Two minutes and one second.
That’s how long it took for New York City FC’s destiny to change in Sunday night’s Eastern Conference final. From a second consecutive berth in MLS Cup, and a chance at becoming the league’s first back-to-back champs in a decade, to a sad trip back up the New Jersey Turnpike, and a season over a week before all involved expected it would end.
The Union struck quickly with two goals in the crucial 2:01 span in the second half, turning around NYCFC’s 1-0 second-half lead and taking control of the contest in the 67th minute at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia added a third goal less than 10 minutes later, eventually winning 3-1 to claim its first Eastern Conference title and simultaneously end New York City’s reign as MLS Cup champions.
The loss also eliminates NYCFC from contention for next season's CONCACAF Champions League, in which City lost in the semifinals in 2022. The club also is ineligible for the 2023 Campeones Cup, which it won with a victory over Mexican champion Atlas earlier this year.
The Union will play in MLS Cup for the first time, taking on Western Conference champion LAFC on Saturday in Los Angeles.
After Maxi Moralez opened the scoring in the 57th minute, NYCFC interim coach Nick Cushing began to adjust his lineup, bringing on midfielder Keaton Parks for winger Gabriel Pereira in the 65th minute. But as Parks made his way into position and NYCFC readjusted, Union defender Jakob Glesnes took a quick free kick into the box and found a running Julián Carranza, who slid the ball past Sean Johnson to tie the match at 1-1.
“It was a quick ball that caught us, I guess, off guard. They were just first to it,” Johnson said.
Cushing said afterward that the goal was one of two key plays, along with a specatular Andre Blake save of a header by Alexander Callens a few minutes earlier, which lost the match for NYCFC.
"We just didn't manage that moment as a team well enough," Cushing said. "We just lose our concentration and they get in and get 1-1, and then we just don't manage that next two, three, four minutes well enough and we know what it's like here, Philadelphia, the crowd gets on and they get you in that moment. The game can go from 1-1 to 2-1 really quickly."
Not long after play resumed, the Union regained possession, this time finding the net with Carranza heading the ball across the box and assisting teammate Dániel Gazdag, whose first hit sped beyond a frozen Johnson.
It was Johnson on the ball to start NYCFC’s opening goal, kicking off a nine-pass sequence that finished with Santiago Rodríguez laying off a pass for Moralez at the top of the box. The 35-year-old slammed his right foot into the ball with his first touch, firing past diving Blake and into the bottom left corner.
But that goal will long be forgotten after Sunday’s result, which was sealed on Philadelphia’s third score: a finish by substitute Cory Burke after a mis-clearance by Anton Tinnerholm in the 76th minute.
With starting centerback Maxime Chanot unavailable, Brooklyn-born homegrown Justin Haak slotted into NYCFC’s three-man backline early in the match, playing on the left of Thiago Martins with Alex Callens on the right.
Moralez, listed as questionable despite participating in Friday’s open training, was in the starting 11. Talles Magno, who scored the game-winner in last year’s conference final, did not make the team after an injury last week against CF Montreal.
The Union had many of the better chances in the opening portion of the first half, yet took a long time to muster their first shot on goal, a slow roller by Kai Wagner easily handled by Johnson.
Philadelphia thought it scored the opener in the 15th minute when a corner set up a strong \ Gazdag header, but the assistant’s flag raised soon after the ball crossed the line with Gazdag clearly offside.
Union captain Alejandro Bedoya, who has battled injuries in the last few weeks, looked to be hurting in the 33rd minute and appeared destined for an early exit, yet played on through the first half.