New York City FC are reminding everyone they’re still a team that’s capable of repeating.
The defending MLS Cup champions put forth their second-straight dominant performance Sunday at Stade Saputo, knocking off No. 2 seed CF Montréal, 3-1, to reach the Eastern Conference Final, setting up a mouth-watering rematch with the Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park on Oct. 30 (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
NYCFC's lopsided victory comes on the heels of their 3-0 thumping of Inter Miami CF in Round One of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, as the Cityzens have outscored their opposition by a combined 6-1 so far this postseason (and 14-2 over their ongoing six-match winning streak across all competitions).
“I think the two playoff games have shown two sides of our game,” interim manager Nick Cushing told media postgame. “Miami, we played a lot of football, we were dominant. Here, we played some football, we were deadly on the counterattack, and we can show that we can suffer and defend the box. I think that gives everybody a lift knowing that as long as we play the moment, we have a good chance of getting results against anybody.”
Peaking at the right time
NYCFC’s run is even more impressive given the amount of turnover they had to endure midseason, losing head coach Ronny Deila in June (to Belgian side Standard Liege) and reigning Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Valentín Castellanos in late July (loan to LaLiga’s Girona).
There were many moments of uncertainty along the way, including a 10-game rut this summer (1W-7L-2D). But collectively, they’ve found a way to overcome adversity and click at the right time, something Cushing attributes to the players' overall buy-in.
“It sounds like a cliché but it’s hard work,” said Cushing when asked how the team has managed to sustain success despite the midseason changes.
“It’s hard work, it’s togetherness, and it’s dealing with whatever is in front of you. We go on a run and win four games, we make sure that we stay humble, we keep our feet on the floor, and we prepare for the next game. We go on a run of losing five games, we stay together, we become accountable.”
More than that, NYCFC's key veteran players have stepped up in a big way this postseason. Maxi Moralez opened the scoring on Sunday and has goals in both of NYCFC's playoff games thus far. So does Héber, who doubled NYCFC’s lead right before halftime thanks to a clever run and finish.
But perhaps no one has been more important than goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who made seven saves, including a number of highlight-reel-worthy stops in the first half, to keep a pressing Montréal team off the scoresheet.
“I’ve said before about Sean’s leadership: He always, as our captain, helps the team," Cushing said. "He comes up with big moments and this season, he has come up with a lot of big moments. I don’t think you can underestimate the moments today because when we changed to a back four, it just did not work. They dominated us completely. … The two saves he made in the first half were world-class."
Massive test awaits
Up next for New York City is a visit to Subaru Park in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
On that day roughly 11 months ago, the Pigeons knocked off a shorthanded Union side that was missing 11 players because of the league's health and safety protocols. After that 2-1 win, they defeated the Portland Timbers via a penalty shootout to lift MLS Cup 2021.
To repeat history and prove any doubters wrong, NYCFC will have to overcome a full-strength Philadelphia squad – a team that has been the cream of the crop in the East this year and has yet to drop a game at home.
“Ultimately, we’re going to plan for a football game,” Cushing said. “I understand that [the media] is going to write the narrative of last year’s Eastern Conference Final. I expect Philadelphia, especially the  guys that didn’t get the chance to play, to be incredibly motivated to make the result the other way. For us, we just have to play a football game.”
Considering the form both NYCFC and the Union are in, the Eastern Conference Final is shaped up to be a marquee matchup.
“We have to make sure that, like we did today, whatever that game throws at us, that we can be the best version of ourselves," Cushing added. "We’ll have to defend the box well, we’ll have to sit low in moments, we’ll have to be good with the ball, we’ll have to create chances and be clinical.
"Forget the emotion, forget the occasion, forget the narrative that people are trying to write, and just be ourselves and play. And if we do that, and we continue to just focus on the next game and you keep winning, then who knows where you get to.”