PHILADELPHIA - Sean Johnson high-stepped his way up the stairs at the back of a makeshift stage as his New York City FC teammates parted to let the standout goalie slide through the gap.
He crouched and then burst straight up with the MLS Eastern Conference championship trophy as New York danced and shook the floor with good reason — a shot at its first championship is on deck.
Talles Magno scored in the 88th minute to send New York into the MLS Cup final with a 2-1 win over the COVID-19-restriction-ravaged Philadelphia Union on Sunday.
New York will play at the Portland Timbers on Saturday for the MLS Cup.
Gudi Thórarinsson stripped the ball from Union defender Olivier Mbaizo and fed it to Magno for the decisive goal. Magno cupped his ear as he ran off the field after putting the ball past Matt Freese. New York players mobbed each other and saluted a couple hundred fans that made the trip as Union players sat stunned on the field.
The Union were rocked days before the biggest game in their 11-year history when 11 players were ruled out of the game because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Philadelphia was also seeking to reach its first MLS Cup final.
"You have 11 players that I feel awful for that had to sit at home completely healthy and watch this game," coach Jim Curtin said.
The Union were unable to practice on Thursday because of the league’s protocols. They resumed training on Friday. Curtin said during the regular season that all Union players had been vaccinated. The individual players may not have tested positive for the coronavirus, but may have come into contact with someone with a suspected case.
Curtin questioned if MLS' protocols should be "adjusted and updated for common sense" to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. Curtin said most of the 11 players sat out because "they had some version of the sniffles."
"If you give us back those 11 players, I think we can beat anybody," he said.
The list included Alejandro Bedoya and defender Jack Elliott, who scored on a penalty kick in the East semifinal. The loss of goalie Andre Blake was particularly crushing. The two-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and had 12 shutouts this season (11 wins, one draw), making 76 saves and posting a 0.96 goals-against average in the regular season. He stopped two penalty kicks against Nashville to lift the Union into the conference final and was carried off the pitch by his teammates.
Like that, the moment was over.
Kacper Przybylko got credit for the Union’s first goal when New York defender Alex Callens tried to break up a pass and sent the ball past Johnson for an own goal late in the second half. The celebration was muted less than 90 seconds later. Max Moralez kicked it past Freese to make it 1-all.
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Freese, the 23-year-old former Union youth academy member who played at Harvard, kept the game tied late in the second half with a one-handed stop of Callens' header.
New York played without Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos (19 goals) because he got two yellow cards in the upset win against the top-seeded New England Revolution.
He'll be back for the MLS Cup final against a Timbers team that has allowed two goals over a six-game winning streak. The Timbers won the MLS Cup in 2015 and lost in the 2018 final.
Under Curtin, the Union have grown into one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and last season clinched their first Supporters’ Shield trophy — awarded to the MLS team with the best regular-season record. Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant thought enough of the Union’s potential to buy a small stake in the team.
Led by the rabid supporters group "Sons of Ben," the final sold out within 24 hours and standing-room only tickets soared past $200 on the secondary market. A record 19,487 fans packed the stadium along the Delaware River waterfront — at least a couple of brave fans went shirtless on the cold December day — but NYCFC was happy to crash the party.
And it kept the party going long enough for the hooting and hollering to seep into Curtin's news conference.
"We’re next to the New York City oil money locker room," he said.