NYCFC defender Anton Tinnerholm (3) kicks the ball past Tigres midfielder Javier Aquino (20) at the CCL quarterfinals. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)
Like any other Major League Soccer team, New York City FC had to jump through many hoops to survive, let alone thrive, during a 2020 season that was riddled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Head coach Ronny Deila, who took over the team reins Jan. 6 for the departed Domenec Torrent, could never had imagined what he and the club was forced to go through.
But City was forced to endure many obstacles just to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs and the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League with underachieving team performances, key performers leaving the team midway through the season, injuries to vital players.
NYCFC started and finishing the year competing in the CCL, although it was forced to play its first two matches at Red Bull Arena because its home field, Yankee Stadium, wasn’t ready.
The team won the opening series, 6-3, over AD San Carlos (Costa Rica), although star midfielder Maxi Moralez missed a late-match penalty kick in the return leg at RBA Feb. 26.
The squad then started the Major League Soccer season on a couple of down notes, 1-0 losses at Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC before dropping a third 1-0 decision against Tigres UANL in the first leg of the CCL quarterfinals at RBA March 11.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closing down all competition until the MLS is Back Tournament in July.
City suffered its third consecutive 1-0 defeat in its tourney’s opener to the Philadelphia Union and it continued its slide with a 3-1 loss to Orlando City SC. The team managed to secure a berth in the knockout round with a 1-0 win over Inter Miami CF. Given second life, NYCFC registered a 3-1 knockout-round victory over Toronto FC before exiting the competition with a 3-1 defeat to eventual champion Portland Timbers in the quarterfinals.
With almost three weeks between games, NYCFC lost whatever momentum it started during the tournament with a 1-0 setback to the Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby Aug. 20.
Heber, who tallied a team-high 15 goals in 2019, was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Midfielder Alexandru Mitrita, who finally found himself after a slow start, was loaned to Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli (Saudi Arabia).
Moralez battled injuries during the competition, which kept him sidelined for nine games.
Midfielder Israel Tajouri-Shradi tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to miss three games down the stretch.
With a 1-5 league mark and only two league goals, there was talk that Deila was on the hot seat and could be fired, but it never happened.
A revived NYCFC side went 11-3-3 the rest of the way to finish in fifth place in the Eastern Conference at 12-8-3.
The most consistent performers were right back Anton Tinnerholm, who was named team MVP, and captain and midfielder Alex Ring, aka The Ringleader.
City, however, continued to experience problems in the postseason, seeing the exit door after a wild and crazy first-round loss in penalty kicks to Orlando City SC Nov. 21. The team played to a 1-1 draw before the host side prevailed in the shootout, 6-5. Moralez, who has experienced major problems taking penalties the last two seasons, missed his attempt.
“I’m very, very devastated of course, it’s tough to lose a game like this,” Deila said. “I think we did a really, really good game up to we get to the 11 against 10. We controlled them good, had more chances than them. I felt we were the dominant team. After they get 10 men, I think we lost focus, discipline, organization and then I think they were more dangerous than us in that period.”
Deila wasn’t alone.
“Losing in this way is brutal,” Tinnerholm said. “Of course, last year was tough as well, but mentally this year has been maybe the toughest in our careers and to end the season this way is 2020 all over this game and the ending of the season unfortunately.”
NYCFC got yet another chance in the CCL quarterfinals, but was forced to play without Ring (operation) and goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who was “declared a close contact” to one of the players who tested positive for COVID-19. In his place was backup keeper Luis Barraza, who could not stop the Tigres onslaught in a 4-0 win for the Mexican side in Orlando, Fla.
“I have to give the players credit in that they fight to the end,” Deila said. “But today we were not good enough and we deserved to lose in the end.
“If you do simple mistakes against teams like this, you get punished. When we did something bad on the ball or didn’t defend the way we wanted to be, we get punished hard and then it’s a hard second half.”
Tomorrow: Local story No. 2