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NYCFC headed to MLS Cup with late winner vs. Philadelphia Union in Eastern Conference final

New York City FC celebrate after defeating Philadelphia

New York City FC celebrate after defeating Philadelphia Union during the MLS Eastern Conference Final at Subaru Park on December 05, 2021 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Credit: Getty Images/Tim Nwachukwu

CHESTER, Pennsylvania — New York City FC will close its seventh season with a chance to win its first title.

The area’s youngest professional team is the MLS Eastern Conference champion as NYCFC defeated the Philadelphia Union, 2-1, in the conference final on Sunday at Subaru Park to seal its first MLS Cup appearance.

Against a Union squad missing several players because of COVID-19 protocols, NYCFC survived a crisis of confidence in the first half and an own goal in the 63rd minute, equalizing on a Maxi Moralez goal just two minutes later. 19-year-old Talles Magno, signed as a designated player from Brazil earlier this season, buried the winner in the 88th minute and City kept Philadelphia at bay to close out the biggest win in club history.

"It’s such an unbelievable feeling," said homegrown midfielder James Sands. "I’ve seen this team have such a tough go of it in playoffs, I remember losing to Columbus, losing to Toronto, losing to Orlando, all such heartbreaking games. To finally get over that hurdle, it means a lot."


NYCFC will visit the Western Conference champion Portland Timbers on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the 2021 MLS Cup. It is the first MLS Cup berth by a New York team since 2008, when the Red Bulls lost to the Columbus Crew.

An own goal by NYCFC opened the scoring in the 63rd minute. Daniel Gazdag delivered a cross into the box for Kacper Przybylko. Alexander Callens got to it first for NYCFC, but directed it past Sean Johnson into the net instead of clearing it away, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.

That woke up New York City.

Just two minutes later, NYCFC pushed numbers forward and Maxime Chanot sent a long shot toward goalkeeper Matt Freese. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi pounced on the rebound, but was blocked. Moralez followed and didn’t miss to level the score. Magno’s winner came as City made a late surge in the final third, ending with a Gudi Thórarinsson cross toward the Brazilian in the box.

"This club has won a lot of football games, they’ve been very successful coming to the playoffs six times in a row," said NYCFC coach Ronny Deila. "We haven’t dealt with the pressure before, and now we’re starting to do that."

Eleven Union players were ruled out because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols ahead of the match, leading Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin to start a makeshift lineup. Six starters from last week’s semifinal against Nashville had to be replaced. Five players with seven or fewer starts this year took the field for kickoff, including 35-year-old defender Aurélien Collin, who started at center back for his first appearance in 2021.

NYCFC lined up without Valentín Castellanos, its best player and top goal scorer this season, following the striker’s red card in the semifinal match at New England. In his place, Deila turned to Héber, a fixture in City’s lineup in recent years who hadn’t started a match in 2021 as he returned from a torn ACL.

Philadelphia may have been playing a brand new lineup, but it was NYCFC who couldn’t find rhythm early. The Union took control of possession in the early minutes, then mostly conceded the ball to City, who had difficulty playing through Philadelphia’s crowded midfield for most of the first half.

Wary of disrupting flow with substitutes earlier this postseason, Deila went to his bench relatively early, replacing Héber, Jesús Medina and Malte Amundsen with Magno, Tajouri-Shradi and Thórarinsson in the 58th minute. All subs proved to be valuable, as Tajouri-Shradi played a key part in Moralez’s goal and Thórarinsson assisted Magno’s score to seal the game.

"We bring the first trophy to the club, and I'm sure it's not going to be the last," said Deila. "What we have done so far has been amazing, but the biggest one is coming on Saturday."