Voices: Steve Zakuani

Three Takeaways from MLS Cup 2021 as NYCFC defeat Portland to claim first title

New York City FC are MLS Cup winners for the first time in their history after Sean Johnson saved two penalties to win 4-2 in the shootout following a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes.

Here are three takeaways from the final game of the 2021 Major League Soccer season.

Sean Johnson & center backs the heroes for NYCFC

Finals can often be impossible to predict, especially in MLS. But when you get a big-time performance from one of your big names, your chances of success become that much better, and that’s exactly what happened for NYCFC. Sean Johnson took over the penalty shootout and helped bring the most coveted prize in American soccer to the Bronx.

Although this game will be remembered for his heroics in the shootout, he was good throughout the 120 minutes of play as well, making a huge save in extra time from the left foot of Cristhian Paredes.

I was fortunate to play with the great Kasey Keller for the best part of three seasons, and so I know the confidence that a commanding shot-stopper gives to those in front of them. It’s not that you begin to relax and assume your 'keeper will bail you out, it’s that you know he can and he will if he needs to. Knowing that gives the whole team a boost. Johnson was named MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi and deservedly so – he proved himself to be a match-winner when the stakes were highest.

Of course, no one wins a game of football by themselves and so special mention to the entire NYCFC backline, especially the two center backs – Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot – as they hardly put a foot wrong against a team full of quality attacking players. The spirit they played with throughout the game is what allowed them to shake off the disappointment of conceding in the 94th minute, quickly regroup and then find a way to win in the shootout.

Should Blanco have started?

I’ve been on record many times about the quality of Sebastian Blanco, especially in the postseason, and so it was no surprise to me that he started this game – he’s just too important to everything Portland want to do. In saying that, and I know that hindsight is 20/20, the jury will be out on whether his team would have been better served bringing him in off the bench if needed.

He didn’t look 100% fit and seemed a step slower than his usual self, which is to be expected after the hamstring injury he suffered just over two weeks ago in the Western Conference Semifinal against the Colorado Rapids. Couple that with the fact that Diego Valeri looked very sharp in the 25 minutes or so that he played, and I think it’s fair to at least ask the question.

Now, if Blanco had drilled a shot in from 25 yards at some point while otherwise putting in the same performance, Savarese would have looked like a genius – so thin are the margins between success and failure at this level.

It ultimately wasn’t to be for the Timbers, but they can certainly hold their heads high when looking at the way they dug deep to force extra time. The fans never stopped singing, they got excellent performances from the Chara brothers, and a much-needed boost from both Paredes and Valeri when they came on.

Still, there are no moral victories in sports, and as soon as the dust settles it’ll be back to the drawing board as they have some major decisions to make in this offseason. This one should, and will, sting for some time.

NYCFC deserved champions

Is the best team in American soccer the one that wins the Supporters' Shield, or is it the MLS Cup winner? That debate will go on for eternity, but what isn’t up for debate is that NYCFC were the best team in the postseason.

Nobody can say they did it the easy way. Yes, they caught a break when Philadelphia had a COVID-19 outbreak, but let’s not forget that they won that game without their star forward, the Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos. To go away to New England, away to the Union and away to Portland, emerging victorious all three times, is an incredible accomplishment that makes them worthy champions.

If we focus on the bigger picture with this team, it has to be said that when they were at their very best this year, it was really good to watch. Some of the football they played in the first half of this final was fantastic, as they completely took Portland and their crowd out of the game for long stretches.

The balance between the short passes and the long switching ones was good, as was the balance between the patient build-up and the more direct approach. This is a team that was one win away from tying second-seeded Nashville in the table while scoring 56 goals and only conceding 36 – to anyone that has been paying attention, what they did in this postseason was not a surprise.

It was hard not to get emotional watching head coach Ronny Deila and his assistants celebrating through hugs and tears, as it was evident just how much this meant to them. He’s done a phenomenal job with an NYCFC roster that arguably isn’t the most talented one they’ve had in their history.

The identity is clear, the intangibles are there and the freedom the top players need to be given is also there. Kudos to Deila and his staff for what they have built and, if their core players remain intact, this won’t be the last piece of silverware they are lifting.