New York City FC have qualified for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs every year since 2016, usually struggling to find second gear.
Early postseason exits were the norm, and often by excruciating means. In 2020, a penalty-kick shootout loss at Orlando City was decided after defender Rodrigo Schlegel was thrust into an emergency goalkeeper role. In 2019, a costly late challenge from Ronald Matarrita sent Toronto FC to the next round. In 2018, they were overpowered by Atlanta United, 4-1 on aggregate.
But something about their 2021 run feels different, at least to Maxi Moralez, a self-described “enganche” who aptly wears the Cityzens’ No. 10 shirt.
“We're trying to make history,” Moralez told MLSsoccer.com via a translator. “It's important for the club, and we always try to play the same way with the same philosophy. I feel like this year has a good complement between young players and older players. We've had a good run here at the right time, and hopefully we can continue through Philadelphia this weekend.”
That Philadelphia match is Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final at Subaru Park (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes), where the winner advances to MLS Cup on Dec. 11. NYCFC, only in their seventh MLS season, haven't previously made this stage.
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But playoff demons of years past seem to be fading away, as they blitzed Atlanta 2-0 in Round One before advancing past New England on PKs after a 2-2 draw. Their first opponent boasted one of MLS’ highest payrolls, and the second won the Supporters’ Shield while setting a new single-season points record.
NYCFC are now seven games unbeaten (five wins, two draws) across the regular season and playoffs, a No. 4 seed that’s carrying loads of confidence.
“Now what's important is we're finding form and ended strong, won the most points we could during that stretch,” Moralez said. “Now we're preparing for Philadelphia, we know they're a tough opponent. We played them a lot of times this year. We know how they play, they know how we play. But it's coming out with the same intensity and trying to make the best game out of it.”
For NYCFC to raise silverware, Moralez must play a crucial role after posting a team-leading 11 assists and 72 key passes during the regular season. He’s their string-puller beneath the forward, which often during the 2021 campaign was Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos.
But with Castellanos suspended after getting red-carded at New England, head coach Ronny Deila faces a crucial lineup decision in who replaces the out-and-out striker. The Argentine playmaker said he’s confident they’ll “make up for the big loss,” an expression of the leadership he offers at age 34, making him NYCFC’s eldest statesman.
“I try to bring experience, guide the youth to a good path and make sure they're giving 100 percent of their abilities to fight for the club,” Moralez said. “On the field, I want to help the team wherever I'm needed, where Ronny decides to play me. I run for the team and I try to show by example to not get too high, too low. I just try to be a leader for the guys.”
PREVIEW: NYCFC travel to Philly for Conference Final | Sunday 3PM ET on ABC
The last six weeks, Moralez and NYCFC have shown why the underlying numbers often painted a rosy picture about their playing style and outlook under Deila. They led MLS in expected goals difference (25.75) during the regular season, per Opta data, in no small part because Moralez was fifth in chances created (83).
Now, it’s about seeing if NYCFC have another playoff road victory up their sleeve. Philadelphia are the East’s No. 2 seed, and will likely be shorthanded while battling COVID-19 cases among their players. After a season of “a lot of highs and lows,” as Moralez phrased it, the advantage could tilt their way.
Moralez cherishes this opportunity, having joined NYCFC in 2017 after a stint with Liga MX’s Club Leon. He’ll also be out of contract this offseason, and remained neutral when asked about his desire to stay in City Blue.
“Right now we're focused on the end of the season, and hopefully we can finish in the best way,” Moralez said. “The first step is this Sunday; that's important to me, to everyone at the club. We want to finish in the best way and celebrate.
“In the future, everything else will come in due time. My family is happy here, I'm happy here. I've been at the club for five years, so we'll see how everything pans out.”