MLS analysis: Portland downs RSL convincingly, NYCFC slips past undermanned Union
December 06, 2021
AFTER THE WEEKEND, we now know that the Portland Timbers will host New York City FC for MLS Cup 2021. The Portland Timbers convincingly defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0 on Saturday and New York City got past an COVID rattled Philadelphia Union on Sunday.
The games were not short on drama, compelling storylines, and controversy – even if neither of the game was the most well-played game that will be remembered for years.
Here are some thoughts on each game.
Portland 2-0 Real Salt Lake
In upset wins over Seattle and Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake was able to weather early storms before eventually finding their way past their opponents. One of the reasons why is that Portland just played a much better game than either Seattle or Sporting Kansas City did – and RSL made mistakes that they didn’t make in earlier games.
Like Sporting Kansas City did against Real Salt Lake, Portland struck first with an early goal. On the play Felipe Mora pounced on a failed clearance and sent a shot past David Ochoa. While Sporting Kansas City also struck first after earning a penalty via a RSL mistake, they also began to struggle and allowed RSL back into the game. SKC lost second balls and arguably their best player, Daniel Salloi, was off.
Portland did not allow RSL back into the game. They kept up the pressure and were always far more likely to score a second than concede and equalizer. When Santiago Moreno scored a 61st minute goal (which should have been credited as a David Ochoa own goal as it bounced off the post, hit Ochoa, and rolled back into the goal) the game was over and RSL never came close to equalizing.
Moreno’s bigtime performance
When Santiago Moreno signed for Portland on July 29, 2021 from America de Cali, it was a big win for Portland. The club was confident in his ability but was also patient in allowing him to get adjusted. On Saturday, Moreno started for just the fourth time as a Timber (and it was his 16th overall appearance for the club).
On Saturday, he looked every bit the player that Portland hoped it was getting when they secured his transfer and signed him to a four-year deal. Moreno was the best player on the field and RSL simply had no answer to him. As a result, RSL spent way too much of its defensive resources trying to contain him and it was unsuccessful as Moreno essentially scored the team’s second goal. He was extremely fun to watch.
Moreono, 21, came to Portland under the league’s new U-22 Initiative which “allows MLS clubs to sign up to three young players, age 22 and younger, to lucrative contracts at a reduced budget charge, decreasing the risk associated with acquiring or retaining players who are still approaching their prime.”
It's proven to be a very smart use of resources for Portland. It will be interesting to see if other MLS teams can make equally smart signings.
Talent won out
Real Salt Lake’s journey to the conference final was fun and the team fought hard every step of the way. But the team was fighting an uphill battle, and there is only so long a team can do that. In a playoff format, the longer you go, the more likely a “Cinderella” run will end because eventually you will face a talented team that also has momentum. Not always, but most of the time - when two teams have momentum, momentum gets cancelled out and you’re left with talent.
Portland has both talent and experience. It’s a very well put-together team and the team was not about to make the mistakes of Seattle and Sporting KC. Gio Savarese’s team stomped on RSL and never once let up.
No team in MLS has more questions than RSL. The team still lacks permanent ownership and Pablo Mastroneni was the team’s interim manager.
It’s going to be a real tricky situation and one that might keep Mastroeni with the club. Attracting a quality permanent coach is going to be difficult when the team is for sale. A coach is going to want to be comfortable with ownership and the technical director/general manager before singing a deal. Attracting quality players will be tough if the current coach is there on an interim basis.
What RSL did the past few weeks was special, and a lot of things had to go right. But it shouldn’t mask that this team is in a very difficult spot until settle down with proper ownership and a more stable front office.
Mastroeni made a nice statement for a fulltime gig, but it’s all moot until new ownership comes and sets a direction for the team. Only then will it be possible to say whether or not Mastroeni fits that direction.
Philadelphia 1-2 New York City
Just days before the Eastern Conference Final between the Philadelphia Union and New York City FC, it was announced that 11 players from the Philadelphia Union would be unable to take part due to COVID protocols. Among the list included the entire Philadelphia Union backline, starting goalkeeper Andre Blake, and team captain Alejandro Bedoya.
Union boss Jim Curtin had to scramble and one of his decisions was to start Aurélien Collin who hadn’t played a minute in the league since September 26, 2019.
The one edge Philadelphia had was Subaru Park, which was sold out and raucous throughout the entire game.
The first half was scoreless, but the Union was the better team through a combination of fierce team defending and a look to hit NYCFC on the counterattack.
In the second half, New York City found its way into the game and began to control the game. Perhaps against the run of play at this point, it was Philadelphia which took the lead in the 63rd minute when a looping ball into the box was redirected by NYCFC defender Alex Callens into his own goal.
Subaru Park was wild with an improbable lead – but it was short lived. Just two minutes later, Philadelphia Union keeper Matt Freese was unable to hang onto a long shot properly. Ismael Tajouri found Maxi Morales who equalized quickly.
For the next 23 minutes, it was almost entirely NYCFC with Jim Curtin unsure of when to bring in his subs. Unfortunately for the hosts, Philadelphia simply ran out of gas an in the 88th minute, Brazilian teenage youth international Talles Magno put NYCFC up for good when he took advantage of space between the Union's defense and tapped home a Gudmundur Thórarinsson cross from close range.
A brutal way to play a game
The first take away is that this was the worst possible way for a game to be decided. Yes, it is true. Injuries happen and suspensions happen. As a result no team is never at 100% and NYCFC was dealing with the injury loss to Keaton Parks and the suspension to league Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos.
It’s completely different for a team to lose 11 players three days before kickoff – including the entire backline, the captain/midfielder Alejandro Bedyoa, and perhaps the best goalkeeper in the league.
The conference finals should be the best of the best. The fact that one team was forced to play this game in a makeshift manner goes against what this should be about and it is a terrible way to end a season. The Union will never know how good they really were and if they could have won this game or perhaps have won MLS Cup.
A full-strength Union team playing at home against NYCFC would have been a great game. While we saw a losing team play admirably and leave it all out on the field, it was anything but a great game.
The Union had this game
The chance to pull off a incredible upset was right there for Philadelphia. The Union never fully resettled after taking the lead and their emotions got the best of them. They didn’t realize that they were still the underdogs and had to play like it.
If the Union were able prevent that immediate equalizer – which should have been prevented by Freese and the rest of the defense – then the complexion of the game changes entirely. NYCFC would have had to move forward in more and more numbers out of desperation. Curtin could have made appropriate subs to defend as well as fresh legs to counter.
The immediate equalizer was a gut punch that doomed Philadelphia.
“I think after we scored the goal, 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, maybe they start to throw numbers forward and we can hit them on the counter, but they scored right away,” Curtin said. “Maybe it's the excitement, we got a little bit opened up and they made a play and scored so that kind of cancelled that goal out.”
After that, NYCFC was able to be more patient knowing that it could run Philadelphia into the ground in extra time if needed.
Philadelphia ran out of gas with the way they were defending. To compensate for the backline being out, it was a lot of team defending and players had to cover a ton of ground. Curtin had very tough substitution decisions over when to bring in some new midfielders. It appeared as if he was simply hoping to get to extra time to use the subs and reset – but that was too late in the end.
NYCFC tastes playoff success
NYCFC has never been a strong postseason team. The 2021 season marked the sixth straight time the team has qualified for the postseason and the only time it advanced was in 2018 when it won a preliminary round matchup against Philadelphia before losing to Atlanta United who had a bye.
NYCFC has been terrific in these playoffs. This win will always be remembered for the circumstances of Philadelphia, but NYCFC dominated Atlanta in the first round and then went to New England and eliminated a team which set a record for most points ever in an MLS regular season.
NYCFC typically has a nice advantage playing at the weird dimensions of Yankee Stadium, but the team has now won two big games in a row away from home.
TALLES MAGNO FOR THE LATE LEAD IN THE CONFERENCE FINAL! ?????? pic.twitter.com/29xPGPwcit— New York City FC (@NYCFC) December 5, 2021
Part of this has to do with experience and NYCFC has a nice team that is built around a core that has been through a lot together – and has figured out a lot together.
“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,” NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila said. “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.”
NYCFC will be the underdogs playing away at Portland but NYCFC has the talent and the team to pull off another upset.