New York City FC is exactly where it wants to be with five matches to play.
An MLS Cup playoff berth secured. An Eastern Conference-best 54 points earned. A potential first-round playoff bye in sight.
But in this final stretch of the regular season, NYCFC recognizes the value of every point while sharing the field with a group of teams who have much to play for still.
Including a win over New England (39 points) last Saturday and a draw with Toronto FC (42 points) on Wednesday, City is finishing the regular season with seven straight games against teams fighting for playoff spots or battling for the East’s top seed. The club hosts the San Jose Earthquakes, currently fifth in a very tight Western Conference with 44 points, on Saturday at Yankee Stadium. City then faces FC Dallas (43 points), Atlanta United (48 points) and New England again before a final showdown with Philadelphia (51 points) that could decide the conference.
“It’s interesting, right?” NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson pondered after Wednesday’s draw with Toronto. “We’re in a position now where we’re pushing obviously to finish first and they’re pushing to cement themselves in the playoffs, so both teams are going to be aware of the results they need going forward.”
Wednesday night’s match at Yankee Stadium didn’t quite have a playoff atmosphere, being played in the middle of the week on the anniversary of 9/11. But the action on the field at times matched the intensity you’d expect come mid-October. Six yellow cards were issued over the course of the match, including four to NYCFC. Control of play bounced between the teams for much of the second half as both looked to find a winner, and a dramatic penalty save by Johnson, as well as calls for a VAR review in the closing moments, brought the crowd to life.
While it’s not quite the same as playoff action, Johnson and his teammates see the value and experience they’ll gain from these tough matches to close the season.
“That game was very similar to what you’ll see in a lot of playoff games — an open game, chances on both ends, it wasn’t easy to play with a lot of running for the guys, a lot of emotion in the game,” Johnson said. “So, it’s just a preview maybe of what’s to come down the road.”
With every point having value for teams in the playoff race, defender Ben Sweat said the club expects the best from every team it faces, something he’s seen play out already.
“These teams like Toronto, LAFC, Red Bulls, we know the better teams that are going to make the playoffs are going to show up and show out,” said Sweat. “And we’ve got to make sure that we do the same thing by finishing the season on a high note and getting ready for the playoffs.”
City dropped points for the first time in a month by drawing Toronto, but with the top seed so close, Johnson carries the same mentality as those just clawing for their playoff lives.
“Important point, it’s not three, but it’s important in a three-game week, especially at home to carry that momentum,” Johnson said.
“I think this one point turns out to be a huge one.”