For weeks, much of the talk about New York City FC concerned a what-if. The class of the Eastern Conference, NYCFC had a realistic chance of hosting MLS Cup at Yankee Stadium. The problem? They couldn't.
Baseball and football ensured that. If that day came to pass, if Los Angeles FC fell short and if NYCFC delivered, changes would have to be made to accommodate a home team without a home.
As a result, there were questions. Would MLS move the date? Would the rival New York Red Bulls play host? Should a baseball stadium be the site of MLS Cup anyway? Well, you can consider those questions answered, and NYCFC were the ones who provided the answers.
For nine months, New York City FC handled questions, emerging as the best team in a rugged Eastern Conference. They cruised through the regular season, finishing atop the conference by a six-point margin in their first season without the legendary David Villa. Dome Torrent, after initial struggles replacing Patrick Vieira, had finally settled in. New signings starred, returning players grew into leadership roles. It was a virtually ideal regular-season run.
And, in a split second, it was gone. NYCFC's season is over. On a field that wasn't their own, in a game that wasn't their game, NYCFC's nine-month journey came crashing down thanks to the team's worst performance of what was seemingly a great year.
That moment came late on in Wednesday's Eastern Conference semifinal, a match that ended as a 2-1 win for Toronto FC at Citi Field. With the match seemingly destined for extra time, veteran fullback Ronald Matarrita was called for a foul on Richie Laryea. Alejandro Pozuelo stepped up and hit a Panenka that the man himself would praise, sealing Toronto FC's place in the conference finale.
It was a stunning end for New York City FC but, in some ways, it felt like it was coming. All week, talk was focused on what is certainly a less-than-ideal stadium situation. Thanks to the New York Yankees' playoff run, NYCFC was pushed crosstown to Citi Field for their playoff opener, a match among the biggest in club history. And, even if they advanced, the location of their future matches was up in the air. A college football game would force Yankee Stadium out of hosting MLS Cup if it came down to it. It wasn't the first time NYCFC had been kicked out of their own home, and it probably won't be the last, but it gave the buildup an uneasy feel.
And that feel was justified. NYCFC came out sluggish and slow against a Toronto FC team that was ripe for the picking. Missing starters in Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez and coming off an extra time clash with D.C. United, Toronto FC were surely beatable if NYCFC could just avoid mistakes.
They couldn't. Even before Pozuelo's penalty, it had the feel that Wednesday simply wasn't NYCFC's night. Toronto FC seemingly did whatever they wanted with the ball all through the first half as they appeared to be the only team interested in advancing in this season's playoffs. Just two minutes into the second, NYCFC were finally punished as Maxime Chanot's disaster of a headed back pass fell right to Pozuelo. 1-0.
But NYCFC responded admirably. The goal seemed like a wake-up call, a reminder that the match started nearly an hour before. Maxi Moralez, who led the league in assists during the regular season, fired a cross right to Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and, suddenly, NYCFC were level.
From that point, it felt like NYCFC's moment, their game. They had the better of play and seemed to have finally found that second gear that they possessed all season long. They won the East for a reason, and that reason is because they're actually very good. But very good doesn't win in the playoffs. It takes more than that. It takes mistake-free soccer, and a little bit of luck.
Since their inception five years ago, NYCFC have not had that luck, but this was supposed to be the season where that ended. This was supposed to be the season NYCFC pushed towards MLS Cup, wherever it may be. This was supposed to be the season where NYCFC answered any and all questions about where they stand in this league.
One question that could be answered soon? The future of Torrent, who hinted that he could leave the club this winter.
“They are ready for another coach because they are a big group,” he said, according to Front Row Soccer. “They are ready. Don’t worry. Patrick [Vieira] is not here. Dome is not here. Another coach. The important [thing], believe me, are the players. They keep the important players right now in our club and they are the reason why New York City plays really well. Not Dome. Forget about it. … Every single coach needs the players. I am very proud of the players. I want to thank the players. Every single day in every single training session, they fight to the last moment. I love these players. I love these players.”
He added: “There are many, many things,” Torrent said. “You don’t know, but I know many, many things. I have to talk to the owners, the CO’s in the City Group and I don’t know what will happen. We have time. Right now, it’s October. We have time to talk about the next year.”
But those questions about where NYCFC would host MLS Cup? Well, they won't need to be answered but, after nine months of build-up and one night of disaster, NYCFC will face a long offseason facing questions of their own making.
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