MLS Cup Analysis
Analysis & Thoughts: NYCFC registers defining win over Portland in MLS Cup
December 12, 2021
NEW YORK CITY FC won MLS Cup 2021 with an exciting victory over the Portland Timbers in a shootout following a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes. The game was choppy and controversial, but very exciting as Portland’s Felipe Mora equalized the game with the last kick of second half stoppage time.
With the game played in the rain and on turf, both teams went with starting lineups that were expected. NYCFC welcomed back Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos to the team after the Argentine was suspended for the Eastern Conference final against Philadelphia. Portland suffered a setback as Cristhian Paredes was available to play only from the bench after he picked up a calf injury in training on Thursday.
NYCFC struck first in the 41st minute when Taty Castellanos got on the end of a Maxi Moralez free kick. Ca
stellanos’ header was driven low but should have been saved by Portland keeper Steve Clark, but the ball slipped through his fingers and into the goal.
In the second half, NYCFC went with a more defensive approach to protect their lead. For awhile it seems as if it was going to work as Portland was frustrated and was forcing chances that were unlikely to succeed.
That changed with the final kick of the game in an extremely controversial moment. Yimmi Chara’s header into the box found his brother Diego Chara who was falling back into NYCFC defender Maxime Chanot. The ball from Chara found Felipe Mora on a broken play and Mora finished from close range past NYCFC and U.S. national team goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
NYCFC was livid and protested that Chara fouled Chanot, but the officials said VAR concluded it was not a foul.
After 30 minutes of extra time which mostly favored Portland, NYCFC prevailed after converting four of their five penalties. Johnson, meanwhile saved two of Portland’s attempts. Alexander Callens converted the winning kick which sent NYCFC into a massive celebration by becoming the first ever New York area team to be crowned the league’s champion.
Here are some thoughts.
Exciting but choppy
The game was exciting, but it wasn’t particularly well played by either team. Both teams were eager to foul. NYCFC had 18 fouls while Portland has 16. Rarely did the game get forward into open play with any kind of danger.
This is often the case for finals (in any knockout tournament) where the stakes are raised and teams become more conservative. Avoiding mistakes becomes the focus as opposed to looking to make the big play. The earlier rounds of the playoffs were pretty good and the conference finals were a step back as Portland dominated and NYCFC took advantage of a makeshift/shorthanded Philadelphia team that never was at their best.
This final will be remembered for the excitement and the dramatics – which is fair. That will overshadow that neither team played particularly well.
Deila stands tall
A massive take away from this game is that NYCFC is extraordinarily well-coached under Ronny Deila. This team was first-rate in the playoffs and had a perfect tactical plan to defeat each and every one of their opponents.
The knock on NYCFC is that they have a big home field advantage playing at Yankee Stadium with its weird conditions and field dimensions. In these playoffs, NYCFC had to go through visits to New England, Philadelphia, and Portland to win the title. The first and the latter are extremely impressive given the quality of the opponent and the hostility of the crowd (no disrespect to Philadelphia which gave it all it had under tough situations).
Against New England and against Portland, NYCFC had to deal with opponents who scored dramatic late equalizers and had the momentum at their back. That’s a tough thing to get through on the road in knockout situations.
Same, still. pic.twitter.com/NX4dqwWdlk— New York City FC (@NYCFC) December 12, 2021
But NYCFC did not crumble either time. Sometimes when teams playing at home in knockout games have a big moment, the bottom falls out for the opponents. It takes a well-coached team to not fade out of the game.
The 4-2-3-1 formation worked great for NYCFC. The team had defensive cover, and even with limited numbers in the attack, still had a ton of quality in Castellanos, Santiago Rodriguez, and Maxi Moralez (who played through a first-half injury in this game).
In a year when most people questioned whether foreign managers could be good coaches in MLS, the Norwegian Deila made a huge statement that, given time, a foreign manager could do very well in this league.
Sands big day, big year
James Sands, 21, had an enormous year for NYCFC playing both central defense and defensive midfield.
In this game, Sands was lined up alongside Alfredo Morales in the deep midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1 and he was extremely important keeping Portland’s offense from creating many big chances. This was the biggest game of his career – especially on the defensive side. His tackling was superb and most of his touches and completed passes came in the attacking half – so was able to help NYCFC play further up the field.
Shutting down Portland from playing through the middle was a top objective of Deila and Sands was the solution.
This caps a huge year for Sands who also was a key part of the U.S. national team’s Gold Cup triumph when he assumed a starting role when Walker Zimmerman was forced off the team due to an injury. Sands was the starter for the knockouts and in the final against Mexico (when the U.S. team did not conceded a single goal against Canada and through the knockouts).
Sands has said he wants to make a move to Europe at some point but wanted to help NYCFC out first. He has clearly done that and seems to be at a good position to move given that he has now been a stater over two years and has won a title for both club and country – with strong efforts in multiple finals. His stock has never higher.
NYCFC as an organization
NYCFC has always been an organization with massive question marks surrounding it. When will it have a permanent stadium? Where will that stadium be? How much longer can it play at Yankee Stadium? Will it have to continue to share Red Bull Arena? How committed is City Football Group to NYCFC? How much longer will MLS continue to be patient with CFG and NYCFC over its homeless situation? Can the team be relevant in a crowded New York City sports market?
Winning this title does a lot of things. It puts a positive light on the team, which is nice for a change, but all those questions remain. There are still no plans for another stadium. The Yankees don’t like having NYCFC there and its remains a horrible place for a top-tier soccer game.
CFC seems to still be committed and there are positive reports that the wealthy ownership group believes in the potential of a New York team. The team still spends money on good, young players and the academy produces good players as well. This will probably continue to motivate CFG and the league as well to work towards a solution.
But the questions and problems remain.
This was a painful day for Portland and not being able to win a final at home is a bitter, bitter pill. From the opening whistle, Portland seemed off and was not able to play the way it wanted to play. In the first half, Portland conceded way too much possession. While Gio Savarese and Company are normally okay with having under 50% of possession, in the first half they had around 40%. Portland was simply chasing and then when it had the ball, it lost it too quickly and were limited to low-probably chances up the flanks.
In the second half, Portland had most of the ball but chances were few and far between – until the miracle equalizer. Only in extra time did Portland dictate the game on its terms, but even then NYCFC was comfortable in taking it to a shootout.
This was a big opportunity for Portland to deliver with this core group. In the coming years, it’s going to get harder as so many of these players are past or will soon be exiting the final years of their prime. Diego Valeri is now going. Mabiala is 34, Zuparic is 29, Clark is 35, Diego Chara is 35, Yimmi Chara is 30, Asprilla is 29, Blanco is 33, Mora is 28.
It is not over for this group, but this feels like the last best shot it had before a pretty big overhaul is needed. They have some players coming into their best years in Paredes at 23 and Moreno at 21 but challenges are ahead. With Portland also not much of a homegrown developer, this reduces the avenues the club has to replenish the talent. It is going to have to get things right in their upcoming signings.
This shouldn’t paint a doom and gloom picture of Portland but they are facing a period with tough and important decisions. They have a good coach in Gio Savarese, and that’s a good start. But the next year will be challenging.