Mark of a champion: NYCFC lay groundwork for another MLS Cup run

NYCFC Hudson Derby win

Is history repeating itself for New York City FC?

Last season, an inconsistent run of form was broken up by some key victories down the stretch to build momentum for a playoff run that ended with the club's first-ever MLS Cup title.

Those struggles included a pair of 1-0 New York derby defeats less than a month apart, which left NYCFC winless in five. But a thunderous free-kick golazo by Gudi Thórarinsson in the 90th minute secured a 1-1 draw at Atlanta United and ignited a late-season surge that saw them win three of their final games and head into the postseason on a five-match unbeaten run.

After a 2-0 win over Atlanta United at Yankee Stadium in Round One, the Cityzens went on the road to defeat Supporters' Shield winners New England on penalty kicks, the Philadelphia Union and finally the Portland Timbers to capture their first piece of silverware.

A clinical performance at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon may have shown NYCFC have rediscovered the swagger of last year’s championship squad in a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby, echoing that late-season turning point of a season ago. The rivalry victory, which completes a 2022 derby sweep for the blue side of New York, comes on the heels of NYCFC's Campeones Cup triumph over Liga MX's Atlas on Wednesday, after the Cityzens limped into the week on a five-match winless run in league play.

"It gives us huge confidence. Two wins in two huge games," interim head coach Nick Cushing said after the final whistle. "It gives us momentum now."

That said, Cushing refuses to get too ahead of himself: “I think we have to be careful that we don’t rely on the fact that it’s just going to happen because it happened last year. It’s a dangerous way to look at things.

“One thing the team is really aware of is the last 10 games have shown that nothing is going to be given for free. … We are well aware that we have to grasp and grind out results and play well in moments when we can and fight in moments that we can’t.”

Riding the momentum from Wednesday’s victorious Campeones Cup, NYCFC sprinted to a 1-0 lead through a header from Alexander Callens just 51 seconds into the contest. Santiago Rodriguez followed with his fourth goal of the season in the 23rd minute and Cushing celebrated an early 2-0 lead in a high-pressure game.

NYCFC limited the Red Bulls to just one shot on goal as Sean Johnson earned his 14th shutout of the season and 90th in his MLS career. Bolstered by having the core of holding midfielders and center backs intact, the defense held firm even when the second half got choppy and physical.

NYCFC moved to 49 points from 32 matches (14W-11L-7D), one point behind the Red Bulls for third place in the Eastern Conference table and four points clear of Orlando City SC for the fourth seed – and the home-field advantage in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs that comes with it.

With just two matches remaining on the schedule (vs. Orlando and at Atlanta United), Cushing sees an opportunity for NYCFC to make another deep playoff run if they can continue the same momentum. And if their successes this week are any indication, he is prepared for more celebrations when those moments come.

“Celebrations after a trophy are what we do the job for,” Cushing said. “It’s about seeing those guys – they put so much in and then you see all the happiness and the joy and their energy after. That’s why we do the job.”