Winning back-to-back MLS Cups is not easy. The last team to accomplish that feat was the LA Galaxy in 2011-12.
It’s particularly hard when losing your head coach and best player midseason, as New York City FC had to navigate a rocky period of transition in 2022 when Ronny Deila left for Standard Liege in Belgium and Taty Castellanos joined Girona in Spain. But over the last six weeks, interim head coach Nick Cushing tinkered with different ideas and the attack coalesced to return to its previous form for another Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run.
Now, NYCFC are preparing for a second straight Eastern Conference Final, once again in Philadelphia against the Union. It all comes down to Sunday’s match at Subaru Park (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
“Being back in the Conference Final is a testament to the mentality of this group,” goalkeeper Sean Johnson told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s an extremely long season, different competitions and different things that happen over the course of the year. All things considered, everybody maintained a certain level of focus and has been locked in on our goal of being back where we were at the end of last year.”
It took considerable work to get back to this spot. Over a 10-game stretch after Castellanos left in July, NYCFC went 1W-7L-2D as they slipped from being in the Supporters’ Shield race to maybe losing a home playoff game in Round One.
They ended that poor run of form with a really strong performance and 2-0 win over Liga MX’s Atlas in the Campeones Cup, adding another trophy to the cabinet. Cushing switched to a three-at-the-back formation.
After that game on Sept. 14, NYCFC have been dominant. They ended the regular season with three straight wins and have run rampant over two playoff games thus far, beating Inter Miami CF 3-0 and CF Montréal 3-1 – first at home and then on the road. But it all goes back to that Campeones Cup night at Yankee Stadium.
“We had so many moments that we put up leading up to that game. It was the moment where everything clicked,” Johnson said. “ … A big piece of that is Nick Cushing. The way he set us up, the way he gives us confidence no matter what and gives us what’s necessary to go forward. He’s a massive part of the reason why things changed and credit to all the guys.”
Johnson was on the bench that day, with backup Luis Barraza getting a chance to play. Johnson noted how proud he was of how Barraza performed and unsurprised given the work he sees in training every day.
Barraza doesn’t get too many chances because Johnson is one of the very best goalkeepers in the league. The US international earned MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi honors last year, with a heroic performance in the penalty shootout at the Portland Timbers following a 1-1 draw, his second shootout victory of the 2021 playoffs.
Johnson remains in the form of his life over the past couple of years. He kept a clean sheet against Miami and then was masterful against Montréal (before conceding a poor goal when the victory was long secured).
“Every year I set out with one goal in mind: To be more consistent than the year before, to contribute to the team, but be better and more consistent than the year before,” Johnson said. “If I can do that, we have a good chance to win something. It’s something I take a lot of pride in. I’ve done my best, but hopefully we keep moving forward.”
It’ll again be a big test against the Union, who were missing 11 players in the Eastern Conference Final last year due to the league’s health and safety protocols. NYCFC won 2-1 on a late Talles Magno goal.
“Philly is an incredible atmosphere,” Johnson said. “It’s a great crowd. You want to play in a great atmosphere in a sold-out arena. We’re excited about the challenge ahead.”
This year, the Union scored the most goals in the league (72) and also conceded the fewest goals (26). They are hungry to win their first-ever MLS Cup and to exact revenge on NYCFC, while the visitors are trying to repeat as champions. It’ll be a huge moment for both sides.
“When you step out on the field, you’re doing what you love with the guys that you love around you,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, you have a chance to achieve something special.”
Johnson’s future is uncertain, with his contract expiring at the end of the season. The 33-year-old will be one of the most coveted players on the free agent market if he indeed gets there without a new deal from NYCFC.
Between that, the playoffs, the World Cup and more, Johnson is trying to keep his head down.
“To be honest, I’m taking it one day at a time,” Johnson said. “There’s so many things people ask about. The contract, the Conference Final, the World Cup, all these things. There’s just so many things. For me, the best way to approach it is one day at a time. Things will work themselves out.”
Johnson is focused on Sunday. If NYCFC win, he’ll focus on MLS Cup on Nov. 5, another guaranteed road match for the Cityzens. If not, it’ll likely be onto the World Cup in Qatar with the United States.
He has plenty of time to sort his future and there’ll certainly be plenty of clubs trying to get his attention.
“Ultimately, my future is my future,” Johnson said. “You want to make sure not to get too ahead of yourself and just embrace the moment. All things considered, my future can wait."