New York City FC didn’t do enough on its own to clinch the Eastern Conference’s top seed Sunday but received help elsewhere to lock down the No. 1 spot in the upcoming MLS Cup playoffs.
NYCFC failed to score for the first time in over two months in its match against the New England Revolution, falling 2-0 on the road Sunday afternoon; however a Philadelphia Union loss to the Columbus Crew means City still will finish the season atop the Eastern Conference.
Entering the day five points ahead of Philadelphia, NYCFC needed to win or draw against New England to clinch the conference on its own. Instead, NYCFC had to wait for the finish of the Crew-Union match, which was delayed 30 minutes by lightning. With two second-half goals, the Crew pushed past Philadelphia, ending the race to the top of the conference with one week to play.
"Sometimes, you need a little bit of luck elsewhere, if you will," said NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson. "That result was great for us and we'll take it as a win."
By clinching the East, City earns a first-round bye, homefield advantage throughout the conference playoffs, and a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League. NYCFC's only chance at a road playoff game would be a potential MLS Cup Final against LA FC, which already clinched this year's Supporters' Shield.
With forward Valentin Castellanos, midfielder Alex Ring and center back Maxime Chanot all suspended due to yellow card accumulation, City struggled in the final third throughout the game and failed to establish much rhythm for stretches of the second half, giving up two goals over the final 25 minutes to New England’s Teal Bunbury and Gustavo Bou. Revolution keeper Matt Turner was superb, making six saves to keep NYCFC off the scoreboard for the first time since a 1-0 loss to Portland on July 7.
"We deserved goals in the first half, to score I don’t know, maybe two goals," said head coach Domènec Torrent. "But you know what happened, like so many times in soccer, if you are unable to score goals, the soccer [will] punish you."
It wasn’t until the 66th minute that New England scored the game’s opening goal. Working on the break, Bou found Cristian Penilla near the right side of the 18-yard box, while Bunbury drifted into the middle. Penilla fed Bunbury, who outmuscled NYCFC right back Eric Miller before sliding a shot past Johnson.
The Revs sealed it in the 89th minute on an exceptional finish by Bou. After receiving the ball on the break, Bou noticed Johnson slightly off his line and chipped the ball over the goalie’s head into the net from over 20 yards out.
Alexandru Mitrita, who scored a hat trick in NYCFC’s mid-week victory over Atlanta, had his team’s best chance of the game in the 62nd minute. After earning a free kick just outside of the box near the end line, Mitrita curled a powerful shot toward the top corner on the near side. Turner, however, perfectly timed his dive, keeping the ball out of the goal with one hand while falling into his own net.
Héber Araujo dos Santos nearly equalized late in his first start since returning from with a quad injury earlier this week. In the 85th minute, Ronald Matarrita played a ball into the middle of the box as Héber got behind the centerback, but his finishing attempt was too close to Turner.
After the loss, NYCFC players and staff remained in the locker room to see the result in Columbus. Despite the bad feelings left over from the loss, the team made sure to properly recognize what it's now officially accomplished..
“We still lost. You never want to lose. I think that kind of was hanging over it," said defender Sebastien Ibeagha. "Then, when you realize you just clinched the first spot in the Eastern Conference, it’s something to celebrate no matter how it happened.”