After the first NYCFC goal, it seemed inevitable that Toronto would come back. New York City were pressing well, and even if they were struggling with putting shots on goal as they have throughout the MLS is Back tournament, they were hassling and preventing Toronto from creating any real chances. Yet, there remained the foreboding feeling that Toronto would eventually figure things out and dominate NYCFC as they have many times in the past. Another painful memory for NYCFC to add to the playoff defeat to the same opponents last year and a 7-0 aggregate loss in the 2016 postseason.
Then in the 55th minute, Maxi Moralez showed his class to allay the fears that this would be the same old NYCFC against Toronto. The second goal was scored by Valentin Castellanos, but it is one of those goals where the quality of the assist supersedes and will be more memorable than the goal itself.
As the ball bounced in front of him in the attacking third as he was facing and running to his right, and with several defenders converging in on him, Moralez somehow managed to see Castellanos peeling away from the crowd to the left. Then in a wonderful moment, he lofted a reverse ball over the defenders to the running Castellanos, who had no defender near him. It took a bit of work from the forward to score, as he had to settle and then cut inside of a recovering defender, but Moralez's ability and audaciousness in making that pass was another example of what makes him so special and a testament to the power of playmakers to do the rarest thing in soccer: create chances from unreasonable situations.
Highlights: NYCFC vs. Toronto FC
Once Castellanos scored, it became clear that something different was taking place between the two teams. Even as Toronto brought in Jozy Altidore and other substitutes to try and wrestle control away from their opponents, NYCFC remained comfortable as Toronto grew more desperate. Toronto put New York City under immense pressure, yet Ronny Deila's team were able to defend well and find opportunities against the compromised Toronto defense.
NYCFC's patience paid off again in the 80th minute. A low cross from the left found Heber in the box, and with a devious flick, he took out his immediate defender to find Moralez arriving at the top of the box alone and with all the time in the world to measure the keeper before slotting the ball home. The goal was praiseworthy because of the build-up, the assist by Heber, and the composure from Moralez, who rightly capped off his great performance with a goal, but it came as a consequence of New York simply out playing and frustrating Toronto. Moralez had so much time and space in front of goal because Toronto committed everyone forward. But instead of creating chances, they were suffocated and then punished by a team that they usually have no problem with.
It was odd to see Heber hit the bar with two chances after Toronto's consolation goal, and have him and his teammates laugh those missed opportunities off. In a normal world, the world before the tournament, New York would have been chasing the game and regretting those missed opportunities. But nothing is normal anymore.
It's fair to ask how much this tournament, with all of the strangeness and unusual structure of it, is an accurate barometer of each team's development. After all, Altidore, Toronto's star striker, was suffering from a lack of match fitness and came off the bench because he had to self-quarantine after leaving Toronto during lockdown to be with his family in Florida. It's legitimately difficult to gather too much information and analysis from any team in such a sped-up environment with a lack of collective fitness and chemistry. NYCFC might have won now, but is the win and performance more of a product of the chaos of the external circumstances rather than proof that they can legitimately beat Toronto?
The question and skepticism is understandable, but there are reasons why this win matters greatly. Not only because New York City advances, but because it's an event the team can take inspiration from going forward. They beat Toronto FC. They beat Toronto FC comfortably. For a team who have been thwarted by Toronto several times over the years, it's a monumental achievement. For New York City and new head coach Deila, this can be the start, the foundation, from which they build their new identity. Where they can shed the idea of being a regular-season team that fails to deliver when it comes to the pressure of knockout soccer in the playoffs.
Carr: Why Moralez is so important to NYCFC
After the match, Deila spoke about instilling a new identity for the team, founded on the sense that they can win every game:
"It’s a process this you know," he said. "It's a different way from what they did last year. They have to understand what I want and I have to understand them. We’re getting more and more together and today was great team spirit, organization and discipline. The boys really wanted to win and if you have that in the bottom every game then we can fight for titles. That has to be at the bottom if we want to win something."
NYCFC now has a chance to win this title, in this tournament. In the chaos of the bubble, anything is possible. But before they face the next challenge, they have at least shown that they are indeed capable of beating teams like Toronto. It's not the normal that anyone is used to, but in this new world, there's no reason for them to abide by the old rules. They've passed a great hurdle, and now the possibilities of what they can do and be is up to them.