PORTLAND, Ore. — Ronny Deila is a man of his word.
Minutes after New York City FC had claimed its first MLS Cup, beating the Portland Timbers via penalties, there was Deila, the coach stripping down to his underwear in front of the team’s fans and doing pushups on the Providence Park turf.
This wasn’t the first time that the Deila had performed such a stunt. In 2009, he promised the supporters of the team he managed at the time, Norwegian side Stromsgodset, that he would strip off his clothes if they managed to avoid relegation. When his side avoided the drop, he kept his vow.
Upon taking over NYCFC ahead of the 2020 campaign, he told ESPN that he would engage in a repeat performance if his side won MLS Cup. But when he was reminded this week of his pledge, he seemed a bit reticent.
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said on Thursday. “As you start to get older, that isn’t so fun anymore. But at the same time, a word is a word. First, we have to win. That’s the most important thing.”
With the team’s first trophy secure, Deila kept his promise once again, although it took some encouragement from the NYCFC fans.
So which was better: stripping down when avoiding relegation or when your team wins a title?
“Of course the last one,” he said after the match, although he noted the win in 2009 was important as well. “You have to celebrate victories and that one today was a big victory. I said maybe too much when I got hired here, but I don’t regret that. It was a big moment. I will do that again if we keep winning trophies.”
Deila is a coach that has long been associated with “heavy metal football,” that of aggressive pressing and quick passing. Small wonder, then, that his NYCFC side showed plenty of steel in prevailing over the Timbers.
The Blues certainly proved that they can take a haymaker of a punch. Or in this case, an elbow. New York was seconds away from securing the win in normal time, having ridden Valentin Castellanos’ first-half header and some stellar defending throughout. But in stoppage time, a goalmouth scramble ensued in which Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala appeared to foul New York counterpart Maxime Chanot with an elbow as he tried to keep the play alive. The ball fell to Felipe Mora, who lashed the ball home with virtually the last kick of the second half.
It was a goal that had the look of an utterly soul-crushing moment for the team from the Bronx. The home crowd at Providence Park, frustrated all day at what had transpired, exploded in joy. Chanot was livid at the non-call, imploring referee Armando Villarreal to ask VAR for a look, to no avail. It seemed unlikely that New York would hang on. How could the Blues possibly regain their composure? Even the first half of extra-time saw the Cityzens look a bit shellshocked.
“In the first moment, it’s devastating,” said midfielder Alfredo Morales. “But that’s how it is. You have to get back up, stick together, breathe, be calm and just do your job.”
It helped that this wasn’t the first time that NYCFC had conceded a late equalizer during the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New England Revolution, the Blues surrendered a goal late only to prevail on penalties. As Saturday’s scenario played out, New York drew on that experience, and despite giving up some clear looks at goal in extra-time, NYCFC managed to get the match to the shootout.
“I just wanted to make sure that we stay level,” said goalkeeper Sean Johnson. “We’ve been in that position before. I told the guys, we have the experience not to panic, not to get down on ourselves, because there’s more of an opportunity to go forward and win the game.”
In that moment, the most composed man of all was Johnson. The NYCFC keeper just about sucked all the drama out of the shootout, saving Portland’s first two attempts, and leaving it to defender Alexander Callens to blast home the winner, at which point the cup headed to the Bronx.
“So many ups, so many downs,” said Johnson as he reflected on the game — and the season. “And we just talked amongst ourselves before the game and just said, ‘It’s a massive opportunity to make it all worth it.’ And this is what we live for, these moments to be the MVP of the finals. It means the world but it means so much more to lift the cup for this club.”
It was a day when numerous players stepped up. Chanot and Callens were near-immaculate in the back. Castellanos returned to the lineup and delivered a goal and a penalty in the shootout. James Sands and Morales were sharp in midfield.
But Johnson is among the players to reflect Deila’s steely mentality. This is a keeper who has endured some excruciating moments during his career, including conceding a last-second goal to El Salvador that eliminated the U.S. U23 team from qualifying for the 2012 Olympics. He endured some lean years in Chicago as well, and when he was traded to New York ahead of the 2017 season, it was unclear in what direction his career would go. But Johnson has steadily raised his game, been given more responsibility. On Saturday, he captained the side and walked away with the MVP award.
“The way he has stepped up the last two months has been absolutely unbelievable,” Deila said of Johnson. “And for me, he’s the big, big winner. He wins us this game in the end.
“The way he speaks to the team, the way he goes in front every day in training, bringing people together, and also when the big moment is coming, how he is the standout time after time. He’s a winner, a real winner, and he’s a leader. He’s a captain that the whole club should be really, really proud of.”
Deila has shown his own level of self-belief since arriving in New York. It’s easy to forget that his coaching career had plateaued when he first joined. His stint at Scottish giants Celtic was viewed as a disappointment, despite winning two titles. The same vibes surrounded his return to Norway with Valerenga. But he has helmed a side in New York that has shown steady improvement, and now after winning a title, he finds himself on the upswing again.
“In the end, if you keep believing, keep working hard and improve, you get what you deserve in the end,” said Deila. “And this team, what they have done, they deserve to win MLS this year, and they did it. I’m unbelievably proud and grateful to be a part of it.”
That includes the celebration.