New York City defender Anton Tinnerholm (3) clears the ball from the Philadelphia Union in the first half. (Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

A funny thing happened to New York City FC as it tried to reach MLS Cup for the second consecutive year.

It’s defense collapsed.

Horribly.

During a spell that likely brought back memories of the team’s summer struggles, the Cityzens conceded three goals within a confounding, disappointing and stunning 11-minute span in the second half en route to a crushing 3-1 defeat to the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Eastern Conference final at Subaru Park in Chester, Pa. on Sunday night.

What made it worse was that City was nursing a one-goal lead in one of the confounding collapses in MLS playoff history.

So, the Union booked a spot in the MLS Cup final against Los Angeles FC on Sunday, Nov. 5 while NYCFC will go home and consider what could have been.

“Yeah, it stinks,” NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. “It’s a little soon to really digest what happened, I’ll have to go back and watch the game. Hats off to Philadelphia, they played a fantastic game to come back from one down. They’ve had a fantastic year, so it’s tough taking anything away from them. It’s just a little too soon to really tell all that went into the {11] minutes. Tough stretch for us but ultimately it was the deciding factor in the match.”

After a scoreless opening half, action picked up to a sometimes frenetic pace over the final 45 minutes.

City stunned the Union with a fine team goal that was started by a long pass from Johnson in the 57th minute. The ball eventually was worked to Santiago Rodriguez, who fed Maxi Moralez at the top of the box as he deposited the ball into the lower left corner past goalkeeper Andre Blake.

“We gave ourselves a chance,” Johnson said. “We had a chance to score and we went up one-zero, that was our chance to win the game.”

Philly goalkeeper Andre Blake made a huge save on Alex Callens on the hour to keep the hosts in the match.

The visitors held the lead for all of eight minutes before everything the team did so well went out the window.

Only seconds after Keaton Parks replaced Gabriel Perreira in the 65th minute, City was caught out of position and napping when play resume. Jakob Glesnes took a 40-yard free kick that he sent down the right flank to Julian Carranza, who beat Johnson on the right side of the area for the equalizer.

“It was a great ball that caught us off guard,” John said. “They were the first ones to it.”

Exactly 121 seconds later in the 67th minute, Philly cracked the defense as Daniel Gazdag put home a Carranza header off a long ball by halftime substitute and former B.W. Gottschee standout Jack McGlynn for a 2-1 edge.

“Two moments. I think there were two huge moments,” NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing said. “One, at one-nil, Callens’ header forced an incredible save. And then, obviously the set play where we just lose our concentration and they get in and get it to one-one. And then we just don’t manage those next three-four minutes well enough and we know what it’s like here in Philadelphia. The crowd gets on and they get you in that moment. The game can go from one-one to two-one really quickly.”

The Union was far from finished as second-half substitute Cory Burke scored off a scramble following a quick counterattack in the 76th minute to seal City’s fate.

NYCFC entered the match with a couple of key pieces missing as center back Maxime Chanot and midfielder-forward Talles Magno did not dress due to injuries. But the ageless Moralez, 35, did, starting at central mid, though he did not have many training sessions with the team building up to the match.

“He was incredible,” Cushing said. “He played in that deeper role again. He showed that he has versatility, and he can manage the game. I can’t speak highly enough of Maxi, he’s been incredible from the moment I came in as interim manager until now he’s been an incredible professional, an incredible leader, and has had some top, top performances on the pitch.”

For the opening quarter hour, both teams had trouble penetrating each other’s defense, although Philly had the better opportunities.

Defender Kai Wagner placed Philadelphia’s first shot on target, as his attempt from distance was saved by Sean Johnson in the 13th minute.

Three minutes later, the hosts came close to taking the lead as Daniel Gazdag headed the ball into the net from close range, but was called offside.

As the first half wore on, the game got more physical. Referee Allen Chapman assessed one yellow card – to Union midfielder Jose Martinez, who fouled Santiago Rodriguez at midfield in the 39th minute.

Carranza came close to getting slapped with another as he clipped Johnson in the head while going for the ball five minutes earlier. Johnson remained on the turf for a couple of minutes before getting up.