NYCFC confident despite Leagues Cup exit to Pumas: "There was one team on the pitch"

A Leagues Cup semifinal trip wasn’t in the cards for New York City FC following a peak #MLSAfterDark match Wednesday night, though head coach Ronny Deila has little doubt about who took the initiative at Yankee Stadium.

“There was one team on the pitch today for almost 90 minutes,” Deila said after their 1-1 draw vs. Liga MX side Pumas UNAM, which was settled by a 3-2 penalty kick shootout defeat. “If we do this performance over time, then it's going to come because we are a young team and we are learning all the time.

“But we know also once you give Pumas time, they are good football players and they put the ball into the net once you leave the space. So the learning from these games gives you confidence that we are capable of beating teams like this. At the same time, a good performance and they need only one chance and you need to bury your own chances.”

The Norwegian manager’s remarks came as 2 am ET Thursday rolled around, following a match that included a three-hour delay due to persistent storms. As midnight neared, questions of whether the game would proceed became more realistic — though the go-ahead arrived as skies cleared.

The North American sides forged ahead with a 10:58 pm ET kickoff after they originally planned for an 8 pm ET start. Thunder, lightning and heavy downpours in the New York City area required a nimble approach.

“I don't think I've ever been through a delay like that,” NYCFC defender James Sands said. “But as a player, you've always got to be ready for something like that. So it's just about staying loose in the locker room, trying to keep calm, trying to take it easy and knowing when you do get out on the field, it's going to be 100 miles an hour from the start. Just being able to flip that switch and be ready.”

In another wild wrinkle – beyond touch-and-go streaming feeds during the first half – NYCFC had two goals called back following Video Reviews. A first-half strike from Keaton Parks and then a second-half dinked-home finish from Santiago Rodríguez both looked to give the Cityzens a lead over one of Mexico’s Cuatro Grandes clubs, but referee Oshane Nation switched course after a deeper look (ruling offside, then handball).

NYCFC eventually got their breakthrough in the 61st minute through Valentin Castellanos, and seemed like they’d be in cruise control from there. But Pumas punched back in the 72nd minute on a cutback strike from Rogerio, and then Sean Johnson’s PK heroics weren’t enough to overcome three spot-kick misses from the hosts.

Deila wasn’t looking for silver linings, but he takes encouragement from how the Eastern Conference team performed – and what it portends for their 2021 MLS aspirations.

“They don't have a shot on target before they get the goal, I think, and we are in the last third of the pitch all the time,” Deila said. “That's the way I want them to play. We are entertaining a fantastic crowd today, the energy and intensity in the stadium.

“I just hope everybody comes back again to watch us play because this team deserves a lot of people watching them. This is the start of something really, really good. But it's tough tonight to sit there without being through to the semifinal, I have to say that.”

Instead, Pumas marches on to face Club Leon in a mid-September Leagues Cup final four bout. It’s also NYCFC’s second tournament setback against a Liga MX side in less than a calendar year, following their 2020 Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal exit to Tigres UANL last December.

But NYCFC’s not getting bogged down in those particulars right now. Rather, they’re looking to climb the table and disrupt the trophy chase.

“I think we outplayed them for most of the match,” Sands said. “We created chances, and on another day, it's three or four nothing. Obviously it didn't work out that way and that's something we'll have to look at, but I think there are positives to take and hopefully this experience is going to help us for the MLS playoffs. That's our biggest goal, I think.”