In the run-up to the 2021 MLS Cup Final between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC, Stumptown Footy had the chance to catch up with Oliver Strand of Hudson River Blue, SB Nation’s NYCFC fan blog. He answered some of our questions related to the team, NYCFC’s attacking options, and how the fanbase really feels about playing in a baseball stadium.
Here are our five questions with Hudson River Blue:
Stumptown Footy: New York City FC has been one of the best teams in the league according to the underlying numbers but didn’t pair that with the results until the tail end of the season. What were the factors that finally led to the team playing up to the level the stats suggested they should have been at?
Hudson River Blue: NYCFC is an exhilarating, heartbreaking, operatic team. When everything clicks the play is so crisp and elegant it looks like we could be making a run at joining the Premier League, but then we commit a mistake so basic and mystifying that can torpedo a game. Usually one follows the other. We’re good at beating ourselves and we excelled at that in flashes this season.
That said, we’re hitting our best form at the right time. Maybe it’s because the NYCFC front office did a poor job of explaining how MLS works to manager Ronny Deila—it’s as if he thought we had a 34-game preseason and didn’t need to worry about the results as much as workshopping the lineup. Only now are we playing to our abilities. Either that or Deila is good at developing players. Look at Tayvon Gray, the 19-year-old backup right-back and Bronx native: He started all three games in the playoffs, and he was a monster against Atlanta United and the New England Revolution in the playoffs, went toe-to-toe with some of the best attackers in the league. Gray and others are demonstrably better right now than at the start of the season.
STF: Taty Castellanos and Maxi Moralez are the big names in the attack. Who else is NYC going to be relying on to get goals on Saturday?
HRB: Attacking midfielder Santi Rodríguez was the best player on the field against Atlanta, then he went on to score the first goal against New England. He’s dangerous, and hungry, and quick. Jesús Medina is the strike partner of Castellanos, but nobody in the stands is really sure why. He works hard, but he’s not exactly what you’d call a technical player. To be fair, he had nine goals this season. If he was a little more clinical–if he could shoot straight–he might have had 15, maybe more. Still, you can’t count him out on Saturday.
Aside from Castellanos, Moralez, Rodríguez, and (ahem) Medina, Talles Magno might come off the bench, or Thiago, or Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and they all can score. Magno knocked in that winner against Philadelphia.
STF: Brazilian forward Heber had a breakout 2019 season and a solid 2020 season, but has been limited this year as he recovers from an ACL injury. He got the start in the Eastern Conference Final, but it seemed to be somewhat unexpected from the outside. So how much of a factor do you foresee him playing in the final?
HRB: I don’t think he’ll take the field in Portland over Magno, Thiago, or Tajouri-Shradi. It was a surprise to see him start the game against Philadelphia. He’s an excellent player, a classic No. 9, and I look forward to seeing him back at the top of the attack next year, but his injury was brutal and he’s still not sharp. I heard that he played well in a closed scrimmage against Philadelphia recently, which is why he was in the lineup Sunday.
STF: As is much talked about, NYCFC still plays at Yankee Stadium and has yet to find a permanent soccer-specific home. How much of a factor does that play in NYC’s influence and attention in and around New York? Is it something folks view as a legitimate barrier to the growth of the team or is it more of a weird quirk that people just kind of accept?
HRB: Ask any NYCFC supporter for the one issue the team needs to address and they will tell you: Build a stadium. In part it’s the awkward layout at Yankee Stadium, but then New Yorkers are accustomed to living in spaces others wouldn’t consider habitable—it’s perfectly normal to turn that little bump-out in the hallway into a second bedroom. Mostly it’s the inconvenience of sharing a home with a roommate who throws a party 81 times a year and you’re never invited.
Because of that, NYCFC’s schedule is a mess. Before COVID the team might have three home games in one week in the tropical heat of August. That’s a bit much for a season ticket holder, even if you’re all-in on NYCFC.
A soccer-specific stadium will not only give NYCFC a regulation-sized field with 90˚ corners, but it will also let the team sort out the calendar, which in turn will make it easier on both season ticket holders and casual fans.
(Ed. Note: Hudson River Blue recently ran a poll to gauge how badly NYCFC fans want a soccer-specific stadium, which you can check out here.)
STF: It’s NYCFC’s first appearance in the MLS Cup final—what’s the buzz like among the fans and in the city? Is the game drawing a lot of attention in the New York market or is the buzz mostly among the dedicated fanbase?
HRB: New York is tough. In the summer we have the Yankees and the Mets; right now we have the Giants, Jets, Knicks, Nets, and Rangers. The Devils are close by, as are the Islanders. It’s hard to grab the public’s attention when the area is stacked with so many established teams.
I’d say that the fanbase is the dedicated fanbase, and that’s good enough. NYCFC supporters are a diverse group that reflects the ethnicities, cultures, and social classes that make up this city. Go to a game and you’ll see a true cross-section of New York. You’ll also see a lot of families and children: Kids are thrilled to have professional soccer in the city, and you can see the seeds of future supporters germinating and taking root. This Saturday, should their team win its first MLS Cup, they’ll become NYCFC fans for life.
Make sure to check out my answers to Oliver Strand’s questions on Hudson River Blue here.