NYCFC, Deila “strip down” Portland Timbers to win first MLS Cup

Boys in Blue overcome late tying goal to win in a shootout

Ronny Deila

Photo: Katie Cahalan / nycfc.com
NYCFC goalie Sean Johnson holds the championship trophy as his teammates cheer and fireworks go off.

MICHAEL KLEINER
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

The clock was counting up toward 94 minutes, the end of regulation stoppage time. Seven seconds and the MLS Cup would be going to New York City Football Club.

Portland had the ball in the box. Jaroslaw Niezgoda hit a left-footed shot that hit a few New York players (some NYCFC players claimed there was foul on the play). Surely, the whistle will blow now. The ball found its way to Felipe Mora on the left, who got a right foot on it, enough to get past NYCFC goalie Sean Johnson. The score was 1-1. The Timbers Army part of the capacity crowd of 25,218 fans in the wind, rain, and cold at legendary Providence Park went wild.

The stunned visitors, who had controlled play most of the game, ceded some of the momentum in the extra periods, but survived to force penalty kicks. With Johnson making two terrific saves, and Valentin Castellanos, Maximillano Moralez, Talles Magno, and Alexander Callens converting, NYCFC won 4-2 on Dec. 11.

Photo: Katie Cahalan / nycfc.com
A promise is a promise. When Ronny Deila was hired to coach NYCFC in 2020, he said he would strip down if it won the championship.

Coach Ronny Deila, a native of Pors-grunn, Norway, turned away from the pitch, then got jumped by a coach and another coach joined a group hug. When the Norwegian emerged, he had tears in his eyes. He put his hands over them as he walked across the field as his players celebrated.

“That (late goal) was, of course, really, really tough,” said Deila, 46, on the NYCFC website. “I think we struggled the first half in extra time. But in the second, we started to play more. It shows the character of the team when you come back from that, get through the two extra times, then in the end, win the penalty shootout in this stadium on the artificial [field] in the weather they love. The atmosphere was electric. Belief, discipline, and hard, honest work paid off. That’s great to see.”

“Credit goes to Portland,” said Johnson, who played in his 321st MLS game and was named MVP. “They made it a game over the course of the 90 minutes, extra time. They were great to score right there at the end and make it a game. I wanted to make sure that we stayed level after that. 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. 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.”

Then, Deila fulfilled a promise. When he coached Strømsgodset in 2009, he said he would strip down if they avoided relegation. He complied. When he was hired by NYCFC in 2020, he said he would do the same if NYC won a title. Despite the rain and cold, he stripped down to his underwear and did push-ups.

“Of course, this win mattered more,” he said, though the win in 2009 was also important. “You have to celebrate victories and that one today was a big victory. I said maybe too much when I got hired here, but I don’t regret that. It was a big moment. I will do that again if we keep winning trophies.”

The Boys in Blue seemed more tactical in the early going with their passing and pushing forward. In the 41st minute, on a free kick just beyond the box, Maxi Moralez sent a cross from the right. Castellanos, the Golden Boot winner for leading MLS with 19 goals, got his head on the ball and it dribbled off Portland goalie Steve Clark’s fingers and into the right corner.

As NYCFC celebrated, two beer cans were thrown from the stands, with one hitting Jesus Medina in the face, sending him to the ground. The two fans were ejected and banned from the stadium.

NYCFC owned 57% possession time in the opening 45 minutes, outshot the Timbers 6-4, 2-0 on shots on goal. If a Timber player reached the top of the box, four Boys in Blue would surround him. It was a physical, sometimes testy, game. Portland finished with a 19-13 advantage in shots, but NYC had a 7-5 edge in shots on goal and 52% possession time. While Portland had some chances in the extra time, it was limited to long shots.

New York went first on the penalty kicks. Castellanos’ shot went to his left and the center of the goal. Johnson went left to knock away Mora’s shot. Clark went to his left to stop Alfredo Morales’ attempt. Diego Valeri tried to go to his left corner, but Johnson made the save. Moralez gave NYC a 2-0 lead with a shot to the high right corner. Santiago Moreno drew the Timbers within one with a goal into the bottom left corner. Magno gave NYC a 3-1 advantage when his shot went under Clark’s hands. Cristhian Paredes made it 2-3, but Alexander Callens, left-footed a shot—the only shooter to use his left—to his right as Clark went left. The title was New York’s.

They were 1-4-2 (wins-losses-ties) in September, then 3-1-2 in October. Eight of their home games were played at the New York Red Bulls stadium in Harrison, N.J. They won the tiebreaker after a three-way tie for fourth. They beat Atlanta 2-0, then went to New England and beat the Supporters Shield winner 5-3 on penalty kicks after a 2-2 score, then went to the Philadelphia Union and won 2-1 on an 88th minute goal to become Eastern Conference champions. Portland had finished fourth in the Western Conference, and beat #5 Minnesota 3-1, #1 Colorado 1-0, and #7 Real Salt Lake 2-0.

“We had no consistency in the team earlier,” said Deila. “We had a lot of tough away games, and we played a lot of games in a short period, so it’s hard to turn things around. But I knew if we just get the consistency in the defense and get everybody ready to play, that we could beat anybody. Big, big credits to the leaders in the group. Sean [Johnson], Maxi [Moralez], Maxime [Chanot], [Alexander] Callens, James [Sands], Alfredo [Morales] had unbelievable seasons. Taty (Castellanos), that central line has been amazing during the season. When we get that right, we get points, and we win football games. But in the end, if you keep believing and keep working hard and want to improve, you get what you deserve in the end. This team, what they have done, they deserve to win the MLS this year and they did it. I am unbelievably proud and grateful to be a part of it.”

Deila learned a lot in his two years in New York. “I always had a desire to coach in the U.S., to experience the country, experience the league,” he said earlier in the week. “When you get an opportunity to also come to New York City Football Club it’s a special place. When I see it now two years later there’s been a lot of things going on with COVID and different things, but it’s been an amazing two years. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned a lot about football, I’ve learned a lot about the U.S., the club and MLS. I’m a better coach than I was two years ago and that’s always my goal.”

The legend of Jakob Glesnes grows

After last season, Norwegian Jakob Glesnes said he looked forward to hearing what 18,000 Philadelphia Union fans sounded like in Subaru Park. He found out on Nov. 20. In the 123rd minute, as the last seconds ticked down to penalty kicks, a New York Red Bulls player headed the ball out of the box. Glesnes, standing a few yards beyond the arc, stopped the ball with his chest, wound up and blasted the ball into the right corner. The goalie had no chance. Teammates mobbed Glesnes behind the goal. Coach Jim Curtin started running there. And 18,623 fans screamed, cheered, jumped up and down. The announcer said, “Is there anything this man can’t do?”

The center back has five goals in two years, all from distance. He had two assists this season and played every minute. The following week, the second-place Union beat Nashville 2-0 on penalty kicks after 1-1 score to advance to host NYCFC for the Eastern Conference championship. Glesnes was among 11 Union players forced into COVID-19 safety protocols for that game. 

On Dec. 8, Glesnes, 27, was signed to a contract extension through 2024 and sports director Ernst Tanner calls him “one of the best defenders in the league.”

Ola Kamara regains form

In 2018, Oslo native Ola Kamara signed a three-year extension with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He finished the season with 14 goals. He found himself in Shenzhen FC in the Chinese Super League in 2019. On Aug. 7, 2019, D.C. United brought him back to MLS. Kamara scored three goals in five games, then four in 22 contests in 2020. This season, he tallied a career high 19 goals—tying Castellanos for the league lead—and five assists. He has 74 career goals. D.C. missed the playoffs by one point.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.

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