– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — If the opening goal of the 2018 Major League Soccer Cup Playoffs ends up as a harbinger for the next three weeks of postseason soccer, then all fans are in for more treats than any child’s jack-o-lantern bucket on this Halloween night.
New York City striker Ismael Tajouri-Shradi shook the stands of Yankee Stadium with a stunning goal on a left-footed volley from distance, the opening salvo in the team’s 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union in the one-game knockout round in the Eastern Conference of the MLS Playoffs. Fellow striker David Villa and midfielder Maxi Moralez also scored for New York as it defeated Philadelphia for the second time in a four-day span and advanced in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
The win also comes at a time when NYCFC, slowed down in the latter part of the summer by injuries to key players, has been able to call upon a full roster for the past few games.
“Maybe it is our best moment because we recover many players,” said New York City head coach Domènec Torrent. “We play much better here, but right now, we have 23 players. That means we can decide to play this player or the other and play in one way or another way. They are in top form, and it’s good news for us.”
Any nerves going in about having to beat the same team twice in quick succession were allayed in the 10th minute after one of those players just coming back from injury, defensive midfielder Yangel Herrera, stole a pass just inside of Philadelphia’s half of the field. From there, Moralez played a long ball up the middle for Villa, who let the ball run to a streaking Tajouri-Shradi, who then unleashed a first-time volley with his left foot that sailed past a diving Andre Blake and into the Union goal to give NYCFC a reward for their early dominance of possession.
“Maxi had the ball then he lofted the ball and did a great pass, and I started running in the space,” Tajouri-Shradi said. “Villa did a little touch of the ball to me, he knew the runners were going towards him and it was a great combination. The first shot I tried to shoot, then I thought for the second shot I had to do it directly and it was a great goal.”
Tajouri-Shradi came on as a substitute in the win on Sunday and played just five minutes, but Torrent saw something in Philadelphia’s shape on that day that made made him believe a switch up front might be more fruitful for his club in tonight’s contest.
“I decided to play with Ismael because, last game, [Philadelphia] defended high and we can take advantage when they decided to play high,” Torrent said.
In the 26th minute, Villa went from provider to goal scorer, as he also took a pass from Moralez and ran in on goal before a shot with his weaker right foot beat Blake to his far post to double NYCFC’s lead.
“I think obviously we are more focused right now and it’s not a secret that in the last month of the regular season, we did pretty bad. We had lost many important players,” Villa said. “But after that, we refocused and we believed in the players, which is really, really important. And we are happy. We are happy because of the way we played today.”
Moralez, who missed NYCFC’s game two weeks ago at DC United because of an injury sustained in training, sealed the win with an elaborate chip over an onrushing Blake in the 78th minute for a 3-0 cushion.
Philadelphia, now 0-4 all-time in playoff games, got a consolation in the 83rd minute after Cory Burke tapped in from close range after a slaloming run by substitute Ilsinho in which he eluded two NYCFC defenders before his cross to Burke.
“We did a lot of great things this season, but in the big game against the team that is of the quality of NYCFC, we were a little naive and young and our transition defense and the quality of players punished us,” said Union coach Jim Curtin. “That’s the reality of things, but again, full credit to my players. I’m proud of the season they had sticking together.”
New York City will once again be at home on Sunday, starting their two-legged tie against No. 2 seed Atlanta United.