Major League Soccer has added a new club nearly every year since 2015, a period of growth that’s seen some expansion teams raise silverware in quick order.
Atlanta United (MLS Cup 2018) and LAFC (2019 Supporters’ Shield) are headliners there, perhaps a rarity when considering the harsh building lessons those like FC Cincinnati (three straight Wooden Spoons) and Minnesota United (two seasons of struggles) experienced out of the gate.
But there’s also a middle ground, a space that New York City FC have slotted into since joining MLS in 2015, giving the Big Apple a second team alongside the New York Red Bulls. And it’s not like the Cityzens have struggled, making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs six years running and often playing some of the most attractive soccer in the league.
A first-ever trophy proved elusive, though. Then Sunday afternoon at Subaru Park came around.
NYCFC now have silverware to call their own, winning the Eastern Conference Final with a 2-1 come-from-behind win over the Philadelphia Union. That booked a spot in MLS Cup 2021 on Dec. 11 against the Portland Timbers (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas), giving head coach Ronny Deila’s team a chance to make more history in less than a week.
“We haven't dealt with the pressure before, and now we're starting to do that,” said Deila, who’s in his second year at the helm. “I think the learning for the whole club to win football games and how to deal with that and how to win them when the pressure is up, that's something you have to learn over time.
“This club has gone through a lot already in a young age and today we have for a third time had success and we bring the first trophy to the club. I'm sure it's not going to be the last. As I said to the boys, enjoy it because this is a big, big thing. The whole club has to enjoy it, the supporters, everybody. In the US, it's tough to win. Everybody has the same opportunities and it's  teams, it's crazy.”
Deila was referring to MLS’ penchant for parity, an acknowledgment of how difficult year-over-year success is in a salary-capped league where the degrees of separation aren’t nearly as vast as they are in many other leagues around the world. But NYCFC have found consistency in results, even if postseason wins didn’t always follow suit.
The latter piece has arrived in 2021, with the Cityzens beating Atlanta in Round One and then bouncing record-setting Supporters’ Shield winners New England on penalty kicks in the Conference Semifinal. That set the stage for Sunday’s dispatch of a shorthanded Philadelphia team that was missing 11 players – including six presumed starters – due to MLS Health and Safety Protocols.
The No. 4 seed just keeps marching on, finding ways to win while reaching eight games unbeaten stretching back to the regular season.
“I've seen this team have such a tough go of it in playoffs,” said homegrown midfielder James Sands. “I remember [in previous years in the playoffs] losing to Columbus, losing to Toronto, losing to Orlando – all such heartbreaking games. Then to finally get over that hurdle means a lot and it means a lot for everybody, but especially the guys who have been on the team a couple years and have gone through it.
NYCFC know this joyous occasion could be short-lived, though. Portland are in fine form themselves, marching through the West bracket as a No. 4 seed and boasting top-end talent like midfielders Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara. The 2015 MLS Cup winners will also be hosting at Providence Park, where the Timbers Army and Rose City fans will provide a sizable boost in what amounts to the Timbers’ third title bout appearance in seven years.
The Cityzens must confront all those factors, knowing the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy would need to be raised in hostile territory. But Deila likes his team’s chances, especially with Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos back after serving a red-card suspension against Philly.
“What we have done so far has been just amazing,” Deila said. “But the biggest one is coming on Saturday and we'll do everything to win there. Going to Portland, tough place, they have been in these finals before. We haven't. But we'll do everything to get more energy into us before the game and that we're going to get everything out. Then we know we can beat anybody.”
Goalkeeper Sean Johnson is bullish, too, considering the growth he's observed as one of NYCFC's longest-tenured players.
"From the start, coming into this club, being here for five years, knowing how much it means, how much support we've had from our supporters, organization internally, there's been an unbelievable commitment to success," Johnson said. "It's taken a little bit but the guys have been committed to making sure that we achieve something and this is the first step for us, Eastern Conference Final, the first trophy in club history. But we know the more important one is Saturday and we're looking forward to going out there and giving everything and hopefully lifting an MLS Cup."