It's been a norm-shattering 2020, but there's at least one constant that remains untouched. The MLS playoffs continue to boast their own unique brand of outrageousness.
First, a caveat: Everything that's happened this season and that will happen in the coming weeks comes amid the backdrop of these extraordinary times. It's hard to use usual rubrics to judge clubs and performances considering all of the variables, and a bigger benefit of the doubt should go to clubs whose performances have been sub-standard. Everyone is dealing with some sort of adversity, and some are either better-equipped to handle it or not as stricken. That's not to give a blanket mulligan or to absolve all accountability, either, but it's a contextual piece of the puzzle.
Nevertheless, single-elimination playoffs have always brought out the greatest sense of urgency in clubs, and Friday's first play-in game perhaps foreshadowed what was to come, as Gustavo Bou's 95th-minute winner kept the New England Revolution alive and sent the Montreal Impact home. Beyond that, there were two historic penalty shootouts; a too-little-too-late New York Red Bulls comeback that came up agonizingly short (a shocker, that); and the Sunday nightcap, when FC Dallas 17-year-old Ricardo Pepi scored in stoppage time to force extra time in Portland, where the weekend fittingly ended in a third set of PKs–won by Dallas after a streak of 15 straight conversions was snapped by Jimmy Maurer's save on Jorge Villafaña.
The aura around the proceedings has not been too dissimilar to what occurred at the MLS Is Back bubble tournament over the summer. The days leading up to the competition and even the start of it were marred by test results and a feeling of general uneasiness. They ultimately gave way to a virus-free environment, a host of entertaining matches and some of the zaniness that is quintessentially MLS.
Given that teams are in home markets (and some playing in front of fans), virus statistics are surging again throughout the country and a host of players just returned from international duty, remaining virus-free (or to enough of a degree that there are no complications) is tough to envision. But as the league holds its collective breath that it can make it through to MLS Cup, the entertainment value remains high.
The conference quarterfinals conclude with Tuesday's triple-header, but there's been plenty of drama and intrigue to suffice in the meantime. Here's what has stood out the most:
The craziest shootout ever
Orlando City's eventual triumph over NYCFC was crazy enough as is. Then you consider that it was the Lions' first playoff game ever. It'll be hard to top the emotions that came along with that.
There are still tremors being felt from the wildest shootout in MLS playoff history, nearly 22 minutes of madness from which Orlando prevailed, 6-5, following a 1-1 draw on Saturday. It supplanted the Portland-Sporting Kansas City shootout in 2015 for shock value, and that one was decided by goalkeepers taking spot kicks all after one kick that would have eliminated the eventual league champion hit both posts without crossing the goal line.
The officials who correctly abided by the Laws of the Game–albeit in a manner that was anything but straightforward–won't work another game in the playoffs as a result of what transpired. And what transpired was nuts:
- Pedro Gallese, Orlando's starting goalkeeper, thinking he'd secured the win in the fifth round, only to be caught by VAR for having his foot just off the line before the shot was taken, which is an automatic yellow card violation. He was already on a yellow, so he was sent off on the technicality.
- Oscar Pareja, Orlando's manager, streaking down the tunnel in celebration before the review and needing to be called back to the field, where he would learn of the prematureness of his victory run.
- Brian Rowe, Orlando's backup goalkeeper, thinking he could enter as a substitute, only for rules to stipulate that only players who were on the field at the end of extra time can be replacements in goal for shootouts.
- Nani, the club's heartbeat, taking the kick that still could have won the shootout in the normal amount of kicks, yet having his effort turned away by Sean Johnson. It was a clear emotional momentum swing in NYCFC's favor given that Orlando didn't have a proper goalkeeper.
- Rodrigo Schlegel, the defender-turned-hero, donning a goalkeeper jersey and saving Gudmundur Thorarinsson's penalty, only for Orlando to think it had won–when it had not yet done so.
- Benji Michel delivering, at last, a victory and advancement for the Lions that they thought they'd had over 20 minutes prior.
Now Orlando will face either top-seed Philadelphia or the eighth-seed Revolution in the conference semifinals. Given that Gallese's sending-off was by the book, it's hard to see it being overturned on appeal, meaning Rowe will (legally) be in net. It's still preferable to a defender being pressed into duty.
“The analysis of the game, it may wait for tomorrow when we can analyze the soccer side. What just happened at the end, I never saw it before. And this is the beauty of this game, that we're humans and full of emotions and mistakes and good things and all of that," an emotive Pareja said in his postgame remarks.
“After what just happened I can laugh, but believe me, this is insane tonight.”
A shootout shutout
Before getting to Sporting Kansas City's hero, take a moment to acknowledge that play that could have sent the club through instead. The back-heel assist from Khiry Shelton to set up Gianluca Busio is just so smooth.
But Chris Wondolowski's even-later heroics forced extra time, a penalty shootout ensued, and it's on that stage that Tim Melia is king. The Sporting KC goalkeeper denied Oswaldo Alanis, Jackson Yueill and Cristian Espinoza in succession, posting a shootout shutout–the first of its kind in league history.
It's not just that San Jose didn't score in the shootout. It's that Melia made saves on all three spot kicks. He wasn't helped by a post or an airmailed or shanked shot, as he was in the 2010 U.S. Open Cup, when he helped the Charleston Battery blank the Chicago Fire in an upset. The man who has never lost a shootout on the professional club level (6-0) just padded his record in the most immaculate of fashions.
"He’s just really good at it. I’ve never seen that in my life," Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. "I’ve never seen a goalkeeper make the first three saves in penalty kicks. I’ve never witnessed it. It says a lot about Tim. He does this regularly. It’s something special that he has. It really is. He’s a different level. I don’t get surprised a lot, but I was surprised tonight."
Wondo's not done yet
Due to Melia's heroics, Wondolowski never got a chance in the shootout, but it doesn't appear as if he's scored his last goal just yet. This year was supposed to be a swan song for Wondo, the league's all-team leading scorer in the regular season who had announced his intentions to retire. But this year hasn't exactly gone according to plan, has it?
So with things unfolding as they have, Wondolowski has reconsidered. It's not like the goals have stopped coming. He scored seven in this abbreviated season prior to Sunday's header, and Vermes said on the FS1 broadcast after the match that Wondolowski told him he'd be returning. Wondo, who will turn 38 in January, put this on the record after the postgame exchanges finished:
“I did talk to Peter [Vermes]," Wondolowski said. "He asked if I was done. I don't think I'm done. You know I love it. I can't get enough of it. I have a passion. It's in me. It's in my blood. I want to continue to play. I don't have anything in mind yet. I haven't discussed any numbers, and I never want to be a burden on the Quakes. I want to make sure to see all the options, see what's out there. I think the Quakes are doing some amazing things, and I want to make sure that there are pieces that can be moved to continue to make this team grow, continue to be better. That's kind of my long-winded story right now. Yeah, I would love to play next year.
"That being said, there is absolutely nothing. I haven't even discussed it to be honest. I've never discussed a number even with Jesse [Fioranelli, club GM]. I know that the door is open, but I was fully committed to putting everything I have into this year, and I did. Now I need to re-evaluate. I just want to re-evaluate everything: my personal life, my life where I want to be, and also where the club is to see the direction that it’s going.”
If things take another turn and Sunday was Wondolowski's farewell, then a 97th-minute equalizer to keep his club alive in the playoffs was a fine way to score his last goal.
Fortunately, for MLS fans and especially those in San Jose, it doesn't look like that'll be the case after all.