Playoff soccer largely is an American phenomenon, but New York City FC’s Norwegian coach fully understands what a deep MLS Cup playoff run would mean for the club.
Ronny Deila’s previous managerial stops all saw their champions crowned based on full season results, like most leagues around the world. Upon arrival from his native Norway, however, the first-year coach quickly adjusted his vision. Deila already was glancing beyond the planned schedule, making a postseason berth his first goal with plans for his team to peak in the closing stretch to ensure its best chance at a title.
While the chaos of a pandemic, a fragmented schedule and a series of injuries have adjusted the club’s plans somewhat, Deila’s first goal officially has been accomplished.
NYCFC (9-8-3, 30 points) is guaranteed its fifth consecutive postseason berth thanks to a loss by the Montreal Impact against Nashville SC on Tuesday.
City still has a good amount to play for with three matches remaining. Should NYCFC finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, it would host at least one playoff game. Earlier Tuesday, when NYCFC’s playoff berth still was a mathematical formality away, Deila already had the next step on his mind.
"We put us in a position where we still can be fighting for top four," Deila said. "And that’s an important thing when you think about the playoffs, so we’re going to continue working towards that."
The club currently sits fifth in the conference, good for a first-round road matchup with No. 4 seed Orlando City SC in this season’s expanded format. While home-field is still in play, a late-season slide remains a possibility. A drop to the Nos. 7-10 spots would mean a spot in the play-in round. The final stretch resumes Wednesday against Toronto FC, currently second in the East but coming off a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the first-place Philadelphia Union.
"It’s going to be a tough game against Toronto. They had a bad game on Sunday and I’m sure they want to show what kind of team they are again tomorrow," Deila said. "We’ve had some tough games against them this year, and this is going to be a tough, good game tomorrow as well."
With injuries in attack and midfield depleting NYCFC’s ranks, Deila has been forced to show confidence on a few pieces out of favor during last year’s run to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That includes up-and-down designated player Jesús Medina, Scottish import Gary Mackay-Steven and college soccer product Tony Rocha.
"I think I’m doing things well and putting myself there so I can do the best for the team and for [Deila]," Medina said through a translator. "Right now, you feel like you have more confidence, but we’re looking to do things well. Last year, the coach we had didn’t feel the same confidence and didn’t give me many chances. This year, this coach feels much confident with me and he’s giving me a lot more opportunities. It’s very different circumstances from what happened last year."
Different circumstances, but similar result: NYCFC in the MLS Cup playoffs.