NYCFC's skid to the playoffs puts it in precarious position on Decision Day
Well, that went south quickly.
Going in to the weekend, New York City FC had its destiny in its own hands. It still does, but only just.
An awkward but winnable game against Eastern Conference also-rans New England Revolution turned into a 10-man, 2-1 loss. Now NYCFC must face a surging Columbus Crew SC team at "home" (more on that later) on the final day, knowing that it will probably need a win to hold onto an automatic bye to the conference semifinals.
Slip up, and the team could be playing who-knows-where in midweek, possibly against the suddenly dangerous-looking crosstown rivals New York Red Bulls.
There's a lot to unpack here for NYCFC, who may not have experienced the spectacular fall from grace of FC Dallas, or even the more modest slump of the Red Bulls in the wake of Daniel Royer's injury, but who nonetheless look to be skidding rather than building into the playoffs.
Let's start with Sunday's game, which turned on the two-footed lunge by Jack Harrison on Teal Bunbury that saw the young Englishman receive his first career red card. Argue all you want about him not being "that kind of player" or the idea that the referee could have taken into account the turf at Gillette Stadium, the fact is that Harrison left his feet, endangered his opponent and will sit out the final game of the season.
In his absence, NYCFC lost its way against a team of players who'd just lost their long-term coach and who'd experienced another season of indifference. Yes, the players may have been playing for their jobs, but so were Philadelphia's, and after a brief scare, New York's playoff rival Chicago had enough to see them off.
New York fought to get a goal back in stoppage time on Sunday, but even that pointed to another alarming trend for the team: The goals have dried up at just the wrong time. Since beating the Revs on Aug. 20, the team has not managed more than a single goal in any one game. And now with margins wafer-thin between NYCFC and the teams below it, a loss against Columbus would open the door for an Atlanta home win against Toronto -- or even a Chicago tie in Houston to push New York out of the automatic spots on tiebreakers.
That's not an easy ask for Atlanta, of course, or for Chicago, on the road to a Houston Dynamo team that's built its season on home form and still has its own playoff spot to play for. But in the latter scenario, you'd rather be the team going into the final week on the back of a game featuring a hat trick from its leading goal scorer than the team wondering when the goals will start flowing again.
And where they'll be scored; NYCFC's ongoing stadium situation and the New York Yankees' postseason run means that City will play its final home game at CitiField on Sunday, and if the team does slip up, it faces a real potential crisis in hosting a play-in game if the Yankees rally against the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series. Presumably Red Bull Arena is available, of course ...
Yet, even if the scheduling works out fine, Yankee Stadium itself is hardly a comforting playoff home. NYCFC will be hoping for some catharsis after the trauma of last season's pounding by Toronto in the stadium's first ever playoff game, but the preferred plan would not be to be seeking that catharsis in a one-off midweek play-in game that the team had stumbled into.
There are big-picture positives. NYCFC has exponentially improved in each year of its existence. David Villa continues to build his foundational legend for the team. And NYCFC's cultural footprint within its home city is as healthy as could be expected without a permanent home, and of course there's been the boost of winning the season series against the Red Bulls.
But it's the nature of MLS that teams might get soberly judged on regular-season performances, but they are popularly remembered for their playoff performances. It's been a great season for New York City FC, but it could be over much sooner than anticipated if the team doesn't wake up before the weekend. The playoffs start now.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.