Another top-seeded side bit the dust in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs Tuesday night, as New York City FC outlasted the New England Revolution in an instant classic at frosty Gillette Stadium that had to be decided by kicks from the spot.
Here are three talking points from the Cityzens’ big come-up in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Bruce Arena, the dean of MLS gaffers, the 2021 Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year and a perennial playoff protagonist, uttered that phrase about the postseason many moons ago. And it succinctly sums up what made his D.C. United and LA Galaxy teams so successful.
While it may sound obvious, the chaotic unpredictability of this knockout environment has constantly upended teams that had, on paper at least, more high-end talent. Which tells us something about the importance of both individual players stepping up in big moments and coaches setting them up to do so.
The Revs cruised to the Supporters’ Shield and broke the all-time points record (73) because their best players – starting with the Designated Player trio of Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa and MLS MVP frontrunner Carles Gil – have been their most productive performers, and the league’s best as well. All three struggled to live up to that high standard on Tuesday, however, and NYCFC deserve immense credit for that.
Mercurial by nature, Bou drifted in this one and was anonymous for long periods, while Buksa was well handled by NYCFC center backs Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot. And Gil, the Revs’ maestro, was carefully tracked most of the night, with the visitors doing well to get numbers around him whenever he got on the ball, working hard to force him backward or wide.
The elegant Spaniard still impacted the match, drawing the foul and delivering the free kick that led to Buksa’s first-half header before playing the pass before the pass on Tajon Buchanan’s last-gasp extra-time equalizer. But he had to work for everything, and City’s marked advantage in possession limited his opportunities to build rhythm and get the Revs humming like usual.
“It's a team thing, and we are together and compact and short distance with another and disciplined; you don't see the star players. That's what we did today, we took him out,” said NYCFC coach Ronny Deila postgame. “The foundation of our success, it's in the defense. It's not about individuals, it's about the team. When we play like that, it's hard to be a player against it, whatever quality they have.
"Today we did a good job with the two strikers and also with Gil, but they are top players. We give them space and room, they will hurt us, but we kept them away from the goal and that was really, really good.”
The approach frustrated the Revs, too.
"When Carles, the best player in the league right now, is getting fouled consistently, he's not getting rewarded for beating players or taking the ball, carrying the ball and getting fouled, it's kind of upsetting," Revs midfielder Matt Polster said. "And it takes away from his ability and what he can bring to the game. So, that definitely hurt us tonight."
Watching the Revs go one-and-done in the playoffs, superstitious types won’t lack for questionable vibes and bad omens to explain it. This is a club that’s suffered plenty over its 26-year history, reaching five MLS Cup finals and losing every single one, mostly in heartbreaking circumstances. Perhaps there was just too much pain locked up in that ‘Crayon Flag’ crest they’ve worn since year one, and for the last time on Tuesday, with a new crest and brand identity taking effect at season’s end.
And they were carrying the (perhaps) poisoned chalice of the Supporters’ Shield, a laudable achievement which has generally been anything but a good-luck charm in the postseason. Only seven Shield winners have ever gone on to win that year’s MLS Cup, and only once in the past decade – the Toronto FC side that did the treble four years ago, perhaps an even bigger accomplishment in retrospect:
Hoodoos and juju aside, it’s just so difficult to set the pace for the regular season's 34-game marathon and then maintain that level in the markedly different environs of the playoffs, where moments trump consistency and momentum is massively influential.
Given that the Western Conference’s top-seeded Colorado Rapids met a similar fate to the Revs on Thanksgiving, expect plenty of discourse about the questionable perk of a Round One bye considering what a long layoff it presented for both teams.
For New England, it meant a 23-day pause between Decision Day and their playoff opener, when also factoring in the November international break. And ultimately Deila's team made one more play than Arena's.
"We had a very good year, and you could argue that maybe we played a little bit in over our heads," Arena said post-game. "I think it was a good year. We don’t have the best roster in the league. It’s got to get a little bit better, for sure. But I think, if you look at the year on the whole, it was a really good year. Certainly, we would’ve liked to have won the MLS Cup, but you know, those things happen when you get into the postseason with single elimination."
While New England’s shortcomings will surely be explored at length in the coming days, this result felt more like a NYCFC triumph than a Revs failure. Both sides produced some real quality on the night and matched one another in really compelling ways, and the resilience of the visitors deserves ample attention and praise.
The pandemic era has thrown all sorts of obstacles at the Pigeons. They’ve had to play home games across the river at Red Bull Arena due to scheduling conflicts with the MLB's New York Yankees that kept them away from their home ground in the Bronx, where they tend to dominate. They lost their first-choice striker (Heber) to a torn ACL, among other costly injuries, and had to weather a destabilizing bout of humbling stretch-run derby losses to their cross-Gotham rivals the Red Bulls.
This match tested them, too. MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos took everyone on a roller-coaster ride of squandered chances, a clutch goal and a late red card for an ill-advised challenge that rules him out of Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final at Philadelphia (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes). The Revs twice rallied to equalize, the second one in particularly gutting fashion and timing. Maxi Moralez even had to vanquish the ghosts of missed penalties past, beating Matt Turner in the shootout.
Through it all, the Cityzens held their nerve and got the job done.
“We deal with a lot of things going against us during the game and we come back again two times – and three times also, when we win the penalties,” said Deila. “It says something about this group again, the togetherness and the character, the leadership that we talked about last year, it’s there now – and the belief, you can see.
“It was our day. I felt it,” the Norwegian manager added later. “And we have deserved it now. There are so many things going against us the last two years. To finally get what we deserve, that's a good feeling.”