Sean Johnson remembers the feeling all too well, the pain, the disbelief standing in a dejected and silent Citi Field locker room as a promising 2019 season for New York City FC was cut short with a postseason defeat to Toronto FC.
For a veteran group largely intact, albeit under new leadership with first-year coach Ronny Deila, it's an experience Johnson believes can push them forward in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“This whole year I think we’ve been motivated to get back to the point where we put ourselves in a position to continue to move forward when we get to the playoffs,” the goalkeeper said in a video conference call with reporters Monday. “We’ve been together for a while now and we have to continue to drive forward and use that past experience as a learning one.”
When NYCFC step on the Exploria Stadium field to take on Orlando City SC Saturday (12 pm ET | TV & streaming info), they’ll likely have many of the same starters who suffered that gutting 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last October.
The core of the team, including Johnson, has been together for several seasons. The offseason change after last year’s playoff ouster was from a technical staff perspective with David Lee taking over as sporting director and Deila replacing Dome Torrent as head coach.
That combination of a veteran nucleus, past playoff experience and familiarity under a Deila's new tactical plan has Johnson optimistic about NYCFC’s chances at a deep run.
“That coupled with our learning experience from last year and what we’ve tried to implement this year, the things that he’s brought to the table and instilled in us in terms of mentality, in terms of the way we’re playing, some of the philosophies, we’re in a better position to succeed,” Johnson said.
Oscar Pareja has injected new life into an Orlando City SC club that will not only compete in the playoffs for the first time, but also do so at home. As one of the most consistent teams over the course of a unique 2020 season, which included a spot in the MLS is Back Tournament Final, the Lions have received plenty of praise from pundits across the league.
But Johnson said NYCFC, which played Orlando to a 1-1 draw on the road last month, aren’t focused on the headlines the Lions received this year.
“We were down playing in Orlando and we had quality chances, we limited their opportunities. They’re a good opponent, but I know our team has quality as well,” Johnson said. “We’re confident in our abilities. From afar, from within their team, people will look at the headlines and the quotes and all that. But we’re focused internally on what we have to do to go down and take care of business. That’s been the only talk here.”
NYCFC, meanwhile, ended the regular season on a four-match winning streak after flying under the radar a bit throughout the year.
Is there concern the long layoff from Decision Day presented by AT&T to a Round One playoff game stiffen the team's form down the stretch?
Not for an experienced group that heads into the postseason relatively healthy and fresh.
“Obviously you would like to continue on with your form, winning four games in a row,” Johnson said. “But I think for now the mindset is we’ve gotten to a point we understand each other very well, we can step on the field and perform as a group, but I think just giving ourselves the best chance to go into a game 100 percent with the energy that we need and feeling good is the most important thing now.”