NYCFC in MLS Cup 2021: Everything you need to know as club plays for its first championship

When New York’s current sports championship drought began, New York City FC had yet to be established. Nearly a decade later, NYCFC can bring the area’s losing stretch to a close with a Major League Soccer title.

New York has not celebrated a champion since the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI over the New England Patriots. The Mets came close with their World Series appearance in 2015, and the Islanders were a round away from a Stanley Cup final berth the past two years.

Now, the area’s newest team is just one win from ending the drought and making local soccer history. NYCFC will face the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2021 on Saturday at Providence Park in Portland.

Whether you're new to MLS or an NYCFC diehard, here’s everything you need to know about New York’s youngest professional sports franchise ahead of its first championship appearance:

Who is NYCFC?

New York City FC began play as Major League Soccer’s 20th team in 2015, becoming the second MLS team in the area alongside the New York Red Bulls. NYCFC is majority owned by City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi-funded soccer conglomerate created by the operators of English power Manchester City. The Yankees also retain a minority ownership.

New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos, (11) poses for...

New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos, (11) poses for pictures with fans at the end of a MLS soccer match against Atlanta United at Yankee Stadium, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in New York. Credit: AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

NYCFC has called Yankee Stadium home as it attempts to build its own place in the five boroughs, but has played several matches in other venues because of schedule conflicts. On the field, NYCFC has made the playoffs each year since 2016, falling short of the conference final each time until its current run.

Path to a first MLS Cup

NYCFC appeared to be cruising to a sixth straight playoff berth entering September. The next 10 games put that at risk as City won a single game, recording seven points and losing twice in three tries against the rival Red Bulls, the last of which put NYCFC out of playoff position on Oct. 17.

In eight matches since that day, NYCFC has been unsolvable.

The club did not lose in its final five regular season matches to pick up 11 points and finish fourth in the Eastern Conference. NYCFC opened the playoffs at home against Atlanta United, scoring twice early in the second half to win 2-0. In the conference semifinal, City visited a record-setting New England Revolution team and survived a red card in extra time to advance on penalty kicks, making all five of its attempts.

Last Sunday, NYCFC won its first trophy with an Eastern Conference championship road win over the Philadelphia Union, going ahead in the closing minutes to win, 2-1.

Who’s in charge?

Ronny Deila became NYCFC’s fourth head coach ahead of the 2020 season. The 46-year-old Norwegian’s most notable experience came at Scottish power Celtic, where he won the Scottish Premiership twice. Deila’s tenure started slow, disrupted after just two MLS games by the COVID-19 pandemic and ending with a first-round playoff exit in penalty kicks.

New York City FC head coach Ronny Deila celebrates after...

New York City FC head coach Ronny Deila celebrates after an MLS playoff soccer match against the Philadelphia Union, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Chester, Pa.  Credit: AP/Chris Szagola

With some reinforcements in 2021, the coach was consistent in his belief that NYCFC was among MLS’ most talented, even when results weren’t going his way and critics grew louder. Those voices are silent these days, especially after Deila’s substitution decisions were key to NYCFC’s conference final victory.

Impact players

Valentín Castellanos, striker

New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos, (11), and Atlanta...

New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos, (11), and Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson (12) battle for the ball during the second half of an MLS soccer match at Yankee Stadium, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Credit: AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

Known to teammates and fans as ‘Taty,’ Castellanos had a breakout campaign. The Argentine was used in a few different roles in his first two-plus seasons with the club, scoring a respectable 18 goals. Handed the starting striker role in 2021, the 23-year-old netted 19 in the regular season, albeit in streaky fashion. That tally was good for the MLS Golden Boot as the league’s top goalscorer, and he’s added two more in the playoffs. Castellanos is expected to start Saturday after missing the win over Philadelphia because of suspension for a red card issued late against New England.

Maxi Moralez, attacking midfielder

Maxi Moralez #10 of NYCFC has words with goalkeeper Julio...

Maxi Moralez #10 of NYCFC has words with goalkeeper Julio Gonzalez #20 of Pumas after missing on his penalty kick during a quarterfinals match against Pumas in the Leagues Cup 2021 at Yankee Stadium on August 11, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Rich Schultz

The oldest player on NYCFC’s roster at 34, Moralez remains the team’s most important lynchpin in the center of the attack. Injuries slowed Moralez in 2020 and he struggled early this season, but the veteran kept himself on the field with 27 starts and surged late in the year, finishing with the second-highest assist total of his career (11). Nobody touched the ball more than the Argentine in the Philadelphia win, in which he scored NYCFC’s opening goal.

Sean Johnson, goalkeeper

New York City FC's Sean Johnson makes a save during...

New York City FC's Sean Johnson makes a save during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against the Philadelphia Union on Dec. 5 in Chester, Pa. Credit: AP/Chris Szagola

Johnson was a natural choice to become NYCFC’s captain when the vacancy opened last offseason. He’s been a regular starter in the league since 2010, first with the Chicago Fire, then joining NYCFC in 2017. The 32-year-old has played well enough in recent years to earn call-ups to the U.S. men’s national team, including for World Cup qualifiers as recently as September.

Santiago Rodríguez, winger

New York City midfielder Santiago Rodriguez, right, heads the ball...

New York City midfielder Santiago Rodriguez, right, heads the ball over New England Revolution midfielder Matt Polster, left, during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

One of a handful of early-season acquisitions to bolster NYCFC’s attacking depth, Rodríguez, 21, played his way into the starting lineup late in the season. The Uruguayan has four goals, including one in the playoffs, in 2021 as he’s quickly become one of the club’s most creative players.

Talles Magno, striker

Talles Magno #43 of New York City FC celebrates after...

Talles Magno #43 of New York City FC celebrates after scoring the match-winning goal during the second half against Philadelphia Union during the MLS Eastern Conference Final at Subaru Park on December 05, 2021 in Chester, Pennsylvania.  Credit: Getty Images/Tim Nwachukwu

Another newer signing, Magno arrived with much praise and a high price tag from Brazil. The 19-year-old has taken some time to adjust to his new surroundings, producing his first big moment for the club against Philadelphia with the 88th-minute winner off the bench.

Homegrown heroes

James Sands; midfielder/defender; Rye

Atlanta United midfielder Marcelino Moreno (10) battles for the ball...

Atlanta United midfielder Marcelino Moreno (10) battles for the ball against New York City FC midfielder James Sands (16) during the second half of an MLS soccer match at Yankee Stadium, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in New York.  Credit: AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

The first member of NYCFC’s academy to sign a pro deal with the club in 2017, Sands has developed into a legitimate European prospect. This year saw Sands, 21, earn his first U.S. men’s national team call-up, starting much of the team’s run to a Gold Cup victory and appearing in World Cup qualification.

Tayvon Gray; defender; Bronx

Tayvon Gray #24 of New York City FC and Nathan...

Tayvon Gray #24 of New York City FC and Nathan Harriel #26 of Philadelphia Union react during the second half during the MLS Eastern Conference Final at Subaru Park on December 05, 2021 in Chester, Pennsylvania.  Credit: Getty Images/Tim Nwachukwu

Gray, 19, was not a fixture for City this season, but injuries at right back and midfield have called him into action, and he’s been a solid starter in all three matches this postseason.

Andres Jasson; winger; Greenwich, Conn.

Toronto FC midfielder Yeferson Soteldo dribbles ahead of New York...

Toronto FC midfielder Yeferson Soteldo dribbles ahead of New York FC forward Andres Jasson, left, during an MLS soccer match at Yankee Stadium on, Saturday, May 15, 2021. Credit: AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

19-year-old Jasson had a run of starts early in the season after not playing a minute last year. He made 20 appearances in the regular season.

The opposition

A few versions of the Timbers have called Portland home since the original NASL franchise began play in 1975. The current team joined MLS as the league’s 18th club in 2011, capitalizing on its strong soccer culture to create one of the sport’s most intense atmospheres.

Cristhian Paredes #22 of Portland Timbers moves the ball during...

Cristhian Paredes #22 of Portland Timbers moves the ball during the second half of the 2021 MLS Western Conference Playoff Final against the Real Salt Lake at Providence Park on December 04, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. The Portland Timbers won 2-0. Credit: Getty Images/Alika Jenner

Portland hosts an MLS Cup for the first time in its third appearance. The Timbers won it all in 2015 against the Columbus Crew, but lost the championship match to Atlanta United FC in 2018. Portland is coached by Giovanni Savarese, the former Cosmos coach and longtime New Yorker who’s had NYCFC’s number in previous meetings.

The matchup

The Timbers are tactically flexible but seem most comfortable playing a counter-attacking style. New York City is at its best working with the ball, getting through the midfield and creating for Castellanos. YES Network NYCFC analyst Ian Joy believes that dynamic will guide the action.

"I think New York will dominate the possession of the ball," Joy told Newsday. "Portland are happy to sit back. They don't necessarily want the ball a lot. They're happy to be that counter-attacking team . . . They want to sit back, when they win the ball, they will get at you fast and New York have got to be very careful in that because they're an offensive-minded team that want to have possession of the ball, that loves to get fullbacks forward and at times leave themselves a little vulnerable on the counter attack."

Weather could be an equalizer Saturday, with forecasts calling for heavy rain throughout the afternoon in Portland.

What it means

An NYCFC victory would be the first MLS Cup title by a New York team. The Red Bulls reached MLS Cup once before, losing to the Columbus Crew in 2008. It would be the first top-division soccer title by a New York club since the New York Cosmos won Soccer Bowl ’82 to capture a record fifth NASL title.

New York City FC's Maxi Moralez, center left, celebrates his...

New York City FC's Maxi Moralez, center left, celebrates his goal with teammates during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match against the Philadelphia Union, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Chester, Pa.  Credit: AP/Chris Szagola

An MLS Cup victory also would award NYCFC its second berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, an international competition pitting teams from around North and Central America and the Caribbean. NYCFC appeared in the 2020 tournament, losing in the quarterfinals.

Wager up

Local elected officials are getting in on the MLS Cup action. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler asked Mayor Bill de Blasio for a few "six-packs of the New York’s finest craft brew" should the Timbers win, with an offer to send Portland’s best the other way if City pulls it off.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) also was offered a bet by his Portland-based colleague Rep. Earl Blumenauer. The Oregonian put up a gift basket of craft cider, beer, wine and chocolate, while Torres made his own wager of local beer and fresh pasta.

Time to party?

The city is overdue for a parade down the Canyon of Heroes celebrating a local team. Whether NYCFC will be next to do so remains to be seen as COVID-19 variant concerns and other factors may keep a potential celebration to a smaller size.

City Hall is in discussions to hold a celebration should NYCFC win, a representative from the Office of the Mayor told Newsday this week, but no details regarding what form it might take were made available.

How to follow

MLS Cup 2021

Portland Timbers vs. New York City FC

Kickoff: 3 p.m.

TV: ABC / Ch. 7 (English); UniMás/TUDN (Spanish)

Radio: NYCFC.com/radio