Goalkeeper Andre Blake and captain Alejandro Bedoya would be spectators. So would three-quarters of the usual baseline, with center-backs Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes as well as left-back Kai Wagner also missing. But the ripple effect was that the Union would have very little depth to change the course of the game if that became necessary. New York City FC opponents were also lacking in some key players, most notably MLS Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos, but it was evident that manager Ronny Deila had more resources on his bench than his counterpart Jim Curtin.
In the end, that turned out to be the difference, as New York came from behind to win 2-1 thanks to late goal from substitute Talles Magno, and staged an MLS Cup showdown on Saturday with the Portland. Timbers. (3 p.m. ET, broadcast live on ABC).
Conference finals are rarely remembered except by fans of the teams that win them, even though there is an artificial trophy presentation at the end. MLS cuts make more of an impression. But the courageous performance of the Union – as well as the return of the NYCFC – was such that Sunday’s meeting will likely be remembered a little longer than most.
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Circumstances alone made a game unique. Word emerged on Friday that the Union was suffering in terms of personnel. On Saturday, there had been confirmation that 11 players would be absent, and it was feared that the match would turn into a farce unworthy of a conference final. For Curtin, even completing his roster card was a challenge.
“When I was writing in the team posts at the start of the game, there were a few names that I couldn’t spell yet, so I had to take a look at the back of the shirts which is a situation which was unique for sure, ”he said.
Fortunately, this eruption scenario was avoided. While Deila complimented the Union players who took the field and noted that Philadelphia’s style had not changed, he admitted that the reduced number of the home team had changed the mental dynamics of the game.
“It has a different pressure for us to be more ‘We have to win’ instead of ‘Amazing to win’,” he said.
Perhaps that explains the rather lukewarm nature of the first half, when NYCFC had the vast majority of the ball but never really threatened the Union goal. In fact, the patchwork Philadelphia backline run by Aurelien Collin – who had played a minute of competitive football for Philadelphia for the past two seasons – has looked comfortable for the better part of an hour. And when Kacper Przybylko forced a homeward goal from Alex Callens in the 63rd minute, it really looked like the Union would get their ‘Rocky’ moment.
But after scaling the mountain, the Union’s legs weren’t strong enough to stay there. The lead lasted 110 seconds, Maxi Moralez hammering a rebound to bring the NYCFC level. From there, the Blues ran downhill.
“I think we needed a period to draw the crowds, to have a five minute window where now that puts a little stress and pressure on New York,” Curtin said. “Maybe they start tossing numbers and we can hit them on the counter. “
By then, Deila had already made three substitutions, turning to record signers Magno, Gudmundur Thorarinsson and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, who all helped tip the scales in favor of the visitors. Thorarinsson won with more effect than Malte Amundsen, while Tajouri-Shradi and Magno reinforced the Blues’ attack in the final third.
As for Curtin, he was crippled, with few options as his valiant start band was gassed.
“They had guns that came off the bench that I would say are expensive,” Curtin said.
The most expensive of all comes with less than two minutes of normal time remaining. Thorarinsson stole Olivier Mbaizo and fed Magno – a $ 12 million mid-season acquisition – to sack the match winner at close range in the 88th minute.
The goal was cruel for the Union, especially as Nathan Harriel sent a free header over the bar a few minutes earlier. But it looked deserved for an NYCFC team that slowly increased the pressure after halftime.
“I think we were the dominant team in the second half,” said Deila. “And we knew that in the last minutes of the match, we will have more space and [create] more chances, and we did. The substitutes have worked really well. You saw how cool they were. “
Curtin is the kind of manager who isn’t the type to apologize, but he couldn’t help but let his mind drift into what-if scenarios. Nine months of sweat and effort were wasted due to a virus that is still a part of American life. Without going into detail and pointing out how strongly he believes in science, Curtin felt that the league’s COVID-19 protocols could be subject to some tweaking given that “we had 11 healthy guys for. playing a soccer game that are not there because they have a sniffle version. “
He added, “You’re at a loss for words, man. I just feel bad for the guys who weren’t there because again they’ve had amazing seasons. COVID sucks. I don’t know how to put it another way. Protocols are protocols, but could they be updated, adjusted for the sake of common sense? I do not know. Again, it hurts.
This pain will persist for some time in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, it’s NYCFC that will move on to the MLS Cup.
“What we’ve done so far is just amazing,” Deila said. “But the biggest one comes on Saturday. ”