The banner behind the goal in front of the Timbers Army proclaimed Portland as “Soccer City USA” but the MLS Cup trophy is bound for the Bronx.
Seven years after Manchester City’s owners underlined their global ambitions by entering MLS and signing splashy European imports, a less starry but more effective New York City FC side are champions. They do not yet have their own stadium, but they have a title.
The blue-shirted team whooping and bouncing on the dais, silverware in hand, as fireworks lit up the gloomy sky: this was not how it was supposed to go for the Portland Timbers, with their febrile fans and frightful weather widely expected to deliver a decisive home-field advantage.
Basking in the momentum shift from their stunning injury-time equalizer, we might have expected Portland to prevail. Perhaps – for the scriptwriters with a sense of romance and reward – on penalties, with the Timbers legend Diego Valeri delivering the coup de grace in his last game for the club. But Valeri and Felipe Mora – the scorer of that 94th-minute goal – saw their penalties saved by Sean Johnson in the shootout.
New York dispatched the New England Revolution, the team with the best regular-season record in MLS, on penalties earlier in the playoffs, also after conceding a late leveller. “We’ve been in that position before, that’s what I told the boys, don’t put your heads down, there’s a lot of game left to be played,” Johnson said on ABC. “Embrace the moment.”
Given that the home side had won eight of the previous 10 MLS Cups, and Portland – boisterous fans, artificial surface and all – boast an excellent record at Providence Park, this outcome was an upset, though the visitors were the more composed and coherent team in a game too lacking in clear chances to be a true classic.
Still, the spectacle of Mora pouncing on a loose ball to sweep in the equaliser and cancel out Taty Castellanos’ soft 41st-minute header was immensely dramatic, even if there seemed to be a foul in the build-up. And NY were impressively obdurate in extra time.
“I think we had full control of the game,” the NYCFC head coach, Ronny Deila, told ABC. “We were broken… but this bunch of players, they are winners, they are standing up for each other, they are fighting.” Rain mixed with tears on his face at the end, either from joy or the sudden realisation that he would now have to make good on his promise to strip off his clothes if his team won.
Regardless of the standard of play or the identity of the winners, this was a dream match-up for MLS’ rulers: a showpiece in a city with a characterful stadium and arguably the most vibrant soccer culture in North America, with Portland facing a team from the US’s biggest media market that is also a symbol of the league’s growing international relevance and appeal to billionaire owners.
Judging a club by how many of its fans will camp out for days in miserable conditions – not for a ticket but for a prime position in the stands – seems like a better gauge of authenticity than whether a team calls itself “FC” or “SC” in a rebranding exercise. Given all the praise earnt by the Timbers fans, it was a shame that one of them hurled an object that struck NYCFC’s Jesus Medina after the opening goal.
“This is everything that you want a championship game to be, a city that’s basically been taken over with excitement for their club,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told Taylor Twellman on ABC, later describing the atmosphere as among the best in the world.
Garber is entitled to feel upbeat. with new media deals to be negotiated, the US looking likely to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and joint-hosting the tournament four years later, the league is in a strong position.
The most remarkable number of the season was not a scoreline but the $400m reportedly paid by a New York businessman in June for the worst team in the Western Conference, the lightly-supported Houston Dynamo (the deal also included the NWSL’s Dash). Given such inflation in values despite the struggles of a pandemic-stained 2020, it may not be long before the biggest MLS clubs are valued at $1bn.
MLS expands to Charlotte next season and St Louis in 2023. And then, to Nevada? The normally-guarded Garber appears to think so. “Vegas is a front-runner,” he said on the broadcast, salivating at the thought of a stadium by the Strip, floodlights amid the neon lights.
So, from the dampness, history and intensity of Portland on championship day, to visions of the desert and the challenge of creating a genuine and enduring MLS culture in a whimsical playground with a replica of the Eiffel Tower and an ersatz Venice. If you’re going to gamble, might as well do it in Vegas.
This, though, was not a day for glitz, glamour or star power, as New York, now prioritizing solidity over celebrity, showed what can be achieved with shrewd signings, patience and a plan.