New York City FC beats Portland on penalties to complete steely run to first MLS Cup title

PORTLAND, Ore. — No David Villa, no Andrea Pirlo, no Frank Lampard. Gone Saturday were the headliners from New York City FC's past, decorated with just about every trophy imaginable.

In their place was as tough-minded group as you can ask for, one that can call itself something those stars never could: champions of Major League Soccer.

Alex Callens rocketed home the winning kick and NYCFC stunned the Portland Timbers 4-2 on penalties after finishing 1-1 through regulation and extra time at Providence Park.

The victory caps a blistering run through the postseason for NYCFC, which finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and took out Atlanta United at home before going to New England and upsetting the Revolution, who had set the MLS single-season points record with 73. Then the Cityzens went to Philadelphia and beat the Union, who were down several starters due to COVID-19 but still offered a unique challenge of their own.

The final win might've been the toughest of all.

NYCFC dominated much of the 90 minutes with an aggressive, organized approach. In the cold and wet conditions in Portland, it's perhaps an oddity that NYCFC's goal came not off a misplayed ball or wayward pass, but because the Timbers lost track of Taty Castellanos, the Golden Boot winner and most in-form striker in the league, on a free kick.

By the time Maxi Moralez's ball reached him, Castellanos didn't have much to do but snap his header on frame:

For the longest time — just about as long as you can get, in fact — it looked like the goal would stand. The Timbers, toothless and unruly on their preferred counterattacks for much of the day, finally spelled together a swarm of pressure over the final 10 or so minutes.

Then, with the last kick of regulation, Felipe Mora buried the equalizer after the ball fell to him on a fortunate deflection, sending the home supporters into a thunderous roar:

“In that moment, it’s devastating,” NYCFC’s Alfredo Morales said afterward. “We deserved to win the game in 90 minutes.”

Lesser teams would have folded. It felt like NYCFC was going to, too, for the first half of extra time. But they gradually regathered themselves and even had the better of the chances as the game hurtled toward penalties.

Veteran City goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who was voted match MVP, saved spot kicks from Mora and Timbers legend Diego Valeri, inserted late in regulation and denied a picture-perfect send-off as his future with the club leans toward toward limbo.

“He made this league a better league,” Timbers coach Gio Savarese said of Valeri, who has 86 goals and 91 assists in nine seasons with the club. “He made the Portland Timbers be what it is.”

Castellanos opened the shootout with a make, then City followed Morales' miss with conversions from Maxi Moralez, Talles Magno and ultimately Callens.

“We talked amongst ourselves before the game, and just said it’s a massive opportunity to make it all worth it,” Johnson said. “And this is what we live for, these moments.”

Callens and center back partner Maxime Chanot were stolid for NYCFC, anchoring a collected effort that serves as the ultimate compliment to what NYCFC has become.

NYCFC debuted in 2015 as a sister club to English Premier League titan Manchester City, and with a generous cash infusion from the New York Yankees. (NYCFC still plays its home games at Yankee Stadium, and the baseball giants own a 20 percent stake.) City became a perennial playoff team quickly and thrived mainly behind Villa, the former Spanish star striker who was named MLS MVP in 2016.

Other big-name signings failed to add much, however, and NYCFC gradually set about tapping the vast scouting resources of the City Football Group — which owns 80 percent of NYCFC and counts clubs in 10 different countries among its portfolio — in an effort to build a team capable of winning an MLS Cup.

In came Moralez, and Castellanos, and Callens, and several other key contributors from South America, as well as homegrown players like James Sands and Tayvon Gray, both of whom played the entire MLS Cup final.

It's a complete team, one that will continue to draw debate for its structural support and finances but also praise for its performances. Especially the one on Saturday.

“You see all this work and how they deal with hard times during the game,” NYCFC coach Ronny Deila said. “They come back and they support each other, give everything for the club and for each other. That was amazing.

“They are winners now. They are winners and that’s gonna be there forever.”

New York City FC won its first MLS Cup on Saturday by beating the Portland Timbers on penalties at Providence Park. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
New York City FC won its first MLS Cup on Saturday by beating the Portland Timbers on penalties at Providence Park. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)