NYCFC celebrates its championship. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

PORTLAND – You’ve got to hand it to Sean Johnson.

He made two huge penalty kick saves when it counted against the Portland Timbers Saturday.

The New York City FC goalkeeper and captain made two stop to open the shootout as City went on to win the tie-breaker, 4-2, and capture its very first MLS Cup at Providence Park.

Johnson dove to his right to deny Felipe Mora on Portland’s first attempt and then swatted away Diego Valeri’s try in the second round with his right hand.

Taty Castellanos, Maxi Moralez, Talles Magno and Alex Callens, on the final shot, converted as NYCFC took home the Philip K. Anschutz trophy in only its seventh season.

NYCFC also accomplished a feat in its seventh year of existence that the Red Bulls had failed to do in their 26-year history – win an MLS Cup. That achievement certainly will give City much great bragging rights, regardless of the outcome of the 2022 Hudson River Derby.

“The game was a very similar journey than the whole season’s been,” NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila said. “There’s been so many ups and downs. But we have learned from our downs and we have also learned from our ups, and we are bonded more and more during the season. Everything came together in the end, and what we have done in these playoffs and also the month before we come into the playoffs has been so impressive.

“I’m so proud of the boys. I’m so grateful to be the coach of this team. And you see the honest work, how they deal with hard times during the game. They come back. How they support each other, give everything for the club and for each other. That was amazing, and they are winners now. They are winners, and that’s going to be there forever.”

City also put a damper on the hopes of long-time New York City resident Giovanni Savarese, the Timbers head coach, who had hoped to win his first MLS title.

During regulation, there were heroes on both sides.

Castellanos, forced to sit out the Eastern Conference final with a red-card suspension, came back with a flourish. He lived up to his reputation as a lethal goal-scorer, as the Golden Boot winner connected in the 41st minute.

It took awhile for the Timbers get some momentum, but when they did, they made the most out of an opportunity in the box in the fourth minute of second half stoppage time as Felipe Mora got a hold of a loose ball off a rebound in the box and slotted it past Johnson into the lower right corner for a 1-1 tie.

Prior to Portland’s goal, NYCFC was only seconds away from a regulation-time triumph.

“I think credit to Portland,” Johnson said. “They made it a game the entire time, over the course of the 90 minutes, extra time, they were great to score right there at the end and make it a game. Just wanted to make sure that we stayed level. You know, we had been in that position before. I told the guys we had the experience, not to panic, not to get down on ourselves because there’s more of an opportunity to go for it and win the game. And no one said it would be easy. It’s been difficult, but that’s how it should be to win a championship and to triumph in going through so much adversity.”

The match wasn’t even close to the best MLS Cup game and was played in some less than superb conditions – a constant rain that started several hours prior to kickoff and never let up and an occasional wind thrown in as well.

Both teams took a while to find their footing as the ball went back and forth as they it was ping pong and not a soccer game in the opening five minutes.

With the game only 24 seconds old, Moralez took the first shot. Perhaps he was thinking of goalkeeper Clark’s blunder in the opening minute of the 2015 final, which helped the Timbers defeat the Columbus Crew, 2-1. Clark was the Columbus keeper that day.

The first half was highlighted by physical play, sometimes hard, by both sides, good defensive positioning, blocked shots and some mediocre passing.

In other words, there was nothing much to write home about.

Until the 41st minute.

That’s when Moralez sent a cross in from the right side that Castellanos leaped to head past a diving Clark from six yards. The ball hit the right post and went in to give the visitors the lead.

NYCFC’s celebration, however, was muted due to an injury to midfielder Jesus Medina, who was hit in the face with an object thrown from the stands.

At the start of the second half, City played as tough was trialing as Portland could not get enough momentum to make life difficult on the backline or goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

When the Timbers gained possession and tried for the equalizer, NYCFC was up to the task, continuing to block shots and frustrating the attacking side.

Johnson wasn’t tested very much, but he managed to keep the ball out of the net. A vital save came in the 82nd minute when he caught a flick by Felipe Mora from close-range.

The Timbers rediscovered their mojo in the first extratime, dominating possession and chances, but could not find the range.

But NYCFC did in the shootout, winning its first MLS Cup crown.

“It’s just like a great achievement,” center back Maxime Chanot said. “So happy and so proud for the performance we have. So happy for the fans and everybody who works at the club, and the city, it’s been such a long time for a Major League won anything in New York. To bring back the Cup to New York is something very, very special.”