New York City FC is moving on to the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals after ousting the Philadelphia Union with a 3-1 win at Yankee Stadium Wednesday night in their knockout-round matchup.
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and David Villa scored in the opening 26 minutes, and Maxi Moralez added a third in the 78th, allowing NYCFC to ease to a second straight 3-1 win over Philadelphia after a victory by that score in their Decision Day season finale this past Sunday. Cory Burke's 83rd-minute goal from close range was but a consolation strike for a team that's headed home for the winter.
With the win, third-seed NYCFC sets up a mouthwatering conference semifinal against second-seed Atlanta United (the two sides tied both of their meetings this season), which will kick off Sunday in the Bronx. In the other conference semifinal, the top-seed New York Red Bulls will face the winner of Thursday's D.C. United-Columbus Crew knockout clash.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
A familiar script
Days after conceding goals in the eighth and 10th minutes to NYCFC, Philadelphia leaked another pair of early goals.
Tajouri-Shradi opened the scoring in the 10th minute with a fantastic left-footed rip from outside the area, expertly taking the chance provided by Villa's audacious assist.
It was nearly followed up by an immediate second from Ronald Matarrita. A blocked Villa shot in the box fell his way, and with goalkeeper Andre Blake out of position, the Costa Rican fullback's volley off the high-looping ball went wide of the left post. But some 15 minutes after the opener, NYCFC doubled its lead through Villa, who received a wonderful bending cross from Moralez before accurately placing a low shot inside the far post.
With that, it was the second 2-0 deficit facing the Union at Yankee Stadium in a matter of four days and a clear tilting of the scales toward NYCFC. The hosts definitely got away with one when defender Ben Sweat clattered through Alejandro Bedoya in the box and wasn't whistled for a penalty (nor did VAR come into play), and that certainly would have given the visitors a lifeline before the half. But on the balance of the night, the game belonged to NYCFC, a team clearly more comfortable with playing in the tight confines of its home stadium and a side that perhaps is finding its top form under manager Domenec Torrent after a series of struggles upon his midseason arrival when Patrick Vieira left for Nice.
David Villa, ultimate playoff wild card
The 36-year-old Spanish great is two years removed from winning league MVP honors and suffered through an injury-laden campaign, missing 11 matches and scoring "just" 14 goals, a low for him in his four seasons in MLS. But he scored a goal in each of his final three matches of the regular season–and in four of his last five–and was in the center of all the danger on Wednesday night.
It was his leaping back-heel flick that sprung Tajouri-Shradi for his superb strike, and his goal, while far from the best he's ever scored, was still precise enough to get the job done. He nearly had a second just before halftime, putting a bullet of a free kick from 19 yards on frame and forcing a diving save from Blake.
Star power that rises to the occasion is a game-changer, and there isn't a bigger potential difference-making wild card in the playoffs than an in-form Villa–especially when he's combining with a playmaking spark like Moralez. Atlanta United has plenty of its own stars and will expect to win their series, but the stage is set for Villa to leave his mark on what's been an otherwise frustrating season.
The wait goes on for the Union–again
It's Charlie Brown and the football again on two fronts for the Union this season. After losing their third U.S. Open Cup final in five seasons, the club's wait for a first playoff win goes on as well. Philadelphia lost both legs in the 2011 conference semifinals to Houston, lost in the knockout round to Toronto FC in 2016 and they've now exited in the knockout opener yet again. In both the Open Cup final loss to Houston in September and Wednesday's loss to NYCFC, horrid defending were the root cause.
The Union also don't really possess an explosive attack capable of battling its way through a shootout, so going down two goals on the road within 26 minutes was a deathblow. Of all the 12 playoff teams, the Union scored the second fewest goals this season (49; Columbus scored 43). While 2018 featured some genuine high points, the Union were ultimately a shade over a .500 team (15-14-5) and had a negative goal differential (-1). The club has made a concerted effort to complement its rising young core by signing bigger names, and some (ahem, David Accam) haven't panned out. It's clear more reinforcements are necessary to take the next step.