By Michael Lewis
Like it or not, New York City FC’s short postseason history is not one for the record books.
In fact, NYCFC’s first four MLS Cup Playoff appearances have been littered with losses, early eliminations and disappointment.
Since reaching the playoffs for the first time 2016, City has never gotten past the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, three out of four times losing to opponents with inferior regular season records.
Cases in point:
* 2016 – Second-place City (15-10-9, 54 points) were shown the door by third-place Toronto FC (14-9-11, 53), 7-0 in the total goal series.
* 2017 – Second-place NYCFC (16-9-9, 57) was dispatched by fifth-place Columbus Crew SC (16-12, 6, 54), 4-3, in the aggregate goals series.
* 2018 – After besting the Philadelphia Union (15-4-5, 50) in the knockout round, the third-place Boys in Blue (16-10-8, 56) were ousted by second-place Atlanta United (21-7-6, 69), 4-1, in the total goals series.
* 2019 – The Eastern Conference champions (18-6-10, 64) were dispatched by fourth-place Toronto FC (13-10-11, 50) in a single playoff match at home, 2-1.
Goalkeeper Sean Johnson said the past was the past. This is now as the team puts its finishing touches on Saturday’s noon encounter against Orlando City SC at Exploria Stadium.
“It’s a new year, new challenges this year, new opponent this year in the playoffs,” he said in a ZOOM media press conference earlier this week. “So, everything’s different. What we’ve done has given ourselves a chance. We have quality. We have experience.
“It’s a little bit different from last year [because] we have another year’s experience together. So that’s, that’s a major difference. A new coach [Ronny Deila] this year as well. So, that coupled with our learning experience from last year and what we’ve tried to implement this year, the things that he’s brought to the table and instilled in us in terms of mentality, through the way we’re playing. some of the philosophies that think all those things coupled, we’re going in with a better position to succeed.”
NYCFC (12-8-3, 39 points), which finished fifth in the Eastern Conference, enters the playoffs on a high note, thanks to a four-game winning streak while outscoring its opponents, 13-6, during that span. MLS history says that teams that make a late season run have used that momentum to excel and go deep in the playoffs.
“I know the playoffs are important here,” Deila said. “But again, it’s what you do over a whole season. This is the most important in my opinion. Now, it’s a one-off game. We can beat anybody. We just need to attack and … really enjoy it. It’s given us just more energy, and more motivation into the game so we.
“The training is now has been different from what I’ve seen before. They’re more focused on, and I like that. That’s how we should be every week. But I can see it’s something special.”
Beyond coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, City has endured more than its share of ups and downs this year under a new coach.
Moreover, the team lost several key players along the way, including Heber (season-ending knee injury), James Sands (season-ending broken arm), Alexandru Mitrita (loaned to Saudi Arabian club). And that doesn’t include playmaker extraordinaire Maxi Moralez, who had to battle injuries during the summer.
“It’s a resilient group,” Johnson said. “We’ve been through a lot this year, a lot of injuries, a lot of unforeseen circumstances, obviously COVID, being in the bubble, losing guys to injuries.
“It also creates a strain on players, but we’ve taken everything in stride. We made adjustments the entire way. It’s not going to be for lack of resiliency. We can achieve something special. I think this is a group that’s shown time and time again that we can overcome challenges.”
NYCFC hasn’t beaten Orlando City in two previous encounters in the central Florida city, losing 3-1 in the MLS is Back tournament and then tying the Lions, 1-1, Oct. 14.
Deila said fourth-place Orlando City (11-4-8, 41)) was “one of the toughest teams.” But he is confident his team can overcome the favored side.
“I think it’s even as well,” he said. “Who you play doesn’t matter, in my opinion. We played all of them and it’s been tight with all of the teams in front of us. They are home. that will be an advantage for them, but we have been so much away this year. So, we are kind of very used to playing away.”
City posted a 3-3-4 road mark, while Orlando was 6-1-3 at home.