NYCFC, a team that looked like an MLS Cup contender during the regular season, has found itself out of the playoffs at the conference semifinals. That sentence was true in 2016, 2017, 2018, and was made true in humiliating fashion once again after NYCFC lost to Toronto on Wednesday night.
There was a whole game before the 88th minute, but the 88th minute will probably be the only thing about this game anyone will remember. That was when, with the match tied at 1–1, NYCFC defender Rónald Matarrita made the incredibly boneheaded decision to slide tackle Richie Laryea from behind in the box, giving Toronto what wound up being the game-winning penalty:
That’s not the worst foul you’ll ever see, but it’s definitely one of the worst fouls you’ll see at the end of a tied, single-elimination game. And because you can’t do something so dumb without being punished for it, Alejandro Pozuelo stepped up to the penalty spot and collected his second goal of the night, sending Toronto to either Atlanta or Philadelphia for the franchise’s second conference final ever.
We can talk about what this means for Toronto another day. What we’re here to discuss now is how NYCFC have fallen in the conference semifinals four years running, and their particularly bad record at home.
There was no shame in losing to the eventual champions Atlanta United last season, though NYCFC’s failure to score in the first leg at Yankee Stadium probably sealed their fate. In 2017, NYCFC at least won their home leg against the Columbus Crew, though the 2–0 victory wasn’t enough to erase a 4–1 loss in the first leg. The most infamous flop of them all came in 2016. Following a 2–0 first-leg loss in Toronto, NYCFC returned to Yankee Stadium knowing that, to advance, they likely had to shut out the Canadians as well as pop in the goals themselves. Instead, they got clobbered, 5–0:
In five home playoff matches throughout their short history, NYCFC have won twice and lost three times, having scored six goals and conceded nine on aggregate (that scoreline was helped by a 3-1 victory in last year’s first round over Philadelphia; with that, the aggregate gets very bleak indeed). Matarrita’s boner is but another bad memory to add to the collection.
This year was supposed to be different. NYCFC finished as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and looked like the second-best team in MLS by a good distance. The New Yorkers scored the most second-most goals in the regular season across MLS, and conceded the fourth-fewest. They had talent across the field, in the form of Maxi Moralez, Alexandru Mitirita, Héber, and Matarrita, who is normally good. Everything was set up for them to advance at least to the conference finals, and likely beyond to a mouthwatering title game against LAFC.
But things don’t seem to work out for NYCFC when the playoffs come around. The franchise is probably frustrated that the league’s new playoff format doesn’t offer a second leg of the tie to make up for the mistake. Though, given the team’s history, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. Still, the Pigeons will rue the new knockout rules and their best defender’s blunder for yet another unforgiving New York winter.