether a refereeing discussion was going to undo what he argued was a well-earned win.
Still, ever so cautious, Curtin declared his NYCFC rivals to be the most talented team in the conference, but felt this win showed the intangibles and resilience that could land the Union in MLS Cup 2022.
"If we lose today and then Red Bull knocks off LAFC, all of a sudden we're sitting here talking about us being in fifth or sixth place and it feels negative," Curtin assessed. "So the margins are tiny. You can't get too high. I do stand by [thinking] New York City is the most talented team in our conference, but every team goes through highs and lows during a season.
"We went through a tough spell where we tied a lot of games, when we thought maybe we deserve wins. Again, to take two games off of the defending champs is not easy in this league. Every win is so valuable. It's so hard to win games in this league. And when you had that streak of ties, you kind of had the feeling like, 'God, we want that winning feeling back.' So it was a great battle today, a playoff feel, playoff intensity, a strong opponent."
Though the Union will relish sitting atop the table following their wild win over NYCFC, Curtin cautions they could be knocked off their perch if they don't bring the right mentality against Chicago Fire FC on Wednesday (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
"We're happy to be at the top of the Eastern Conference," Curtin said. "But we're not naive and we know that if we're not prepared and ready to go again against Chicago, you get punched in the teeth in this league and you get humbled very quickly."