MLS Playoff thoughts

Breaking down NYCFC's convincing 3-1 away win over Montreal

The defending MLS Cup Champions are still alive and are showing no signs of slowing down after a big 3-1 away win over Montreal to advance to the Eastern Conference Final. ASN's Brian Sciaretta writes about the game, NYCFC, and Montreal's prognosis heading into next season. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 23, 2022
4:05 PM

THE EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL is set after New York City traveled to Canada and walked away with a stunning 3-1 win over CF Montreal. The win sets up a rematch of the 2021 edition when NYCFC defeated a decimated Philadelphia Union team. But this NYCFC team has proven to be remarkably resilient following its player and coaching turnover during the year.

As you would expect, Montreal brought a tremendous atmosphere to Stade Saputo and for many opposing teams, it would be a tough environment. But NYCFC clearly came out and played like it had been there before. In fact, NYCFC looked comfortable in a tough environment. In just the seventh minute, Maxi Moralez put the guests in front when he got on the end of a cross from Gabriel Pereira and had a minute to pick out his close-range shot.

Montreal ended up controlling the game for the next 35 minutes but were denied once by the post and three more times by NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson – who had a huge outing.

But right before halftime, NYCFC doubled its lead on a counter attack where Santiago Rodriguez played Herber behind the backline for an easy shot past James Pantemis.

In the second half, any hopes of a Montreal comeback were dashed in the 60th minute when Talles Magno, minute after coming on, sent Pereira into the box and he was fouled by Pantemis for a penalty. Talles Mango then stepped up and converted the penalty.

In the 85th minute, Montreal earned a consolation goal when Djordje Mihailovic headed home a Zachary Brault-Guillard cross.

But this was a convincing and extremely impressive win for NYCFC to head into a hostile environment and beat a team that was considered by many to have a chance to play in MLS Cup this year.

Here are some thoughts.


Johnson’s big day


It’s easy to say that NYCFC was clinical with its finishing and Montreal was not, but the person most responsible for this was Sean Johnson. The NYCFC goalkeeper had his best game of the season and made the most important plays of the game in the first half to keep Montreal off the board. If Montreal scored on either of his two big saves, it could have been a much different game.


But this game was a useful reminder of how good Johnson can be when he is on his game. He can be a big-time shot stopper. It also came on a day that boosted his World Cup hopes. He is neck and neck with Ethan Horvath for the third goalkeeper spot but this performance came on a day when Horvath didn’t have a particularly great outing with Luton Town.

Perhaps Johnson could have done better on Mihailovic’s goal, but that is a non-issue. He kept NYCFC in the game for a long stretch and was the game’s biggest difference maker.


NYCFC’s winning culture


NYCFC is peaking at the right time, and it is even more noteworthy when looking at the transition the team faced during the season. Head coach Ronny Deila left midseason to take the job at Standard Liege and Nick Cushing took over on an interim basis. Then the team lost the league’s best No. 9 after Taty Castellanos was sold to Girona in Spain. Normally losing your coach (who led the team to MLS Cup in 2021) and losing the league’s top scorer would spell the end of a team. But not NYCFC.

The team struggled for two months to adapt under Cushing but as the playoffs drew closer, the team found another gear like a light switch. The first-round win over Miami might have been the best performance of any team in the opening round this year. Then in the second round, NYCFC became the only one of the four remaining teams to advance to the conference final by winning on the road.

This team has developed a winning culture and it is deep – deep enough to continue on past a midseason coaching departure. This is where veteran leadership matters

“It’s hard work,” Cushing said. “It’s togetherness, and it’s dealing with whatever is in front of you. We go on a run and win four games, we make sure that we stay humble, we keep our feet on the floor, and we prepare for the next game. We go on a run of losing five games, we stay together, we become accountable.”

This team is absolutely a threat to win MLS Cup again. They might be staying humble as Cushing said, but they also have a healthy confidence that they can beat any team. They are undaunted by playing on the road and are unphased by playing teams with better records in the regular season. This dates back to 2021.


Mihailovic bids adieu


Djordje Mihailovic, 23, was injured for a long stretch this season and then when he returned to the field, it took a month to get back into form. But when he did, he was once again very good. The former Chicago Fire homegrown has been a big part of Montreal’s success the past two seasons.

In 2022, Mihailovic had 12 goals and seven assists in 2531 minutes in MLS, the playoffs, and the CONCACAF Champions League. In 2021, he had four goals and 14 assists in 2804 minutes. In total, that is 11 goals and 21 assists in 5335 minutes across 67 games.

That is going to be extremely difficult for Montreal to replace. Even if the club opens up its purse strings, there is no guarantee that they can find a player who is as good of a fit for Montreal as Mihailovic. It’s part of the reason why Atlanta United struggles so badly. They spend, but the chemistry and the players fitting into the team is seldomly good. Mihailovic was perfect for Montreal.

Unlike a few teams like FC Dallas, Cincinnati, and Inter Miami who were bounced from the playoffs and seem to be building towards big things in the years ahead, the CF Montreal team seemed to have been build for the present. Mihailovic needs to be replaced. Kei Kamara and Romell Quioto are two forwards over 30.

From an American and MLS point of view, Mihailovic’s success in Holland with AZ is important. MLS teams have been successful in selling young players in recent years to good European teams but selling good young players isn’t nearly as hard as selling a prime-age player (Mihailovic will be 24 when he plays for AZ) because players in their prime are not expected to need to develop. Prime-age players are expected to be able to help teams based on who they are right now. AZ is betting that Mihailovic’s success at Montreal will translate to Eredivisie success.

If Mihailovic succeeds, it will is positive sign for how teams view success in MLS as opposed to just a young player’s potential.  


Heading to Philly


The Eastern Conference final will take place in Chester, PA when the Philadelphia Union host NYCFC. This will serve as a rematch from last year’s 2021 Conference Final when Philadelphia was missing nine starters and several backups due to COVID. Despite scoring the opening goal, NYCFC eventually rallied late for a 2-1 win.

NYCFC have been the “road warriors” the past two seasons and last year they knocked out the top-seeded New England Revolution in a major upset – although the Revs looked rusty after having nearly three weeks off.

This will be the toughest test NYCFC has faced the past two years. Philadelphia will not likely miss the chances that Montreal had on Sunday and Philadelphia has a much better defense. On paper, Philadelphia is the better team by far. But that seems to play into NYCFC’s hands as the underdog. The question we don’t know the answer to yet is how long can NYCFC continue to dominate on the road in the postseason?

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