New York City boss Ronny Deila says his team are ready to rip up the form book once more when they take on the Portland Timbers in Oregon on Saturday looking to claim the club’s first Major League Soccer crown.
After an Eastern Conference playoff run which included away victories over the top-seeded New England Revolution and second-seeded Philadelphia Union, Deila is plotting another upset on the road against a Timbers team targeting a second MLS Cup title.
“What we have done so far has been just amazing,” said Deila. “But the biggest one is coming on Saturday and we’ll do everything to win there.”
The 46-year-old Norwegian coach, who guided Celtic to back-to-back Scottish titles in 2015 and 2016, says City’s giant-killing playoff run is sign of his team’s increasing maturity.
“We haven’t dealt with the pressure before, and now we’re starting to do that,” said Deila.
“I think the learning for the whole club to win football games and how to deal with that and how to win them when the pressure is up, that’s something you have to learn over time.”
Victory over Portland on Saturday would mark a major milestone for City, who joined MLS in 2015 as the league’s 20th expansion team amid much fanfare.
Part of the global City Football Group headed by English champions Manchester City, the early years of the New York franchise were loaded with expectations, which for the most part remained unfulfilled.
Star names such as Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa helped the club gain a foothold in the league, but were ultimately unable to deliver any silverware.
In recent seasons however the club’s recruitment strategy has pivoted towards younger, up-and-coming talent — either homegrown or from overseas — enabling Deila to build a hungry squad now just 90 minutes away from a first MLS championship.
Defensive midfielder James Sands, a 21-year-old product of City’s academy, embodies the club’s new spirit.
“I’ve seen this team have such a tough go of it in playoffs,” Sands said after last week’s victory over the Union in Philadelphia which sealed the Eastern Conference crown.
“I remember previous years in the playoffs losing to Columbus, losing to Toronto, losing to Orlando – all such heartbreaking games.
“To finally get over that hurdle means a lot and it means a lot for everybody, but especially the guys who have been on the team a couple years and have gone through it.”
City goalkeeper Sean Johnson says a win on Saturday would mark the culmination of what he describes as “an unbelievable commitment to success.”
“It’s taken a little bit but the guys have been committed to making sure that we achieve something,” Johnson said.
City face a Timbers side steeped in history which dates back to their earliest incarnation as a member of the North American Soccer League between 1975 and 1982.
Since their rebirth as a Major League Soccer expansion team in 2011, the club has won one MLS Cup, in 2015, and reached the final three years ago, where they finished runners-up to Atlanta United.
Under head coach Giovanni Savarese, the Timbers have reached the playoffs four years running. This season’s playoff run included an upset win over Colorado in the Western Conference semi-finals, before Real Salt Lake were vanquished at home last weekend.
“To be able to host MLS Cup, it is a dream come to reality,” Savarese said. “This team works so hard, the players, the staff, everyone, on a difficult season,” the Venezuelan added.
“The guys were able to turn things around and we host this game here. It was something that we wanted to have and it became a reality.”