"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes, it rains."
The sentiment of that cliché, given to the sports world by the great Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh in "Bull Durham" more than 32 years ago, remains alive and well at New York City FC, at least for goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
"In professional sports, you're going to win games, you're going to lose games," Johnson said. "Hopefully in your career, you're going to win championships, and in some seasons you're not."
Sure, every team has ups and downs, but the wins have yet to be as big as NYCFC hoped for upon joining Major League Soccer in 2015, and the losses often devastating. Each of the club’s first five seasons ended without a trophy, including four MLS Cup Playoff exits without reaching a conference final.
As fifth-seeded NYCFC enters the first round of the 2020 postseason on Saturday at No. 4 seed Orlando City SC, the veteran keeper said the team isn’t letting past failures weigh it down, understanding that the harsh losses can be part of a longer journey.
"I think taking the experiences when you don't achieve what you want and turning them into learning experiences, and driving yourself forward to make sure that you don't repeat the same things that you got wrong the years before, I think it's something that speaks to this team being together for a very long time and I think it's something that we learn from," Johnson said.
NYCFC is 2-6 all-time in the playoffs and has advanced just once in its history, beating the Philadelphia Union in a knockout round game in 2018 before losing both legs of a conference semifinal to eventual champion Atlanta United FC. The team's first trip to the playoffs in 2016 ended with a 7-0 aggregate defeat to Toronto FC in the semifinals. Then, 2017 saw NYCFC attempt a comeback after losing 4-1 to the Columbus Crew on the road, but a home 2-0 victory wasn't enough.
Last season, NYCFC finished atop the Eastern Conference to secure homefield advantage through the conference finals but failed to advance from its semifinal match in a new single-elimination format, again succumbing to Toronto in a 2-1 loss decided on a late penalty.
"In this whole year, I think we've been motivated to get back to the point where we put ourselves in position to continue to move forward when we get to the playoffs, and the time is now," Johnson said. "We've been together for a while now and we have to continue to drive forward and use that past experience as a learning one."
Head coach Ronny Deila is one of the few people at NYCFC not to face the disappointments of years past after joining earlier this year. The Norwegian may not have playoff experience, but he senses a different energy from his team as it looks to right past wrongs.
"I haven't seen anything to that," Deila said of any tension around the team given the club’s playoff history. "I think everybody enjoys it, looking forward to the games, and that's what it's about. I know the playoffs is important here, but again, what you do over a whole season is the most important in my opinion, now it's a one-off game. We can beat anybody. We just need to attack the occasion and really enjoy it."
Like Johnson, Deila expects previous misfortune will work in his team’s favor against Orlando.
"I think that we haven't done it before is giving just more energy and more motivation into the game," said Deila. "The finish now has been different from what I've seen before, they're more focused, and I like that. That's how we should be every week. But I can see it's something special coming up the boys are enjoying it and looking forward to it."
NYCFC seems ready to announce its presence with authority, even if it rains.
NYCFC playoff history
2015: No playoffs (finished eighth in Eastern Conference)
2016: No. 2 seed, 7-0 aggregate loss to Toronto FC in conference semifinal
2017: No. 2 seed, 4-3 aggregate loss to Columbus Crew in conference semifinal
2018: No. 3 seed, 3-1 victory over Philadelphia Union in knockout round, 4-1 aggregate loss to Atlanta United FC in conference semifinal
2019: No. 1 seed, 2-1 loss to Toronto FC in single-elimination conference semifinal