‘MLS is Back’ crown could be defining moment for NYCFC

Winning is not an inherent trait. It’s learned over time.

And this MLS is Back Tournament can be a pretty good lesson for NYCFC.

In the franchise’s sixth season, the club has yet to have its defining moment. It’s been defined by its inability to advance in the playoffs.

Now, after its 3-1 dismantling of Toronto FC on Sunday night, the club is three games from its first piece of silverware. These are the types of small victories that build a winning culture over time.

Winning the MLS is Back tournament won’t erase NYCFC’s four straight conference semifinal exits. It won’t even guarantee they’ll do better this time around in the postseason.

But for a club with high playoff expectations — and relatively low playoff experience — this tournament could prove to be a valuable crash course in the art of tournament play.

New York City fell short of playoff expectations last season (after earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference), but it’s not surprising that a club still in its infancy has fallen short in big moments. Especially one that is now on its fourth head coach in six seasons.

Before Spain won three trophies in four years, it was a perennial World Cup quarterfinal pushover. The Spurs’ first NBA championship set off a run of five titles in 15 years. The Patriots were not the Patriots until Tom Brady and Bill Bellichick got them over the hump.

No one will confuse a trophy in this impromptu Orlando tournament for an MLS Cup, but an improbable title run — after barely sneaking out of the group stages — would be a foundational moment for NYCFC.

Leaving Orlando as “MLS is Back” champions (it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) would erase the trophy-less cloud over the club, which in fairness has had a pretty good start to life in MLS as an expansion team.

New York City FC midfielder Maximiliano Moralez
New York City FC midfielder Maximiliano Moralez is hoisted up by forward Heber after scoring the team’s third goal in a 3-1 win vs. Toronto FC this week.AP

“I think we’ve been really, really close, and we would’ve liked to have a run deeper than we have had before now,” sporting director David Lee told The Post back in March. “But we’ve got a squad that’s absolutely capable of that this year.”

It’s a bit poetic that the club advanced at the expense of old foes Toronto, who spoiled New York City’s club-record season last year in the conference semis. Before that, Toronto thrashed NYCFC 7-0 over two games in the club’s first postseason appearance in 2016.

New York City looked far more comfortable as they controlled the action on Sunday. The performance was easily the most complete in MLS under new head coach Ronny Deila. The passing was more incisive and the finishing was more confident.

This was an important performance for the short and long term.

Saturday’s quarterfinal vs. Portland is not only an opportunity to advance, but possibly a chance to spur the club to future success.

In years’ time, if NYCFC have become the North American superpower they aspired to be, we may look back on this balmy, makeshift competition as where the gears started turning.

Success breeds more success.

Red Bulls’ early exit

While NYCFC managed to sneak out of the tournament’s group stages with just three points, the Red Bulls were left behind after finishing with the same tally.

A spirited 1-0 win vs. Atlanta United in their tournament opener was followed by consecutive 2-0 losses, bumping them out of one of the four third-place knockout spots that NYCFC eventually occupied.

Chris Armas’ team ran hard in Orlando, but often lacked the cutting edge to create and finish off chances in the final third. Since its 3-2 opening weekend victory against FC Cincinnati, the club has failed to score multiple goals in any league game.

This column touched on the Red Bulls’ scoring woes last week — it’s possible Kaku’s role on the left so far is not helping, though the club has also struggled with production at striker since Bradley Wright Phillips’ 20-goal season in 2018 (he started just nine games last season).

The Red Bulls now await the conclusion of the tournament in Orlando, and Armas would do well to return with a new perspective on the team’s floundering offense.