CHESTER, Pa. – Despite the loss of about half their starting lineup to MLS Health and Safety Protocols in the days leading up to the match, the Philadelphia Union – and 19,487 of their closest friends – produced a stirring display of dedication and defiance at Subaru Park on Sunday afternoon, pushing New York City FC to the limit in a fiery, ferociously taut Eastern Conference Final.
Soccer is often said to be a game of mistakes, and with extra time looming with the match deadlocked at 1-1, a late error by Olivier Mbaizo – the only member of the Union’s usual backline who was available on the day – led to Talles Magno’s dramatic 88th-minute winner. And now NYCFC head to the Rose City next Saturday to take on the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2021 (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMás).
Here are three key areas from another memorable Audi MLS Cup Playoff clash down on the Delaware River.
Suddenly finding themselves drastically shorthanded a matter of hours before the biggest game in club history is a nightmare scenario for any team, and Jim Curtin’s frustration with the situation has been palpable. But he and his staff produced a very impressive response to the challenge.
The Union shifted from their familiar 4-4-2 diamond formation to the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” shape down the home stretch this season and it proved tailor-made for this occasion, denying space and time to NYCFC’s central midfielders and pushing the Cityzens’ patient build-ups into wide areas where they were much less effective.
Meanwhile Taty Castellanos’ suspension robbed NYC of their spearhead, with Heber, who had played just 95 minutes up to this point this season after his return from a torn ACL, unable to impose himself or even really ask questions of Aurelien Collin, the veteran Philly center back pressed into duty after just one minute of match play all year.
Philly’s organization and bite, combined with the at-times-deafening noise their crowd created, ensured that the first hour-plus unfolded on their terms – and City’s frustration grew steadily all the while.
But an immediate equalizer from the enduringly essential Maxi Moralez – who at 34 remains key to the Cityzens – killed the euphoria instantly.
“I think getting that quick goal after they scored was very fundamental,” said Moralez postgame.
There was a bit of fortune involved. Center back Maxime Chanot, of all people, was the one whose knuckling drive from distance forced goalkeeper Matt Freese to parry instead of catch, sparking a sudden scramble that ended with the ball falling right to Moralez’s feet with the goal gaping. Such breaks are the stuff of champions, though. Just ask Portland Timbers fans about “Double Post” if you need proof.
“After we scored the first goal, I think we needed to get a period to get the crowd into it, to have a five-minute window where now it puts a little stress and pressure on New York City,” said Curtin. “Maybe they start to throw numbers forward and we can hit them on the counter. But they scored right away. Chanot, you don't expect to get beat by a center back, but it's a decent shot that hits the frame and it's a scramble from there.”
From there, the hosts struggled to maintain their fearsome intensity as the second half ticked down. Some of that was probably inevitable given the number of Philly starters with limited match fitness, as well as the bruisingly physical tone of the match. And credit is due to Cityzens boss Ronny Deila, who made a triple substitution just before the exchange of goals and saw it pay off across the final half-hour.
With a hard-fought match teetering on a knife’s edge, Gudmundur Thórarinsson, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Talles Magno made sure the balance tipped in the visitors’ favor, all three making their way onto the scoresheet.
Tajouri-Shradi completed most of his passes, won a couple of free kicks and generally revved the tempo in midfield, and sniffed out the rebound to notch an assist on the equalizer. Thórarinsson picked Mbaizo’s pocket when the Cameroonian was tentative on a speculative free-kick switch of play, then served up the telling assist – for the second straight game – for Magno to win the match from close range.
“Heber [needs] service to play; this was a tough first half for him because we didn't get any service to him,” said Deila, also noting that his side looked “leggy” after their marathon semifinal win over New England on Tuesday. “His strength is inside the box and had his back to the goal all the time. We did not attack space at all, everybody come against the ball, and that was a big challenge for us and that's what we talked about in the break.
“They’re always tough to play against,” he later added in regard to Philly. “They play direct, they have a very good, hard-working team, good, organized. We lost too many second balls, we lost form, we didn't move the ball quick enough, everybody came [back to check] against the ball. Second half we attacked space better, we skipped the lines to sometimes go over them, we started to cross the ball instead of playing around. Then the central defenders, the goalkeeper get more in play and then you create more.”
This Eastern Conference championship is the first hardware in NYCFC’s history, and while their existence on the pitch only dates back to 2015, they’ve crammed plenty of hard-won experience into that short lifetime. Those who remember the big names but all-too-often woeful performances of year one could be forgiven for thinking that it would take a lot longer than this to hoist a trophy – and the same might be said of the repeated bouts of postseason failure once the Cityzens found their way to consistent competitiveness.
We’ll leave it to homegrown James Sands to reel off the list of MLS Cup Playoffs failures:
“It's such an unbelievable feeling,” said Sands. “I've seen this team have such a tough go of it in the playoffs, losing to Columbus, losing to Toronto, losing to Orlando, all such heartbreaking games that to finally get over that hurdle means a lot for everybody, especially the guys who have been on the team a couple years.”
NYCFC have found a steady upward trajectory by eschewing older stars like Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard in favor of younger prospects, leveraging the City Football Group’s excellent global scouting infrastructure and gradually reaping the benefits of their academy’s talent pool. A clear tactical identity took shape under Patrick Vieira and his successors have sustained that, with Deila pointing to the addition of a winning mentality as the capstone.
“We’ve been very successful in coming to the playoffs six times in a row; we haven't dealt with the pressure before and now we're starting to do that,” said the Norwegian. “I think the learning, from the whole club, to win football games and how to deal with that and how to win them when the pressure is on, that’s something you have to learn over time. And this club has gone through a lot already at a young age.
“Here in MLS, it’s tough to win; everybody has the same opportunities and it's  teams, it’s crazy. So what we have done so far has been just amazing. But the biggest one is coming on Saturday.”
Among other things, this year’s squad has weathered severe injuries and the destabilizing challenge of playing several home matches away from Yankee Stadium due to scheduling conflicts. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson saluted the resilience built along the way.
“For me, I look at it as the year as a whole, and taking the experiences that we've had from preseason until now, it's been a journey,” he said, “one that each and every person in the locker room knows the importance of all those experiences we shared together. I think everything's coming together and we’re using those experiences positively. In tough moments we stuck together, and the season’s definitely brought us closer together, and those moments matter. Those moments changed the course of the season.”