New York City FC has a number of nicknames, including ‘The Pigeons’ and ‘The Blues’.
Another apt moniker might be, ‘The Orphans.’ This is a club that doesn’t have its own soccer specific stadium. Instead, NYCFC plays out of Yankee Stadium, with its ridiculously tight field dimensions for soccer. But NYCFC had to switch to Citi Field — home of the New York Mets — in the chance the Yankees made it into the World Series for Wednesday night’s MLS Eastern Conference semifinal against Toronto FC.
Bush league? Perhaps. However, despite not being masters of their own ground, NYCFC is anything but bush league as a soccer team. It finished first in the Eastern Conference with 64 points, six more than second-place Atlanta United, and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs — meaning that it will be well rested for its match up against TFC on Wednesday. The Blues only lost one game at home all season (11-1-5) and scored 63 goals, the most in the East and second in MLS to LAFC (85), while allowing only 42 goals. The attack is balanced with three players: Heber (15), Alexandru Mitrita (12) and Valentin Castellanos (11) – scoring in double digits this season.
“They’re a very good team, there’s no two ways about it,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley. “You could argue if it weren’t for LAFC this year, they were the best team (in MLS). On a lot of years, they would have won the Supporters Shield. But it’s the playoffs and everything starts over. And on top of that they’re playing in a stadium that’s not their’s.”
That’s something the Reds can hang their hats on. The Conference semifinal may be on the road, but in some ways, it’s an away match for both teams, though naturally the crowd will be favouring NYCFC. TFC can also take comfort in the fact that it matched up very well against NYCFC this season. Toronto dominated in a 4-0 victory at home against the boys from the Big Apple on March 29 and then came away with a well-deserved 1-1 draw in the rematch at Yankee Stadium on Sept.11 — a game that saw Alejandro Pozuelo robbed of a goal by New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson late in the game on a penalty kick.
“We’re all looking forward to it,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said of Wednesday’s game. “I think the mentality’s there. We’ve gone now 11 games unbeaten, one of those games at their place. We’re confident that the match up makes sense for us. We’ve got to recover, we’ve got to get everybody to the best possible physical state. I think mentally we’re in a great spot. We want every challenge that we can get at this point and we look forward to it.”
Bradley said his club can use the fact that they had to slog through 120 minutes of intense soccer on Saturday night against D.C. United as a positive.
“We now have 120 playoff minutes under our belts in terms of understanding what the intensity’s about, what every play is about, and we’re going to use every bit we can to our advantage,” he said.
As for Citi Field as a soccer venue, Wednesday’s match will mark only the second time NYCFC has played host to a game at the Queens stadium, following 2017’s MLS Decision Day game against the Columbus Crew.
“I don’t know much about Citi Field,” Vanney said. “Hopefully it’s a little bit bigger (than Yankee Stadium) and the surface is a little bit better.”
TFC forward Jozy Altidore (quad strain) and centre back Omar Gonzalez (hamstring strain) missed Saturday’s game, but may be ready for NYCFC on Wednesday. Vanney said that defenders Chris Mavinga and Marky Delgado were banged up in the D.C. United match but are also expected to be ready for the NYCFC match.
Everyone had high praise for midfielder Jonathan Osorio following Saturday’s 5-1 playoff win over D.C. United — a game that saw the Brampton native score two goals in overtime and assist on Nick DeLeon’s goal. Osorio was also key in Canada’s 2-0 victory over the U.S. team in Concacaf Nations League play last Tuesday, also at BMO Field. He has a knack of raising his game in important matches.
“That’s his wheel house. When he’s got a lot of emotion and a lot of passion for what he does and when the game gets going like that I think it just brings out the best of what he has to offer,” said Vanney. “On a day like (Saturday) we needed him to hold possession, spin away from guys, because we don’t have a Jozy up top to be able to hold balls for us. We needed he and (Pozuelo) to be reliable as much as possible on the ball and they were great in that way for us.”
Osorio, 27, enjoyed a breakout season last year, scoring 10 goals with seven assists in 30 games and was rewarded with a new contract. However, he struggled at times this season, both physically and mentally, but rallied in a big way late in the season.
“He’s such an important guy on our team,” said Bradley.. “His ability to work, cover ground — but still be good with the ball — slip passes, make goals, score goals. He’s given us so much on so many big days. (I’m) happy for him, proud of him. He has a mentality that is different and he obviously loves the city and loves the club. Very happy for him.”