By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 15, 2021) US Soccer Players – Make no mistake, the 2021 MLS Cup final was about Portland. The city that prides itself on embracing soccer did just that in front of a national television audience. Portland is an American soccer city. Maybe THE American soccer city. After the show that Timbers fans put on at Providence Park in cold, wet, and windy conditions, no one would deny that Portland’s soccer culture is something special.
Major League Soccer got a perfect showcase for all of the things it has been pushing as selling points in recent years. A vibrant atmosphere in a stadium where the club is the primary tenant in a city that truly loves its team. The vibe in Portland felt like the big time for a league that hasn’t always gotten that treatment.
On the field, the game didn’t deliver the moment the home fans wanted. Instead, it was NYCFC celebrating with the trophy after playing to its strengths in extra time and beyond. Key to that approach were the club’s two USMNT players.
James Sands and Sean Johnson stood out as heroes for the New Yorkers against the Timbers. For one, it was the start of something that could potentially take him to bigger stages abroad. For the other, it was validation of his place as both a club legend and one of the league’s top goalkeepers.
Sands is a product of the NYCFC academy, proof that there’s talent in the region that the well-resourced club can cultivate and turn into top-level professionals. His breakthrough in MLS earned him a chance to play in various USMNT youth teams before rising to the senior national team level in 2021.
On the field Saturday, Sands did all of the work necessary to prevent the Timbers from utilizing a typically devastating counterattack to get goals. After starting in the Gold Cup final win over Mexico on August 1,the 21-year-old once again leveled up in the biggest club game of a young career. It’s never worth assuming that a young player will meet the challenge of a final, but Sands now has trophies for country and club.
In a game with celebrated players like Sebastian Blanco, Diego Chara, Valentin Castellanos, and Maxi Moralez, Sands was beyond doubt their equal or better. Castellanos scored with Moralez providing the assist, but neither of the attacking players out-shined Sands.
His game requires a closer viewing of the run of play to truly appreciate. Goals and assists are not his calling cards. Instead, the New York native influences the game with smart interventions in midfield and the ability to facilitate possession for his team.
If players like Castellanos and Moralez are shining in any given NYCFC game, it’s a reasonably safe bet that the midfielders behind them are doing their jobs. For stretches of the 2021 campaign, it wasn’t Sands who carried that load. Players like Alfredo Morales and Keaton Parks were just as likely to be serving as NYCFC’s midfield platform as was Sands.
Sands’ versatility made him an asset for NYFC head coach Ronnie Deila, though it also meant he did not always feature in his best position. Sands played more games at center back in 2021 than he did in the midfield. He even collected a few appearances at right back when start Anton Tinnerholdm went down with an injury. NYCFC can be thankful that Sands was ready when a shakeup in midfield forced Deila’s hand and turned Sands into an MLS Cup final hero.
While his teammate earned deserved plaudits with his work in the outfield, it was NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson who won the MVP in the MLS Cup triumph. Johnson’s two saves during the penalty shootout stand out, but the veteran keeper also made important saves in the prior 120 minutes of play that helped his team to victory.
Johnson’s individual honor and the championship he won highlights what he brings to a team known for its attack. With NYCFC the top possession team in MLS and thanks to a strong spine, Johnson is called into action less often. He’s what every team hopes for in a goalkeeper. Always steady, capable of the spectacular, and comfortable on the ball. That last trait is particularly particular in NYCFC’s system, which requires Johnson to make passes on the ground and to navigate pressing forwards.
Portland didn’t press Johnson at a high rate, but he was required to distribute the ball effectively. His work saving shots is what stood out, particularly when the game went to penalties. Entering extra time, the conventional wisdom said that NYCFC had a distinct advantage if the game went to the shootout. Johnson is known for stopping penalties. His performance at Providence Park only added to that well-won reputation.
If the timing were different, Sands and Johnson might be with the USMNT for the December camp. Instead, NYCFC’s run to a championship gave him a different way to shine. The MLS Cup final might not have featured many American players, but those who did take the field in Portland, particularly on the NYCFC side, showed up.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
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- Portland’s playoff pattern
Photo by Andy Mead – ISIPhotos.com