Nick Cushing: “I expect the Philadelphia team that will be incredibly motivated, especially the [11] guys that didn’t get the chance to play to be incredibly motivated to make the result the other way.” (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis
FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

The last time New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union met in an MLS Eastern Conference final the hosts were missing 11 players, including several key performers, due to COVID-19 protocols.

This year, the likelihood of that happening again when those two rivals meet in the MLS Cup Playoffs at Subaru Park in Chester, Pa. next Sunday is close to nil.

City went on to record a 2-1 win, reach the final and win MLS Cup.

Philly is expected to have a full lineup, including the likes of MLS defender of the year Jakob Glesnes and goalkeeper of the year Andre Blake.

“I understand you guys are going to write the narrative of last year’s Eastern Conference finals,” NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing said during a Zoom media conference call after his team’s 3-1 win at CF Montreal on Sunday afternoon. “I expect the Philadelphia team that will be incredibly motivated, especially the [11] guys that didn’t get the chance to play to be incredibly motivated to make the result the other way.”

The Union won the 2022 regular season series, 2-0. Philly shut out the Cityzens at Yankee Stadium, 2-0, on March 19 and then edged NYCFC at home, 2-1, on June 26. By next week’s kickoff, the teams haven’t meet in more than four months and a lot has changed since then.

“We just have to play a football game,” Cushing said. “We have to make sure that like we did today, whatever that game throws at us, that we can be the best version of ourselves. We’ll have to be defend the box well. We’ll have to sit low in moments. We’ll have to be good with the ball. We’ll have to create chances and be plentiful.

“I think what we’ve done really well in last year’s playoff run and this year, is just play the next game. Forget the emotion. Forget the occasion. Forget the narrative that people are trying to write and just be ourselves and play. If we do that, and we continue to just focus on the next game and keep winning, then who knows where you get to when we’ve done that?”

NYCFC’s season been one of the strangest in MLS’ 27-year history. The team has been forced to call six venues home because its schedule did not always match up with the Yankees’ season at Yankee Stadium. Yet, the team has grinded out wins on the road.

The endured a 10-game stretch during the summer in which it won but once before rediscovering its momentum.

“It sounds like a cliche but it’s all hard work,” Cushing said. “It’s togetherness and dealing with whatever is in front of us. We went on a run of four games won and we made sure to stay humble. We kept our feet on the floor and prepared for the next game. We went on that run of losing five games, we stayed together.

“We also held individuals and groups accountable for certain behavior. In some cases, some guys may have wanted to split off, give in, questioning teammates, coaches, and tactics, but we didn’t have any of that. We had a group who continued to work and deal with the challenges that were thrown at them and continued to believe.”