New York City defeated the Portland Timbers on Saturday to lift their first ever Major League Soccer cup.
Though it took a while to spark into life, it was a game that had it all: a last-minute equalizer, chances at both ends, and the drama of a penalty shootout.
So, to close the book on what was a thoroughly enjoyable 2021 season, let's take a look at three big takeaways from MLS Cup:
1. Sean Johnson will forever be an NYCFC legend
Sean Johnson has always been highly thought of in NYC, pulling the Cityzens out of a number of holes since joining from the Chicago Fire in 2017. But on Saturday, he sealed legendary status.
The nine-time United States international pulled out four saves to keep the Timbers at bay. But it was his PK heroics that stole the headlines, with Johnson denying both Felipe Mora and Diego Valeri as NYCFC ran out 4-2 shootout winners.
“For me, he’s the big, big winner. He wins us this game in the end," head coach Ronny Deila told 90min of Johnson after the match. "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.”
The sight of Johnson leading the celebrations with the MLS Cup trophy will go down in NYCFC folklore in years to come.
2. Did Savarese get it wrong?
There were some pretty big decisions to be made both before and during MLS Cup for Giovanni Savarese.
Should Sebastian Blanco start? Who was the best option alongside Diego Chara? When to bring in Valeri?
Ultimately, and as charitably as possible, he didn't get much right.
Blanco looked a shadow of his usual self and clearly hadn't fully recovered from the hamstring problem that saw him limp out against the Rapids a week earlier. The Argentine failed to create a single chance or register a shot on target in his 62 minutes on the pitch. In fact, he touched the ball just 41 times. Perhaps an impact sub role would have been best?
Speaking of which, with his side trailing 1-0, Savarese waited until the 89th minute to introduce Diego Valeri. Sure, he's 35 now and way past his best. But he can still come up with big moments. There's every chance Felipe Mora's last-minute equalizer could have been a winner, had Valeri had more time to have an influence on the game.
And then starting George Fochive in midfield ahead of Cristhian Paredes was just puzzling. Fochive was overrun from the outset, while Paredes added far more attacking thrust and defensive bite once introduced. The Paraguayan is one of the best central midfielders in MLS, yet was benched for the biggest game of the season.
3. Big-time players for big-time moments
While Johnson is the NYCFC hero, it's important to note the contribution of Taty Castellanos. The Argentine, of course, opened the scoring in the 41st minute, and coolly dispatched his penalty to put NYCFC 1-0 up in the shootout. They never looked back from there.
Of course, Felipe Mora was the man who kept the tie alive in the 94th minute for Timbers. But that goal was from just one of six shots he attempted inside the box on the day - a pretty poor conversion rate. His limp penalty effort in the shootout was symptomatic of the drop-off in form he's suffered in recent months.
Just moments before, Castellanos stepped up showing all the confidence of a man who had the Golden Boot in his locker, and three goals in three MLS Cup Playoff appearances.
It's all about difference-makers in these big moments. In the end, from Castellanos outperforming Mora, to Maxi Moralez waving his wand while Blanco dropped his, NYCFC just had more.