By Mike Rice.
The regular season came to an exhilarating end on Decision Day, and the MLS Cup Playoffs continued in the same exciting fashion.
As the pressure built, each team knew victory would progress them to the semi-finals, while defeat ended their seasons. This pressure was felt in the stands and on the pitch and once again did not disappoint MLS viewers.
New York Red Bulls 1-2 FC Cincinnati
A tight first half saw the Red Bulls edging the game, but the two teams went into the break level at 0-0. A sensational strike from Lewis Morgan, so often the instigator of Red Bull’s good work in the first half, gave the home side the lead after three minutes of the second half.
What we learnt next was that FC Cincinnati are not here for the ride, they are here to compete and are full of belief. The first half showed spirit but at times a lack of composure, this setback seemed to spur them on.
On the hour, a shot from outside the box from Junior Moreno was deflected in past Carlos Coronel in the Red Bulls goal but was ruled out by VAR for offside.
They continued to fight though and were rewarded with a penalty after Dylan Nealis tripped Alvaro Barreal. Luciano Acosta sent Coronel the wrong way to tie the game level in the 73rd minute.
As time ticked by, Brandon Vazquez clinched victory for the Ohio side making their first appearance in the MLS Cup Playoffs, slotting in from close range in the 86th minute. Roman Celentano saved his side on a few occasions as Red Bulls pushed for the equaliser, but they stood firm and Cincinnati progressed.
After finishing dead last in their first three seasons as an MLS team, Cincinnati now have the Eastern Conference winners Philadelphia Union to take on in the net round. A tough task, but they seem to fear no one.
LA Galaxy 1-0 Nashville SC
The first goal in this game was always going to be vital. There is little original to say about Nashville this season, relying so heavily on Hany Mukhtar to provide the attacking spark. If they could have gotten ahead, they would likely have relied upon their defence to see the game through.
Unfortunately for Nashville, it was LA Galaxy who always looked the most likely to score. Chicharito had a goal ruled out for a foul in the build-up after five minutes into the second half.
Julian Araujo scored the header to give his side the victory on the hour. Greg Vanney’s side mostly kept Mukhtar quiet but knows that their defence will face much sterner tests in upcoming games.
We now have an ‘El Trafico’ to look forward to — a Los Angeles derby to decide who progresses to the Western Conference Final.
Austin FC 2-2 Real Salt Lake (3-1 on pens)
Such an incredible start to the game turned to frustration for RSL fans. Sergio Cordova had his side 2-0 up after 15 minutes, scoring once from a cross from Andrew Brody before scoring a penalty.
RSL have never been a side to outscore teams so this opening to the game was just what they needed. A strong defence could carry them through, but what on earth was Rubio Rubin thinking?
Sebastian Driussi had halved RSL’s lead, heading in a cross from Diego Fagundez after 31 minutes, and RSL needed to start the second half in control. Rubin had other ideas and slid in when clearly the second favourite to win the ball before Austin FC goalkeeper Brad Stuber. On a yellow already, he saw red just six minutes into the second half.
RSL battled and showed their defensive qualities, but the attacks didn’t stop and eventually, for Austin fans, their team won a penalty in the 92nd minute of the game. Who else but Driussi stepped up, and predictably converted.
Driussi thought he had the winner and his hat trick in extra time but it was ruled out for offside. The match eventually went to penalties and after scoring their first, RSL missed their next three. They had worked so hard but rued the red card which changed the game completely. Austin progress in their first playoff appearance.
CF Montreal 2-0 Orlando City
The Canadian side, led by the head coach of the year nominee Wilfried Nancy, continue their strong form.
Denied two penalties by VAR in the first half, Montreal then thanked poor finishing from their opponents after Orlando City threatened with some good chances to take the lead.
Highly rated Ismael Kone opened the scoring in the second half. The dynamic Canadian central midfielder, found well by Djordje Mihailovic after finding space behind Antonio Carlos.
Mihailovic who will be moving to AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivise after this season scored the second to seal the win from the spot late into stoppage time.
Montreal progress and looking strong in their challenge for the MLS Cup.
Well worth checking the highlights for Antonio Carlos’s back-heeled clearance from a Montreal cross in the ninth minute.
New York City FC 3-0 Inter Miami
Inter Miami started brightly, testing Sean Johnston early, but the game got away from the somewhat and their goal led a very charmed life in the first half.
A bizarre passage of play saw them clear the ball of their own post and crossbar in attempts to stop NYCFC from taking the lead.
But the home team asserted their dominance in the second half. Poor defending awarded the opener before one of the best MLS team goals to ever be scored was finished off by Maxi Moralez. Heber finished off the scoring after a wayward back pass in stoppage time, though the game had been won for some time prior to it.
Nick Cushing had been coming under a lot of pressure since taking over for Ronny Delia at NYCFC, but his side are starting to find their best form at the right time. Could he now be leading his side to retain the MLS Cup?
It was also Gonzalo Higuain’s last professional game; outclassed by a superior side on a baseball field. His legacy will go down as one of Argentina’s greatest strikers, amongst a list of incredible names.
He has suggested he will be back in football, considering a career as a mental health coach. Congratulations Gonzalo on a fantastic career.
FC Dallas 1-1 Minnesota United (5-4 on pens)
The final game of the first round saw the home side progress. FC Dallas had to come from behind as Minnesota took the lead through their star player Emmanuel Reynoso early in the second half. Some good play from Bongokuhle Hlongwane created the chance for Reynoso to fir in from outside the box.
FC Dallas’s electric attack can only be held off for so long. They pressured Minnesota and found the equaliser 10 minutes later, centre-back Joshué Quiñónez heading in from a corner.
Reynoso thought he had retaken the lead minutes later, but his goal was ruled off-side.
Early in the second half of extra time, Jesus Ferreira should have given his side the lead, scuffing a shot when the ball arrived quickly at his feet, Dayne St Clair doing so well in goal for Minnesota throughout this game once again.
Alan Velasco scored the game-winner on penalties, something which the team had been practising in the build-up to this game. An audacious Panenka with so much pressure on him to score the fifth and final penalty. Confidence oozed and class was displayed, an exciting talent who will be a huge part of Dallas’s challenge for the MLS Cup.
Thursday 20th October:
Philadelphia Union v FC Cincinnati
LAFC v LA Galaxy
Sunday 23rd October
CF Montreal v NYCFC
Austin FC v FC Dallas