New York City FC did exactly what it set out to do in the chaotic closing chapter to its Major League Soccer regular season, but the end result wasn’t exactly what it hoped for.
With a playoff spot long secured, NYCFC needed a victory against the Chicago Fire on Sunday, plus some help elsewhere on MLS Decision Day, to secure a home match in its 2020 postseason opener.
City did its part, going ahead on a Valentín Castellanos goal in the 77th minute for the 4-3 victory at Soldier Field. But a Columbus Crew victory locked NYCFC into fifth, while an Orlando City SC loss sent the Lions to fourth, meaning NYCFC will journey to Florida for its postseason opener instead of hosting at the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium.
"We can beat anybody. We are in a good moment now," said head coach Ronny Deila.
NYCFC (12-8-3) closed its 2020 season on a four-game winning streak to finish with 39 points in a 23-game shortened, fragmented season amid the coronavirus pandemic, avoiding the play-in round for the MLS Cup Playoffs, which begin Friday, Nov. 20.
"I’m proud of the boys, I think they’re performing, getting better and better every day," Deila said. "They have a lot of confidence into the playoffs, so we just have to keep momentum and do the things that we have done all the time, but of course it’s going to be an extra energy into it, and we’re looking forward to it."
After a dull opening 10 minutes, NYCFC played one of the most hectic halves of its season, resulting in a six-goal frame in which City largely dominated, but came out even on the scoreboard.
The chaos began in the 15th minute when Alexander Callens opened scoring with a header off a corner, soaring above the Fire defense for his second goal of the season. In the 32nd minute, Gary Mackay-Steven scored one of his own for the second straight game, dribbling past Chicago keeper Bobby Shuttleworth and curling a shot into the net from a nearly impossible angle.
Chicago pulled one back in the 33rd minute when Djordje Mihailovic crossed a ball into the head of Robert Beric, who was left completely unmarked by centerbacks Callens and Maxime Chanot in the middle of the box. But with some smooth soccer, NYCFC answered just four minutes later. After a nice build-up, Maxi Moralez laid off the ball for Jesús Medina, who took a bending shot with his first touch through the defense and into the top corner.
At the end of the half, however, NYCFC gave up a pair of quick goals, both by Fire midfielder Przemyslaw Frankowski, and both the result of a lack of crispness on the back line. That led head coach Ronny Deila to switch off Callens for Sebastien Ibeagha at halftime.
The game calmed down in the second frame, with each team controlling possession for different stretches. As he’d done all game, Castellanos continued to be a problem for the Fire defense late in the match, and after a horrible mistake in the back, he made Chicago pay. The Argentine pounced on an errant pass by Miguel Ángel Navarro in the middle of the box, knocking the ball past Shuttleworth for the winner.
The last tally was Castellanos’ sixth goal of the year, and fourth in the last three matches, securing his spot as the club’s leading scorer for the 2020 regular season. While his goal wasn’t his most spectacular, Castellanos’ recent form, as well as that of most teammates, drew praise from his coach entering the playoffs.
"[Castellanos] was unbelievable today. He was, in my opinion, man of the match. He was all over the pitch, he destroyed the central defenders. The two last games now, he’s been flying," Deila said. "So just keep focused on the right things, the same things. We have a striker now who can make a lot of damage, and then Maxi behind him. We have two wingers now in Gary — I’ve never seen Gary as good as he is now — and Jesús has been performing. [Alex Ring] really, really good today. Keaton [Parks] is performing. And the defense we know we have played good for a long, long time now.
"So we’re very confident, but we need to be humble, and we need to understand that a playoff game is a different ballgame. We need to be ready, but with a smile on our face, that is important because then we are at our best."