NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson kept his club’s MLS Cup hopes alive several times during its Eastern Conference semifinal against Toronto FC on Wednesday at Citi Field, stopping several skillful TFC shots for 90 minutes.
But in the final minute before stoppage time, after all those big saves on powerful shots, it was one of the softest of the night that knocked City out of the postseason.
Alejandro Pozuelo beat Johnson with a Panenka-style penalty, the second time he’s pulled the move on the City keeper this season, chipping the ball into the center of the net and past Johnson to hand NYCFC a 2-1 loss in a sloppy performance at its temporary home.
With the victory, Toronto FC advances to next week’s Eastern Conference final against the winner of Thursday’s match between Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union.
After struggling to create any offense in the first half, City gave up a goal early in the second half before coming alive and controlling play, equalizing with plenty of time left for a winner. But an ill-advised tackle by Ronald Matarrita at the edge of the box changed everything. Matarrita slid into TFC’s Richie Laryea, who had no clear path to goal, for an easy penalty call. Pozuelo stepped up to the spot, faking out Johnson for the winner.
"It’s disappointing because you put so much into a long year: 34-game season, postseason, international breaks, Open Cup, all that jazz," Johnson said. "Everything from first place in the East, whatever you want to call it, best point total, all that goes out the window if you can’t make anything of it.”
Toronto was first on the board in the 47th minute, but the goal wasn’t really of its own doing. After a NYCFC throw in its own half, the ball was played back into defense. When it arrived at Maxime Chanot near the edge of the box, the City centerback made a poor attempt to clear it away with his head, putting it into the center of the box and into the path of Pozuelo, who slotted the ball past a diving Johnson and into the corner of the goal.
NYCFC started to click after the TFC goal. A corner in the 54th minute produced shots by Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Chanot, but neither found the net. Alexandru Mitrita took an attempt near the top of the box on a volley, but was denied by Quentin Westberg. Parks fed Valentin Castellanos for a shot at the top of the box in the 57th minute, but it sailed just beyond the top right corner.
NYCFC pulled it back in the 69th minute as Maxi Moralez finally was able to make an impact on the game. After receiving a throw-in near the corner flag, the MLS assist leader turned toward the box and launched a cross over the middle. Tajouri-Shradi made a late run onto the ball as it went past the back post and fired it into the net.
City had a handful of other chances in the final minutes, and after TFC went ahead Johnson came up into attack for stoppage, nearly assisting on a goal, but it wasn’t meant to be as time expired.
I don’t know where we were the first half, I thought Toronto was much better, they played much better than we did," midfielder Alexander Ring said. "It’s a shame because ... the last nine months were for nothing because we weren’t ready today.”