A five game unbeaten streak and a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia at Yankee Stadium Sunday afternoon got NYCFC a home first round MLS playoff game in the Bronx. It wasn’t easy and it will get more difficult to bring home the MLS Cup.
NYCFC, though, came together at the right time. It was a defensive gem of a game and Valentin Castellanos was there again at the right time scoring the lone goal for NYCFC in the 53rd minute.
All season it has been Castellanos and his team leading 19th goal, a header, that tied him for the league lead. More significant, is NYCFC is home bound for the playoffs against Atlanta as the No. 4 seed, a week from next Sunday.
And they said Castellanos was not a natural striker. He proved otherwise and has been the leader, even as NYCFC struggled for a month with doubts they would have an opportunity to host an opening round playoff game at home.
Coach Ronny Deila never had doubts about a team that came together. He said about Castellanos, winning the MLS 2021 Golden Boot Award, “There are so many good players in the league.”
“But for him to get top scorer is amazing. If there is someone who worked hard for it it’s ‘Taty’ (Castellanos) and I’m very proud of him and at the same time I really think he deserved it. So, a fantastic thing for him and also for the club.”
Castellanos said his favorite goal of the season came against Miami, back in August at Red Bull Arena. But the best goal came Sunday afternoon, and at the time, a win or draw would assure NYCFC that home first round playoff game.
“It helped me, and my teammates keep going.” he said through a translator on the postgame Zoom call. “It’s been a great season for me. It has been a year physical demand by working hard and pushing myself to prepare. I am happy because of that hard work and tonight’s goal and we will still need to keep going on with the playoffs against Atlanta.”
Atlanta, on decision Sunday got their win and clinched a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
NYCFC reached that so-called bond and at the right time. Their run for the MLS Cup has run through the Bronx over the past few years and has come up short in the Eastern semifinals or knockout rounds.
But this is a confident group, they have Castellanos. And NYCFC knows how to make adjustments, as they did after struggling in the first half against a defensive Philadelphia Union team that already clinched a home playoff game.
They played hard down the stretch, got a draw, and two wins in their last five games.
“Like I said, it’s to be ambitious and want to improve and we have to have the mindset to want to learn,” Deila said. “These things are important and then you deal with the ups and downs.”
In the end, though, it comes down to Castellanos. His teammates have confidence their leading scorer can be the difference between the ups and downs.
“Yeah we knew what Philly is capable of, but then again this is a group where we’re on the front foot and confident what we can do,” said NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Confident enough to have plenty of time to prepare for Atlanta. And as Johnson said, there is a factor in Castellanos.
“ He’s been so hungry to score goals for this team. He’s been one player that you can never question his work ethic, he’s the hardest worker in the group and to see him rewarded tonight, amazing. Getting an important goal for us. He’s done that so many times this year.”
Castellanos will continue to be the number nine in his role as a striker. It has worked and could take his team deep in a quest for their first MLS Cup. They have questioned the best who have played the game including Lionel Mesi and Cristiano Rolando and it worked.
“It is something that is normal,” Castellanos said. “You have to keep working hard. I never put my head down, even if I kept having more criticism or they said that I wasn’t a number nine. It just pushed me to keep working harder.”
NYCFC fans are confident their leading scorer will be a factor and Castellanos shared their happiness with them after the game by the lower bowls at Yankee Stadium. It was a fulfilling draw, an accomplished season, with more to come and a home playoff game.
“I hope they are all happy with me as well,” Castellano said about the fans.
Rich Mancuso: Twitter @Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso