The first round of the MLS Cup playoffs is complete, and in this instance, the amount of sheer chaos was below the postseason's usual standard. That is at least until FC Dallas' Alan Velasco decided to clinch his side's penalty shootout win over Minnesota United FC with a Panenka that was just out of reach of Loons keeper Dayne St. Clair. That said, form largely held, as FC Cincinnati were the only lower-seeded team to prevail.
Granted, the conference semifinals, when the top seeds enter the bracket, is when the real havoc often takes place. And there are some mouthwatering matchups set to take occur later this week. But it's worth revisiting what went down throughout the past three days, especially with some young teams successfully navigating their playoff baptism.
Cincy march on as Red Bulls run in place
Another year, another first-round flameout for the New York Red Bulls, who still have never claimed MLS Cup. Granted, there have been more painful exits in recent years -- the blown 3-1 lead against Philadelphia in 2019 comes to mind -- but this one still hurt. Lewis Morgan's second-half opener appeared to put the Red Bulls in the driver's seat, only for Luciano Acosta to equalize from the spot.
Then came the sequence that doubled as a metaphor for the respective directions of the two teams. A transition opportunity began with Red Bulls defender Aaron Long seemingly well positioned to deal with any threat posed by Brandon Vazquez, only for a lapse in concentration by Long plus Vazquez's mobility proving to be enough to but the FCC forward in the clear to one-time Acosta's delivery past Carlos Coronel for the game-winner. Cincinnati are streaking into the next round, while the Red Bulls are running in place, at least when it comes to the postseason.
Now Cincy are poised for the ultimate apprentice vs. master matchup, which sees GM Chris Albright and manager Pat Noonan head to their old stomping ground in Philadelphia. Given the firepower of their frontline, an upset is certainly possible. Even if FCC don't pull that off, the team and organization are clearly headed in the right direction.
Galaxy midfield topples Nashville
The LA Galaxy's midfield has been a work in progress for much of the 2022 campaign, but the trio of Marky Delgado, Riqui Puig and Gaston Brugman played arguably its best game yet in the Galaxy's playoff win over Nashville. Not only did they help LA control possession, but they did their bit on the defensive end. Granted, it was a collective effort that held Nashville MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar to just one touch inside the Galaxy penalty area -- his fewest since a 2-0 defeat to FC Dallas in March -- but the midfield put in plenty of work in that regard. That allowed the Galaxy to simply wear down Nashville, finally breaking through on Julian Araujo's 60th-minute header. Now a playoff El Trafico against LAFC is up next for the Galaxy.
It's been said often how much Nashville's attack relies on Mukhtar, but the fact that the German contributed to 65% of NSC's goals can't be ignored. Nashville's best chance came early in the second half but Mukhtar's shot was saved by Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond. The Yotes didn't create much otherwise, and finding a complimentary piece to Mukhtar remains Nashville's biggest offseason priority.
Driussi's MVP campaign continues
Man bites xDAWG. Or maybe in this case, more than one man did the biting.
There was Austin FC's Sebastian Driussi scoring twice, including a cold-blooded penalty in second-half stoppage time to tie the match. Then there were the heroics of goalkeeper Brad Stuver, who saved two spot kicks in the penalty shootout, and watched a third fly over his goal to complete the Verde's comeback. Real Salt Lake bit themselves too, with Rubio Rubin's second-half red card proving to be a turning point that left RSL climbing Everest.
All of what transpired at Q2 Stadium proved the limits of the gritty style that has become the trademark of RSL and their Zen master manager, Pablo Mastroeni. It's an approach that won them plenty of games that they otherwise shouldn't, hence the term "xDAWG." With new ownership now firmly ensconced, perhaps now some real momentum can be achieved and give Mastroeni a few more assets with which to work.
As for Austin, the match marked the fourth time this season they had come back from two goals down to win. That's not a habit that manager Josh Wolff is eager to see continue, but it helps when you have a designated player like Driussi on your team. The Argentine upped his tally this season to 23 goals, proving that while spending money on a DP is no guarantee of success, if you spend it on the right player, it can have a massive impact.
Montreal continue to get the job done
Montreal have done a pretty fair job of flying under the radar this season. Some of that is down to the fact the team resides north of the border. Other teams in the league -- read: LAFC and Philadelphia -- certainly received more attention as it related to the Supporters' Shield race, but there is also Montreal's no-nonsense, workmanlike approach. There isn't a lot of flash to CFM, even though they scored 63 goals this season.
So no real surprise then that Montreal took care of business in defeating Orlando 2-0, a win that showed off the Quebecois' ability and composure in the face of some aggressive play. The breakthrough witnessed a gorgeous team goal involving Kei Kamara and Djordje Mihailovic with Ismael Kone providing the finish.
There are still some aspects of Montreal's play that they'll need to clean up. Orlando had some clear chances, especially in the first half, but CFM made the plays they needed to, just as they have all season.
Higuain's career ends in Miami 'mare
Ever since Ronny Deila left NYCFC in mid-June to become manager of Standard Liege, it's been tough to gauge which Pigeons team would show up on any given day. A four-game winless streak was followed by a four-game winning streak followed by another four-game winless streak.
Fortunately for the Blues, they found a winning formula in dispatching Inter Miami CF 3-0. They did so with the help of 22-year-old midfielder Santiago Rodriguez, who had two assists, including a sumptuous backheel to set up Maxi Moralez's goal. This was nothing new of course, as Rodriguez ended the regular season with 13 helpers, good enough for sixth in the league. (His loan from Montevideo City is over at the end of the season. NYCFC fans will be hoping to see him again next season.)
The Bronx club were aided by the fact that Miami picked the absolute worst time to play their worst game since a humbling 5-1 defeat to Austin in Week 2. The defending was abysmal, and it was a miracle the Herons made it to halftime without conceding.
It proved a disappointing end to Gonzalo Higuain's career, on a converted baseball field no less. The Argentine thought he had opened the scoring in the first half, only to be whistled for offside. That was about as good as it got, for both team and player. Still, Miami have made big strides this season under difficult circumstances. The chance to grow next season is there.
St. Clair's heroics can't save Loons in Dallas
St. Clair is going to be seeing Panenkas in his sleep, and like a modern day Tantalus, those penalty attempts will forever be just beyond his reach as they settle into the net.
The final match of Round One went to a penalty shootout, and two Dallas shooters -- Velasco and Franco Jara -- opted for the deft chip, and both times St. Clair just missed keeping them out. He even got a foot to Jara's attempt, but to no avail. Dallas ended up converting all five of their attempts and are progressing to the conference semifinals.
St. Clair didn't do much else wrong on the night, keeping the Loons in the match to the tune of eight saves. But for the third year running, Minnesota couldn't make a lead in a road playoff game stand up.
Dallas, meanwhile, burnished their reputation as a team on the rise, replete with their attacking trio of Velasco, Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola. They controlled most of the match as well, and proved they could take a punch in the form of Minnesota's goal by Emanuel Reynoso and responded with a goal of their own by Facundo Quignon. Now an all-Texas matchup with Austin FC awaits.