How NYCFC tapped into their massive potential to earn MLS Cup triumph

NYCFC trophy lift MLS Cup 2021Getty Images

When New York City FC arrived in MLS six years ago, all of the talk was about potential, about the monster they could eventually become.

They arrived in the league with much fanfare, with big names and big promises and with the backing of City Football Group. David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard were meant to come to Yankee Stadium overnight and turn New York into America's glitziest soccer city and turn this club into MLS' marquee attraction.

Those superstars are long gone, replaced by a perfectly matched core of young stars and overlooked diamonds in the rough. The glitz has worn off a bit, as has the glamour as other clubs have entered MLS and somehow managed even bigger and better introductions than NYCFC's those years ago.

But, like their sister club over in Manchester, NYCFC are now champions, and they did it the hard way.

Their triumph came against the Portland Timbers in a hostile and rainy Providence Park, one with a boisterous crowd and a very, very wet surface. It came in the pressure-cooker that is a penalty shootout after NYCFC threw away the lead on what could have been, should have been, the last kick of the game.

Up a goal with seconds, literal seconds, remaining, Felipe Mora scored a stunning last-gasp equalizer to keep Portland in the match. The goal forced extra time and, ultimately, penalties as the two teams were deadlocked at 1-1 through 120 minutes.

The last kick, ultimately, was a missile of a penalty kick from Alexander Callens, one that sent Timbers fans home in tears and the NYCFC bench into delirium. Callens' penalty was the winner, but it was Sean Johnson who ultimately was the hero as the goalkeeper stopped the Timbers' first two penalties to seize control of the shootout.

Alex Callens MLS Cup 2021 NYCFC
Getty / Goal

This NYCFC team is no longer one built on shining stars like Villa, Pirlo or Lampard, but it is built on heroes like Callens and Johnson, the team's captain. Over the last few years, NYCFC has been a team that has evolved and, ultimately, grown into one that can call itself a champion built from the ground right on up.

Gone is Villa, but in is Valentin Castellanos, the MLS Golden Boot winner. Castellanos has been linked with a big-money move to Europe this winter, and, if that move comes, he'll leave the club as an MLS Cup hero.

Castellanos' goal wasn't all his doing, as Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark could have done better with the striker's header late in the first half. But what does that matter on a day like this? Scoring goals has been what Castellanos does and he got one more on Sunday, his biggest one yet.

Gone is Lampard, but in is young star James Sands, a U.S. men's national team midfielder/defender hybrid who dominated Sunday's game. American soccer has seen Sands blossom into a heck of a young player over these last few years, and after starring at the Gold Cup this summer, his future could not be brighter.

Sands, in many ways, represents NYCFC's present and future. He's the club's first true Homegrown star and there's plenty of reason to believe he won't be the last as the club continues to tap into the unprecedented potential of New York's youth.

Pirlo's gone too, but there is Maxi Moralez, a player that has been this club's heart and soul for some time. It was Moralez who provided the assist on Castellanos' goal and who stepped up for a crucial penalty to put the Timbers on their back foot.

Maxi Moralez NYCFC MLS Cup 2021
Getty / GOAL

For years, Moralez has done heavy-lifting for this club and, on Sunday, he and his teammates did a little bit more lifting with the MLS Cup in their hands.

The run there was anything straightforward, like most things with this club in its brief existence. NYCFC toppled Atlanta United at home and then went to Gillette Stadium and took down the New England Revolution, the best regular-season team in MLS history. From there, NYCFC went into Philadelphia and took down a Union team missing half of its starting lineup due to Covid-19, booking their spot in this game.

Like the run so far, this one wasn't pretty. It was nearly squandered thanks to Mora's goal. It was a typical final: sloppy, tight, nervy. But, in the end, for NYCFC at least, this night was magic.

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Even with this magic moment, NYCFC still hasn't fulfilled all of their potential. The stadium still isn't here, for starters, and there's still so much work to do when it comes to growing the game in New York City. As we've learned over the last few years, this is all part of one big process, one that will require just as much off-field politicking as much as on-field success.

But nights like this will help get them there. NYCFC's MLS Cup win wasn't the culmination of a process nor the end of a long journey for a club just a few years into its existence.

Rather, this MLS Cup triumph is simply just the start for a club that is only beginning to fulfill that massive potential that was promised years ago.