Using a selective but strict pressure system, the Chester boys ran the show until taking a lead via an own goal just past the hour-mark. Sadly, weary legs would eventually lead to some dooming mistakes at the back, leaving a handful of heroic efforts wasted upon missing 11 players due to league health and safety protocols.
Instead, NYCFC are heading cross-country to compete in MLS Cup 2021 on Dec. 11 against the Portland Timbers (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas).
Neither goal can be pinned on the stand-in netminder, whose huge 76th-minute reaction stop kept Philly level for at least a while.
Even though his usually troublesome crossing game went missing, the Philly right back was still putting together a rather solid outing until an error that led straight to NYCFC's 88th-minute winner. Mbazio zigged when he should have zagged to deal with a lazily lofted ball, and well, that was all she wrote.
This was quite the feel-good story until the game turned late. Collin, who hasn’t played consistently since the 2019 season, was hard-nosed and thorough (apart from one sorely missed restart mark), and Heber had no answer. I'm not dinging the 35-year-old French center back for anything on the first goal leak, but the team needed him to cut that cross out and he just didn't find the passing lane.
Not all of Philly's green participants made the most of the day. Findlay was well in control over the first 65 minutes but was then caught ball watching on both of NYCFC's goals. And that's how a grade can change fast in this game.
The kid came close to legend status in Philadelphia with a crashing header just over the bar. That episode was a situational outlier, but indicative of the pluck of a 20-year-old fullback making his third career start in an Eastern Conference Final. Harriel spent most of his shift stopping NYCFC in their tracks to give his side the ball in good field position.
The teen homegrown midfielder's hustle and fortitude was readily apparent before he ran out of gas in the 75th minute, but it was even more noticeable when he departed. McGlynn's pressure and possession work were key to the control Philadelphia had on proceedings for the majority of the game.
The Philly enforcer faded a bit toward the end, but did more than enough to have his side in front when the game came down to the waning moments. Of course, Martinez played bad midfield cop, but he also led the surge on a few of the home side's better rushes into attack.
The Union's crashing, banging Energizer Bunny did his thing to decent effect, but was also one of the guys who had run ragged by the bitter ending.
The fill-in captain was marvelous for most of the match, spinning and twirling and engaging in every battle he could find to put the Union in dangerous positions, or at least to keep NYCFC off the ball. The only thing missing was a cutting-edge moment in the final third.
Though he certainly could have used more touches in the area, Przybylko's consistently forceful hold-up work played a large part in getting the Union toward it (and paid a physical toll, too).
Did I just give the highest mark across both teams to the losing coach? Yes, I did. You really have to feel for Curtin, who had the rug containing his skipper, his star netminder and nearly his entire backline pulled out from under him by health and safety protocols.
Somehow, the Union boss kept his greatly diminished selection engaged and on the same page, and they were agonizingly close to pulling off a miracle. The "close them down immediately" game plan was working, though individual mistakes cost Philly their first-ever MLS Cup trip.
Bueno got stuck in quickly and made a couple plays. Standard useful 15-minute sub stuff.
The Union probably needed him sooner.
See directly above.