NYCFC takes home first MLS Cup

NYCFC became the undisputed champions of Major League Soccer after their game with the portland timbers.

A football player moving with the ball.

Heading into 2021’s MLS Cup, not many pundits had their eyes on New York City Football Club (NYCFC) or the Portland Timbers to advance to the Finals.

Both teams finished fourth in their respective conferences, seeded behind regional talents like the New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids.

However, NYCFC’s penalty shootout win (4-2) was a watershed moment. It marked their first MLS Cup appearance and win but also signals the healthy growth of the MLS.

In the last decade of its development, the MLS has had a few top-heavy clubs that have shouldered their way to the top with star players and superior resources.

However, NYCFC highlights the incremental improvement smaller and newer clubs have made. Fans have also shown growing interest in the league—especially now that sports betting in New York has launched online.

Though NYFCFC and cross-town rivals, the New York Red Bulls, don’t have their stadiums, the availability of futures, parlays and more is sure to revitalize interest in local teams.

For leagues like the MLS, the availability of oddsmakers can help spur public interest. So far, the league has relied on major names from the EU, opting for a few seasons in the MLS (typically right before retirement).

However, NYCFC has never been home to a Zlatan Ibrahimović or a Wayne Rooney, hinting that the MLS is starting to find its footing as a quality league.

A battle through playoffs

Though NYCFC hasn’t made a Finals appearance in the MLS Cup, they’ve posted the highest number of regular-season points in the MLS since 2016. Previous failures in the playoffs came down to mistakes on the field, which no talent could fend off. 

Until 2021, the team cruised through the regular season with a few hiccups, as well as major victories (like a 6-0 smash of DC United). By the time they headed into playoffs, fans were cautiously hopeful that they’d improve on previous failures.

The 2-0 sweep of Atlanta United was predictable, but the penalty win (5-3) against the New England Revolution cued many in that this could be NYCFC’s year. The Revolution holds the highest number of Supporters’ Shields and is headed by (arguably) the MLS’s strongest coach.

A 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Union saw NYCFC take home an Eastern Conference win, a club first. However, NYCFC had to defeat the Timbers on their home turf; for context, the Timbers Army of fans is one of the most fanatical in the league, while their football-specific stadium can pack in over 25,000 spectators.

It wasn’t just an MLS Cup win for NYCFC; it was a breaking of their playoff curse, an inaugural championship win, and a victory taken on an opponent’s home turf. And, even more extraordinarily, NYCFC did it without any big names.

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Dropping big Names to create big Names

NYCFC has the resources to bring on big names. The club is owned by City Football Group, an Abu Dhabi-based sporting consortium that also owns Manchester City of the Premier League (and clubs in China, France, Japan, India, and more). IYCFC was home to Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and David Villa. in the past 

None were able to make a difference on the field—and, as this year’s roster has proved, never needed to. The club’s ability to develop young talents will be a focal point of its success in the future.

So far, Argentinian striker Valentin Castellanos has caught the eye of fellow City Football Group coach Pep Guardiola.

Castellanos finished with 19 goals, then scored three more during the playoffs. His critical work as a striker has led to Guardiola stating he sees the player moving (and succeeding) in European association football.

Though it’s still unclear where Castellanos might end up, the comment again gets to the heart of an evolving MLS. 

Rather than pick off European stars nearing the end of the road, the MLS can meaningfully become part of a larger football ecology. NYCFC’s overall playoff performance proves that clubs are maturing across both conferences.