Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 12, 2021

NYCFC Ends Gotham’s Long Drought

Finally.  Just two months short of a full – and very long – decade since Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin proved once and for all that for whatever shortcomings each had as a NFL quarterback and head coach, they completely owned Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl by beating the New England Patriots in football’s big game for the second time in as many tries on February 5, 2012, a professional sports team based in New York City has won a championship.  There have been myriad opportunities over that ten-year span, as few metropolitan areas boast as many major league franchises across all our games as does greater Gotham.  But until Saturday, a decade’s worth of Super Bowls, World Series, NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Playoffs, not to mention the championship tilts of the WNBA, NWSL and MLS, failed to produce a single titleholder from the five boroughs or surrounding communities in New York and New Jersey. 

Baseball’s Yankees and Mets, football’s Giants and Jets, and basketball’s Knicks and Nets have had some good and even some very good seasons, along with more than a few utterly forgettable ones, but the closest any of those franchises came to glory in the last decade was 2015, when the Metropolitans lost to the Kansas City Royals in a World Series that was exciting to watch, but ultimately fairly one-sided, lasting just one contest over the four-game minimum.  The area had even more chances at making hockey history, what with three NHL franchises – the Rangers, Islanders and Devils – living within hailing distance of the Empire State Building.  Perhaps because of that greater concentration of teams, two came close.  A few months after the Giants beat the Pats 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI, the Devils played the L.A. Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, and two years later the Rangers took a turn against the same opponent in the final series of the NHL season.  But both fell behind three games to none and never recovered.  Like all the rest, the New York Liberty, Gotham Football Club, New York Red Bulls and New York City Football Club spent the decade, or as much of it in which the team existed, watching other WNBA, NWSL and MSL franchises celebrate championships.

That changed at last this weekend, when NYCFC, the Major League Soccer franchise which plays its home games at Yankee Stadium and is jointly owned by City Football Group and the Yankees, stunned the host Portland Timbers on a cold and windy day in Oregon to win the MLS Cup.  The final score was 1-1, with New York winning on penalty kicks, 4-2.

Despite having to both travel across the country for the championship match and play, for the third postseason contest in a row, in front of a hostile crowd, the Blues – one of two nicknames for the New York squad and vastly preferable to the other, which is Pigeons – were the equals of the host team from the start.  At the 41-minute mark, midfielder Maxi Morales had a free kick from well outside the Timbers’ penalty box.  He lofted a right-footed kick that curled over to the far side of Portland’s goal, where 23-year-old Valentin Castellanos, who led MLS in scoring this season, raced in unmolested by any defenders and sent a header into the back of the net. 

Through the few minutes remaining in the first half and on through the second, the Castellanos tally stood alone, the home crowd growing quiet as the minutes ticked away.  It was still 1-0 when the match moved into soccer’s dramatic netherworld of injury time.  The contingent of New York fans who had made the long trip west pleaded for the referee to signal the match’s end, even as the far larger mass of Portland faithful prayed for a few more seconds.  Then, at the very last possible moment, Portland pressed forward.  A shot from close range was blocked well short of the goal, but the rebound went right to Felipe Mora, who drilled the ball past New York netminder Sean Johnson.  Portland was revived at the very moment of death, and as the full house at Providence Park erupted, it was hard not to think that NYCFC was fated to go down to defeat.

But the Blues then proved their mettle, remaining resolute through the drama of two 15-minute overtime periods, forcing the decision to penalty kicks.  That’s when Johnson became Gotham’s newest hero, as he stopped the first two tries by Portland.  With Castellanos converting one of NYCFC’s first two kicks, the Blues had an edge they would not relinquish.  When both team’s third and fourth men converted, it was 3-2 New York as Alexander Callens stepped forward.  A goal would end it, a miss would give Portland one last chance to tie and extend the shootout beyond the initial five kickers.  He raced forward, and as Timbers’ goaltender Steve Clark dove to his right, betting on a shot to the corner, Callens sent the ball high and straight and into the back of the net for victory and a championship.

So finally, the long Gotham nightmare is over.  But NYCFC fans probably shouldn’t start thinking about a repeat title, much less a dynasty.  Major League Soccer strives for parity, with a complex but fairly rigid salary cap serving as a key part of that effort.  As a result, only two clubs, L.A. Galaxy and D.C. United, can claim more than a pair of titles in the league’s quarter-century-plus history, and only those two plus the Houston Dynamo have ever won in back-to-back years.  Plus, City Football Group, NYCFC’s majority owner, owns eleven clubs around the globe, and treats them as one connected family with Manchester City, the English Premier League titan, in the role of unquestioned parent.  A spokesperson for CFG told the media that MLS ranks in the middle of the leagues the company is involved with.  That means a young star like Castellanos will almost certainly be moved up as soon as someone at Manchester City thinks he is ready to take the next step.  But even if his time in the Bronx proves short, at least he helped bring a title to Gotham.  Now if the other team that calls Yankee Stadium home could only do the same.   

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