Portland, OR. The road, as New York City Football Club executives have said since 2015, was always meant to lead us here, to the big moments, to the Finals, to the trophies. She probably didn’t need as much drama, they knew, but that was always the plan.
Victory arrived drenched in tension and cold rain on Saturday, when the NYCFC beat hosts Portland Timbers, 4-2, on penalties after the two teams tied 1-1 to win their first major football championship. The penalty shootout capped the day when New York City looked to have won the MLS Cup, only to concede a goal at the last second forced extra time that, briefly, made it look as if the team’s moment had slipped from their grasp.
By holding off on the extra two periods, though, New York City ensured that her joy would only be delayed, not denied. Three successful attempts at penalty kicks in four shots to open the penalty shootout, then two saves by goalkeeper Shawn Johnson, paved the way for defender Alex Callins to complete the task.
Those who haven’t paid close attention to the evolution of the New York City roster in the past few years may not have seen the team’s plan so clearly before, and so may be surprised that the Manchester City-backed squad was cleared before then. MLS Cup Final. There’s no Andrea Pirlos, no Frank Lampards, no David Villas on the New York City squad – the kind of daring European imports that once gave the team a flash of star power in the early years of its existence.
Instead, the team was led to its first MLS championship by two relatively unknown Argentine players: Maxi Morales, a 34-year-old midfielder. Once won the World Youth Cup Along with brighter lights such as Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and striker Valentin Castellanos, the MLS top scorer this season.
They combined to score the first goal in the final, as Morales’s free kick landed directly on Castellanos’ open brow in the back corner in the 41st minute.
Four minutes into injury time, and with the final whistle blowing, that goal looked like it would be enough to win the New York City title.
But a late cross, jostling the goal, and a shot and then rebounds produced a lifeline for Portland in the form of Felipe Mora’s goal.
The players realized that the New York City soccer team’s journey had to go one step further.
Reaching this year’s NYCFC Final was not a long-awaited achievement for the team’s ownership group and more than an expected step on a long and well-planned path.
The shift in roster strategy since the team’s inaugural season in 2015 – an overhaul that parallels the league’s recent shift toward developing young talent rather than importing established stars – has not been the result of a sudden enlightenment.
A senior team executive said Friday that the plan was all along.
“We’re here for the long haul,” said Ferran Soriano, CEO of City Football Group, whose growing network of football clubs around the world includes not only Premier League Manchester City and New York City. Nine more teams in 11 countries. And the long term is not five years. It’s not 10. It’s 50.”
“We are very happy to be in the final – very happy,” Soriano added on the eve of the final. “It is a symbol of what we have achieved. But in reality, the work has remained consistent year after year.”
This was not always evident in the results. Despite making playoffs in five of its first six seasons, NYCFC won only one playoff round in those runs. She won twice as many post-season games in 2021 (four) than in the first six seasons combined (two).
Soriano admitted that the early New York City teams they were obstructed On the field through heavy construction, which has seen cheaper players fill the rosters alongside multi-million dollar stars such as Villa, Lampard and Pirlo. This led to regular disappointments, with regular season successes often followed by a quick post-season exit.
Despite this, team managers quickly worked within the MLS roster and salary set of rules to sign smart signings like Moralez and bring City Football Group’s resources to use in more positive and productive ways.
For example, 23-year-old Castellanos joined as a teenager in 2018 on loan From Uruguayan club Torque, also owned by City Football Group, and later signed a permanent agreement to remain in New York. For Castellanos, the move represented a step up the CFG ladder – the actual rankings of leagues the group created using data and analytics. (Soriano said the Premier League is in the lead, with the MLS somewhere in the middle, “a little higher than Japan.”)
The system of linked clubs is not without conflict. Soriano said Torque’s manager Castellanos resisted the move and the Uruguayan side suffered after his departure – a fate that could come to New York City as well, if and when The property decides it’s time for the newest star to move on.
“This is a long game for City Football Group,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “They’ve been thinking about their MFL investment for a generation.”
At first, this meant spending on star power that might attract attention to the city’s newest club owned. But it also meant investing in an academy that’s helped nurture stars like Gio Reina and Joe Scully, and a belief that a persistence of talent will lead to a more talented roster year after year.
“The way we measure the work we do every day is what we do in the regular season,” Soriano said. “That is a good measure of what we are doing. Then we go to the playoffs and maybe you get lucky. But if you go to the playoffs regularly, you will win one day.”
“Prone to fits of apathy. Introvert. Award-winning internet evangelist. Extreme beer expert.”