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Can NYCFC finally capture attention of New York sports fans with MLS Cup berth in sight?

New York City FC celebrates a goal against

New York City FC celebrates a goal against Atlanta United during the second half of an MLS soccer match at Yankee Stadium, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Credit: AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

Three teams representing New York will play football simultaneously on Sunday.

As the last-place NFL teams wind down their games, a local Major League Soccer club will be playing for a shot at the title.

New York City FC is deeper in the MLS Cup playoffs than ever before as they visit Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference final at 3 p.m. This New York-Philly matchup won’t draw the same viewership as Jets-Eagles up the turnpike at MetLife Stadium, or Giants-Dolphins from Miami. Those who prefer their football to be soccer, or any New Yorker parched for a winner amid the region’s nearly decade-long championship drought, may be inclined to switch channels. (The game is on ABC, by the way.)

"We recognize the magnitude of this game and what we’re playing for more than who we’re playing against," said NYCFC attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez through a translator. "We know that it’s a final and we’re just getting ready for it."

 

New York’s youngest major sports franchise is two wins away from ending an area-wide title drought that is longer than the club's existence. The Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI win over the New England Patriots was the last title for one of New York’s established franchises in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB. And that was 15 months before MLS announced New York City FC as its 20th club.

Would an MLS Cup win mean a trip down the Canyon of Heroes for NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila and his squad? While MLS has seen viewership increase as soccer’s popularity inches along in the United States, the numbers have lagged for New York’s two clubs. ABC/ESPN averaged 384,000 viewers for its MLS broadcasts in the early part of the season, up 39% from 2019, according to a news release. ShowBizDaily.com reported ESPN's telecast of the Hudson River Derby on Oct. 17 peaked at 148,000 viewers. Still, New York loves a parade.

Under the operation of Abu Dhabi-funded City Football Group, NYCFC has evolved since debuting in 2015 with a mixed-bag of big-name signings from Europe. Like much of MLS, the club is skewing younger, utilizing CFG’s scouting network to find promising talent from South America and smaller European leagues, replacing names such as David Villa and Frank Lampard with Valentín Castellanos and Santiago Rodríguez.

New York City’s academy also is in full bloom. The club sent Gio Reyna and Joe Scally to the German Bundesliga in recent years, and it developed a pair of New Yorkers who’ve made key contributions to City’s playoff run in James Sands and Tayvon Gray, the former of which could be joining his friends across the pond soon enough.

Most importantly, NYCFC now is thriving on the field.

The underlying numbers had City as one of the league’s top teams for a few years now. This season, their +22.7 expected goal differential was best in the league, a full eight goals higher than the next best in the conference. The randomness of the playoffs had proved hard to solve in the past. Tuesday’s shootout win over the New England Revolution changed that. City eliminated a Revs side coached by Long Island-raised Bruce Arena that recorded the most points in a single season en route to the Supporters’ Shield.

History doesn’t have to stop there for NYCFC. The club’s first MLS Cup berth would be just the second by a local team since the league launched in 1996. The Red Bulls lost to Columbus in the 2008 final.

"I think if we lose the game in Philadelphia, everything we’ve done in the past — so the game against New England, reaching the final — everybody will forget about this," said defender Maxime Chanot. "We want to be writing history and to be remembered, we need to win at least MLS conference finals to get to MLS Cup final. We’re not done yet."

It’s not all been smooth off the field for a club without a permanent home. Renting at Yankee Stadium has led to NYCFC wandering the past two seasons between the Bronx and Red Bull Arena, where pandemic-era attendance was abysmal, leading to plans for some matches at Citi Field in 2022. The club appears far from going the way of Chivas USA, the last MLS club to fold in 2014. Yet the future of NYCFC and its place in this market have been hard to nail down with no concrete poured for its stadium in a borough to be determined.

Still, don’t ignore what the club is accomplishing now. Winning can solve a lot of problems, and a first championship can only help that project’s future. Should NYCFC make its way to the MLS Cup, which it would host Dec. 12 if Real Salt Lake defeats the Portland Timbers in the West on Saturday, it finally will deliver on promises made since upon the club’s inception.

This could be the moment New York sports fans -- not just soccer fans -- take notice of this team in this town.

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