National Writer: Charles Boehm

NYCFC's leadership core delivers first MLS Cup and the promise of a bright blue future


PORTLAND – Castellanos, Moralez, Magno, Callens, and Johnson in goal.

That’s the quintet that played hero in the penalty-kick shootout that earned New York City FC their first MLS Cup title, and appropriately so, because they were also instrumental in powering the Pigeons to that point in the first place, both on the day and all season.

Championship teams are built around sturdy spines, and NYCFC’s came up big – yet again – on Saturday afternoon against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park.

Valentin "Taty" Castellanos continued his tear in front of goal, nodding home the game’s opening goal to extend his scoring streak to seven straight matches, further underlining that the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner can produce quality in big moments as well as quantity. And he put in major work off the ball as well, harrying Portland’s backline to make it difficult for the hosts to string together buildups with any rhythm.

As he has been since practically the moment of his arrival from Club Leon in 2017, playmaker Maxi Moralez was essential, scurrying all over the pitch across 120 minutes, completing 84 of his 102 passes – including three key passes – making three tackles and serving up the free-kick delivery headed home by Castellanos.

Talles Magno came off the bench in the aftermath of the Timbers’ stunning last-gasp equalizer, helping stabilize his team in that crucial phase, where PTFC threatened to kick on and find a winner. And with the season and a trophy on the line, he kept his nerve to dispatch his penalty.

Alex Callens turned in another defiant display at the heart of the defense, working with his center-back partner Maxime Chanot to limit Portland to scant clear looks at goal until their scrappy late dramatics – and just like in NYCFC’s Eastern Conference Semifinal upset of the Supporters’ Shield-winning New England Revolution, he smashed in the title-winning spot-kick with authority.

And the rock at the back, the foundation of the team and its veteran leader, Sean Johnson, who kept his team from losing all composure after the injury-time gut punch, then made two clutch saves in the shootout, vanquishing the ghosts of last year’s wild, season-ending PKs loss at Orlando City.

“Big, big credit to the leaders in the group,” said head coach Ronny Deila in the postgame press conference – fully clothed again after he kept his word by stripping down to his skivvies as the Cityzens partied on Portland’s pitch. “Sean, Maxi, Maxime, Callens had an unbelievable season, James \[Sands\] stepped up unbelievably, Taty.

“That central line has been amazing during the season. And when we get that right, we get points and we win football games. That’s been consistent now, even though we have lost Anton \[Tinnerholm] and Keaton \[Parks to injuries\] on the way. Players come in and perform, and that says something about the culture of the club.

“[It] again shows what kind of character is in the team, when you come back from that [equalizer] and get through the two extra times and then at the end also with the penalty shootout – in this stadium, on artificial [turf], in the weather today, and the atmosphere was electric. So belief, discipline and hard work, honest hard work, is paying off and that's great to see.”

NYCFC outplayed Portland by a safe margin for most of the first 90 minutes, imposing themselves as usual with their crisp passing and energetic counter-pressing. It seemed that the narrative gods would smile on the Rose City side, however, when Felipe Mora slotted home at the back post with City mere seconds away from a deserved 1-0 triumph.

“We've been in that position before. I told the guys we have the experience, not to panic, not to get down on ourselves because there's more of an opportunity to go forward and win the game,” explained Johnson. “And no one said it would be easy. It's been difficult. But that's how it should be to win a championship and to triumph, going through so much adversity.”

Sands in particular performed far beyond his 21 years, producing a coming-of-age type of display in what was an often-chaotic engine-room battle. Afterward he credited the consequences of the fall slump that forced NYC to fight for their postseason lives after running near the top of the East table for most of 2021.

“We’re a team in form, we had a lot of momentum, so I think we had confidence going into the final,” he said. “I thought we all believed we could get it done. And I think you look at the time during the season where we dropped out of playoffs, and the six games after that, were all playoff games for us. So we’ve been playing high-pressure, high-intensity games for two months now; I think it showed today that we were able to stay calm and be composed.”

For some months now, Deila has confidently and consistently declared that no opponent has comprehensively outplayed his Pigeons this year, and he did so again on Saturday.

“There is no team, in the 38, 39 games we have, that has played us out. I can't remember one time that one team has caused us a lot of trouble; we have lost the games ourselves,” he said. “And that gives us a lot of confidence in the team, of course. Even though we haven’t played well, nobody has created more chances than us in the games. So we knew that when we get things right, we are very hard to play against, and our defense has been top, top during the whole season.”

There’s also ample reason to believe they can stay at the summit for a while. While both a new contract and a long-term successor must be sorted out for the influential Moralez, Deila pointed out that most of City’s recent arrivals are young players with ample upside. The formula that took them to this trophy can be extended; now it’s up to the rest of the East to figure out an antidote.

“New York is blue,” said Johnson. And on this day, who can argue with that?