Mandy Collins // @missmandybunz
December 11, 2021
Portland Timbers 1 (2)-(4) 1 New York City FC
Portland Timbers: S. Clark, C. Bravo, D. Zuparic, L. Mabiala, J. Van Rankin (D. Valeri 89′), G. Fochive (C. Paredes 62′), D. Charra, S. Blanco (S. Moreno 62′), D. Asprilla (J. Niezgoda 84′), Y. Chara, F. Mora
New York City FC: S. Johnson, G. Thórarinsson (M. Amundsen 90’+2′), A. Callens, M. Chanot, T. Gray, A. Morales, J. Sands, M. Moralez, S. Rodríguez (I. Tajouri-Shradi 80′), J. Medina (T. Bacelar Martins 95′), V. Castellanos
If it seems like it took a long time to get this article published, it’s because I wanted to process everything that happened this weekend and accurately portray the feelings we all felt over the last few days.
On Sunday, December 2, 2021, New York City FC defeated a home-field advantaged Philadelphia Union to win the Eastern Conference Final and book their ticket to their first MLS Cup Final appearance. The conference championship trophy was the first piece of silverware in New York City’s short history. Celebrating in the locker room, head coach Ronny Deila pointed to the trophy and said to his players, “This? Enjoy it tonight. Tomorrow, forget it. On Saturday, we go and take the big one.”
The following week, the Boys-in-Blue flew to the opposite side of the country to face off against the Western Conference Champions, the Portland Timbers. Providence Park has notoriously been one of the most difficult stadiums for visiting clubs to play in, due in large part to the loud atmosphere created by the Timbers Army. This final was no different.
But a large contingent of loyal NYCFC supporters were not going to let the boys play that game alone. From Thursday night to Saturday morning, droves of people donning blue jackets and jerseys flocked to flights heading west. Airline staff joked with supporters, asking how many people aboard were NYCFC fans. Cheers and chants could be heard from all parts of the plane as those present made sure their voices were heard.
Some flights sold out or were overbooked. Flights into Portland were in such high demand that others opted to fly to Seattle, rent a car, and drive to Portland. David Arends of Buffalo, New York, traveled by train on Thursday to New York City before flying to Portland the next day, as flights out of Buffalo cost significantly more than those out of JFK or LaGuardia.
Andrew “Barney” Barnard traveled all the way from Portsmouth, England. An avid fan of the club, Barney manages the social media page “UK – NYCFC”, and felt he had to be present for New York City FC’s first MLS Cup appearance. A quick chat with his boss and a few Twitter posts later, Barney was on a flight to Portland that was partially funded by the supporters of NYCFC. Barney’s story is one for the ages and highlights how generous this group of supporters can truly be. (Follow him on Twitter at @UKNYCFC to see highlights from his trip.)
The morning of the big match, members of the Third Rail, Los Templados, and a number of other NYCFC supporters groups gathered outside of a hotel in downtown Portland. The time was 9:30 am PST. Some supporters had traveled overnight, while some had landed at midnight. Neither the jet lag and lack of sleep nor the rainy weather was enough to subdue the crowd. The supporters marched to Providence Park en masse and made sure Portland knew it was the New York boys (and girls) making all the noise.
Once at the stadium, supporters lined up around the block to file into the away section tucked up under the overhang. Inside, chants could be heard from both fanbases more than an hour before kickoff. Members of the Timbers Army were more than hospitable to the traveling away fans, but in line with MLS travel protocol, New York City FC fans were not allowed to leave their designated area.
I collect a scarf from every stadium I go to and was disappointed that I was not given the chance to visit the team store once inside. A few Timbers fans approached us at the barricade and asked what we thought of the stadium and Portland. One was kind enough to go to the team store and purchase a scarf for me. Another fan named Jason gave me his extra scarf even after I didn’t have one to trade. Others bought beer and food for NYCFC fans. Overall, the vibes of Providence Park were chill and respectful.
The boys took to the field for warmups with a roar from the NYCFC supporters. What seemed like eons later, the game finally kicked off. As soon as the whistle blew, the away fans took off chanting once again. For the first time that I’ve witnessed on the road, capos led the section through the chants. Faces we’ve all gotten familiar with over the years were ready to once again lead the multiple supporters groups, united, through the 90 minutes of the match. It was truly a sight to see. The voices of the City faithful were heard loud and clear throughout Providence Park.
The first half of the match was absolutely buzzing. New York City FC players were controlling the field and their defense was impenetrable. The midfield orchestrated attacks with flawless passes and accurate crosses. The forwards pressed into the box and had a few shots on target in the early minutes. Jesus Medina had a beautiful moment where he was able to slink past a Portland defender with some fancy footwork and shoot toward goal. I literally spent the first fifteen minutes of the game on a high watching the team play. It was certainly el jogo bonito.
While NYCFC dominated the first half of the game on the pitch, chants continued to ring strong from the away section, coming through clearly on the broadcast, even over the typically thunderous Timbers Army. On the field, the players maintained a fierce attack on Portland’s defense, and the precision of Portland’s defenders slowly ebbed away.
In the 40th minute, Bronx native Tayvon Gray drew a foul in a dangerous spot near the edge of Portland’s 18-yard box. New York City FC’s midfielder Maxi “The Little Genius” Moralez stepped forward to prepare for the freekick. With a swift kick, Maxi sent the ball into the box where forward Valentin “Taty” Castellanos had been given a huge amount of space to connect with the ball. Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark was able to get a hand on the ball, but not enough to block it and it crossed the line for the first goal of the final.
“IT’S IN! THAT’S IN!” shouted supporters in the stands. A crazed fury overtook the City fans and Los Templados began drumming louder. Squeals of delight erupted from the travelers as Castellanos sped over to the corner to celebrate with his teammates. Unfortunately, two Portland supporters were upset with the circumstances on the field. A can of beer was thrown toward the group of NYCFC players, hitting Jesus Medina. Another can fell to the other side of the celebration. Medina was checked by medical staff and cleared while home supporters surrounding the two offenders quickly pointed them out to security. The two men responsible for the tossed cans were ejected from the stadium and have received lifetime bans. The behavior of these two should take nothing away from the hospitality of the rest of the home supporters.
Taty’s goal gave NYCFC a 1-0 lead at halftime. If there has ever been a tale of two halves, the MLS Cup Final was certainly one of them. In the games leading up to the final, New York City FC was a much stronger team in the second half so even with a single goal, some of the visiting supporters whispered, “we might actually do this,” but were nervous it may jinx the game.
Portland came out in the second half a much stronger force than NYCFC had anticipated. While NYCFC had led the game in shots, passes, and possession, the tide turned in Portland’s favor quickly. New York City defenders saw themselves being challenged far more frequently than in the first half and supporters watched with bated breath as the backline was beaten again and again by Portland. The Timbers started putting more shots on goal but NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson made a few dazzling saves, keeping New York City FC in the lead.
With 90 minutes down, Portland still found themselves down 1-0. NYC supporters started chanting, “We want the cup!” They were quickly silenced and warned about cursing the game before the final whistle. No sooner had the words been uttered, Portland forward Felipe Mora was able to clean up a scramble in the box. After several blocked shots by NYCFC’s defense, the loose ball was kicked into the back of the net, sending Portland fans into a frenzy and knocking the breath out of NYCFC and its supporters.
NYCFC supporters quietly watched as the Timbers celebrated what will go down as one of the best goals in Portland’s history: With mere seconds left in stoppage time, Steve Clark had moved forward to put every last body in the box. Mora struck the ball, saw it go through, then took off running. The Timbers Army roared back to life, waving their flags and chanting loudly.
New York City players could be seen strewn about the field, utterly distraught. Glory had been at their fingertips and within a split second, it had been snatched away. Coach Ronny Deila gathered his boys up and prepped them for extra time. The whistle blew to begin the two 15-minute OT periods and NYCFC supporters resumed chanting. NYCFC had chances to reclaim the lead and a win and the Timbers took a few shots that tested Johnson, but at the end of extra time, the score remained 1-1.
The MLS Cup champion would be decided by penalty kicks. After a quick break and huddle, Taty faced Clark first. Taty converted his kick, but barely — Clark had guessed correctly but was unable to get his hands on it. Portland’s Mora stepped up next and was promptly saved by Johnson. NYCFC was ahead 1-0. Alfredo Morales stepped up next and was also saved by Clark. Next up, Portland Timbers legend Diego Valeri took his shot and Johnson was able to pull off a huge save. The look on Johnson’s face was remarkable. He was so focused. His game was on a different level.
New York City’s Maxi Moralez also converted his shot. He ran over to Sean Johnson and embraced him before returning to the line. Johnson was unable to save the next two shots by the Timbers. Magno converted for NYC. Finally, Alexander Callens walked forward to take the fifth shot for NYCFC. His goal could earn NYCFC the victory. He had made the shot that sent the Boys-in-Blue through against New England – Could he do it again against the Timbers in the biggest match of his club’s history? With a deep breath in, Callens squared his shoulders and jogged his way forward.
NYCFC supporters held their breath. Portland fans chanted PT-FC. Time stood still. And Callens shot the ball fiercely into the upper corner of the net.
The players, coaches, and training staff stormed the pitch. Supporters were screeching, yelling, crying, hugging complete strangers, and jumping for joy. The pain of the last seven years evaporated in a moment. New York City FC had won their first MLS Cup in their seventh season. The team celebrated with its most loyal supporters for nearly an hour, taking turns lifting the cup and inciting roars from the crowd. Coach Ronny Deila lived up to his word and stripped down to his skivvies before the crowd.
Following the game, the front office of New York City FC treated its traveling supporters to a catered meal and drinks. The crowd gathered to enjoy the company. A short time later, singing could be heard coming from upstairs. To the delight of all the supporters, the team barged into the room. A crowd gathered around and hoisted Maxi Moralez into the air. Smiles were seen all over the place. My dopamine levels hit an all-time high. I danced next to Talles Magno while the team lifted the cup high. The team mingled with the supporters, taking photos, signing autographs, and giving small speeches.
James Sands stood on a chair, waving his hands to lower the noise of the crowd. “BING BONG” was all he said into the microphone. Maxi danced on the chair, excitedly singing. This game was for Maxi. His dedication to this club surpasses so much.
Ryan Gerbosi of Newsday reported that Maxi had tweaked his ankle in the 30th minute of the match. When questioned why he hadn’t substituted Moralez off for his injury, Deila responded, “I don’t think that was anything to think about, he will never go off that pitch. When you play so many games and you come to the last one, everybody has pain somewhere. You have to deal with it. That’s about character and determination and just fight.”
Despite the knock, Moralez went on to assist Taty’s goal and convert his penalty shot.
Sean Johnson was awarded MVP of the MLS Cup final for his valiant saves during the match and through the penalty kicks.
December 12, 2021, will go down in history as one of the most memorable days of my life. I grew up in a small town in Indiana. I didn’t have many friends. There were people who would come over to my house on the weekends, but I never truly felt bonded to them. I’ve moved several times in my life seeking my squad. My hope was to finally find a group of people who appreciated me for who I was and considered my presence valuable. You know, people that would ask, “Where’s Mandy?” when I couldn’t make an event.
I found that group of people in the members of the Third Rail Bronx. During the pandemic, Zoom calls were set up to help those lonely and isolated due to COVID-19 have a place to go. In those calls, we spent hours laughing and getting to know each other. Over the last year, we’ve become a family. Those that attended the zoom calls (minus one, our #TinFoilHat member, TJ) traveled to Portland for the match. We took up an entire row of the section. Celebrating NYCFC’s victory with all of you, truly meant the world to me. New York City FC brought us together and we were together to watch them lift the cup for the first time in the club’s history.
Days later, the team continued celebrating the championship at City Hall in lower Manhattan. Mayor Bill de Blasio awarded each team member a key to the city. He stated, “The team motto is, “For The City”, and this team lives it out. They inspire us. They make us feel hope even in the toughest moments. This is an amazing team for the ages. And I have an official declaration on behalf of 8.8 million New Yorkers. It’s the truest, clearest thing. You can see it, look all around you. New York City is blue. NYC is blue.”
Everyone in the New York City FC family had dreamed of this day for nearly a decade. We no longer have to dream, fam. It’s real. We did it. We’re champions.
Feature and all other images: Jill Peck
Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @missmandybunz