In a wild first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs, there were upsets, three matches decided in shootouts and a flurry of young players cropping up in big moments.
The action saw Philadelphia Union — owners of the Supporters’ Shield, given to the team with the best regular-season record — get knocked out early. Toronto FC, which featured in the final last season, also lost its first-round fixture.
That opens the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture, although the Western Conference’s No. 1 and 2 seeds are still in play.
While many of the leagues around the world don’t employ a playoff system unless it’s used to decide relegation and promotion candidates, MLS follows the distinctly American tradition of necessary playoff madness.
The first-round fireworks set the stage for compelling matchups in each of the four conference semifinal games, beginning Sunday. But it’s worth looking back at how this came to be.
Toronto is an MLS Cup juggernaut; the squad has featured in the championship match three times since 2019 and won the contest in 2017. But facing Nashville SC on Tuesday night, an expansion team in its first season in MLS, the heavy favorites fell.
Nashville, the No. 7 seed, created chance after chance, outshooting Toronto 21-10. It took until the 108th minute, however, for the extra-time winner to find the back of the net. That’s when Daniel Rios wiggled his way through a crop of defenders, firing home a goal to lift his side to an upset.
And for the New England Revolution, a pair of goals within five minutes of each other helped topple Toronto, the No. 1 seed.
“In pro sports, in one-off games, you can get beat. This can happen. This happens all over the world,” Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin said. “You can be on the wrong end of a result. But when you do lose, you wanted to be having given your best. And tonight, for whatever reason, we weren’t ourselves.”
When it comes down to penalty kicks in an elimination game, the pressure — and the excitement — kicks up a notch. Three matches in the first round went to shootouts, with FC Dallas dispatching the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City edging the San Jose Earthquakes.
But the most intriguing of the shootings came between Orlando City and New York City FC.
Penalty kick madness. 👀 pic.twitter.com/avYiLD2LhH— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 21, 2020
With Orlando leading the penalties 4-3, needing one save to seal the win, Pedro Gallese dove to his right and made the save. Celebrations ensued, but referee Allen Chapman made his way into the mix. He deemed Gallese left his line early to make the save, resulting in the goalkeeper’s second yellow card — leaving Orlando without a goalkeeper.
Enter Rodrigo Schlegel, a defender who took over between the posts.
Schlegel made a save a few kicks later when needed, though, ensuring the red card for Gallese wouldn’t doom Orlando.
The youth movement in MLS is real. And it was on full display during round one games, with three teenagers scoring for their teams: Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls) and Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City).
Pepi and Clark are 17 while Busio is 18. Those three became the youngest players to score in the playoffs since Jozy Altidore in 2006, when he was 16.
Clark has come on strong since joining the Red Bulls in October, with two goals in seven regular season matches. He buried a shot early in New York’s 3-2 loss to the Columbus Crew.
And for Pepi, with Dallas minutes away from elimination, broke through Portland’s back line. The 17-year-old’s first attempt ricocheted off the post, but Pepi fired a first-time finish to level the game at 1-1. His side would go on to beat the Timbers in shootouts.
Busio scored what looked to be the game-winning goal, handing his team a 3-2 edge in stoppage time before Kansas City squandered the lead late. The 18-year-old’s goal was set up by a back-heel pass from Khiry Shelton, and Busio made no mistake, slotting the ball home.
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