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New York City Wins MLS Cup After Shootout Drama

By Gary Jordan
Published on December 15, 2021

NYCFC MLS Cup Celebrations NYCFC MLS Cup Celebrations at City Hall

The term “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” is often used in sports and it is often true when champions are crowned after a long arduous campaign. And so, it rang true this past weekend when New York City FC battled against the odds to win the Major League Soccer Cup Final and be crowned this year’s champions.

After beating Atlanta 2-0 in the opening round of the playoffs, NYCFC saw off overwhelming favorites New England at the last eight stage, after a tense penalty shootout following an exhilarating 2-2 draw. In the Eastern Conference Final, New York left it late to beat Philadelphia. An 88th minute goal saw them through with a 2-1 victory, and for the third successive game they were playing away from home in their efforts to become champions.

Playing in their first Final since they were formed a decade ago, they had to travel to Providence Stadium to face the Portland Timbers. Argentinian striker Valentín Castellanos gave NYC the lead in the game shortly before half time, a headed goal from a free kick. The rowdy crowd caused a brief delay in proceedings when beer cans were thrown onto the pitch, some appearing to strike players of New York during their goal celebrations. The score remained 1-0 deep into the game, which went into added time when Portland found an equalizer through Felipe Mora, an opportunist goal with the ball falling to him among the chaos of trying to find the elusive equalizer. That was when the drama really started. The two teams canceled each other out through the extra time period taking the game to a penalty kicks.

The sell out crowd of just over 25,000 were now full of nervous anticipation, but when it comes to penalty shootouts there are no favorites and whether it's luck or bravado a hero always emerges. In this case it was New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson. The big shot-stopper earned game MVP honors as he saved the Timbers' first two kicks, paving the way for a 4-2 shootout win, with Peruvian defender Alexander Callens slamming home the decisive kick. Johnson, the team captain, beamed a big smile throughout the post-game ceremonies and looked back at what he and the club had achieved, “It feels unbelievable to be able to call ourselves champions. What a ride so far, this journey was crazy this year. So many ups, so many downs, and we talked among ourselves before the game and said it’s a massive opportunity to make it all worth it. To be MVP. It means the world, but it means so much more to lift a cup for this club.”

Ronny Deila, NYCFC manager, knew that his captain would come through, despite it being a rocky road, “The way he speaks to the team. The way he goes in front every day in training and brings people together, and also when the big moments are coming. How he stands out time after time, he’s a winner, a real winner and a leader. He’s a captain the whole club should be really proud of.”

For a city that lives and breathes for its sports, it’s the first major team victory that they’ve had to cheer since the 2012 Giants won the Super Bowl. It is the first soccer championship since the famous Cosmos won the Soccer Bowl in 1982.

“I was doing my best to make a save for the team, I was happy to make two.” Johnson said. It was the leaders in the team that stepped up when needed and Deila was full of praise for his team, “Big, big credit to the leaders in the group. Sean, Maxi (Moralez), Maxime (Chanot), Callens, had an unbelievable season. James (Sands) stepped up unbelievably, Taty (Castellanos). Players come in and perform, and that says something about the culture of the club.”

When Deila took over the reins ahead of the 2020 season, the Norwegian said that if he brought the MLS Cup home to New York he would strip off to celebrate. His players would not let him forget, and true to his word he did just that on the side of the pitch during the team’s celebration. “You have to celebrate victories and today was a big victory. I said maybe too much when I got hired here, but I don’t regret that. It was a big moment, and I will do it again if we keep winning trophies!” For the record it was only his shirt and pants that were shed, and only time will tell if we see a repeat performance soon.

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