EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – When Daniel Rios first visited Rentschler Field with Nashville SC, he found the net in the club’s 3-2 victory in the USL Championship regular season against Hartford Athletic in 2019.
On Tuesday night, Rios struck again with what might be the biggest goal in Nashville’s short history in Major League Soccer so far. His goal in extra time lifted the side to a 1-0 victory against defending Eastern Conference champion Toronto FC in the First Round of the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, and continued the run of early success produced by former Championship players in the top flight’s postseason.
Rios was the first player in the Championship to record back-to-back 20-goal seasons, accomplishing the feat first for North Carolina FC in the 2018 season before doing the same for Nashville a season ago. The first MLS signing in NSC’s history, Rios tied for the team-high with four goals in the regular season this year to help Nashville reach the MLS postseason at the first attempt.
The Mexican forward then produced the decisive moment against Toronto for the No. 7 seed, winning possession in the attacking half and playing Hany Mukhtar in for a chance to shoot. TFC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg got a piece of Mukhtar’s finish, but Rios was following up and put home the loose ball into the open net in the 108th minute. Nashville’s defense – led by former Championship standout Dave Romney – completed the job from there as NSC advanced to face Columbus Crew SC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Sunday.
Rios’ performance capped a First Round that also saw two-time Championship Most Valuable Player Kevin Molino score the first postseason goals of his career as Minnesota United FC advanced in the Western Conference with a 3-0 victory against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday night.
The Trinidad & Tobago international opened the scoring for the hosts at Allianz Field in the 22nd minute as he fired home into the left corner after a nice piece of interplay with Emanuel Reynoso near the top of the penalty area. Molino – who hadn’t scored in seven postseason appearances in the Championship for the Lions – then sealed MNUFC’s victory with 11 minutes to go as he stole into the right side of the penalty area unmarked and finished off a pass by Jan Gregus with a lifted finish past Colorado goalkeeper William Yarbrough.
The biggest performance by a USL alum may have come in goal, however, as ex-Charleston Battery goalkeeper Tim Melia saved three consecutive penalty kicks in a shootout to send Sporting Kansas City through to the Western Conference Semifinals by defeating the San Jose Earthquakes at Children’s Mercy Park.
Former SKC II midfielder Gianluca Busio appeared to have given Sporting a decisive advantage in second-half stoppage time as he finished off a beautiful, flicked pass by Khiry Shelton to put the No. 1 seed ahead. The Quakes responded through MLS all-time leading scorer Chris Wondolowsi with a stoppage-time goal of their own to send the game to extra time, but after the additional 30 minutes finished scoreless, Melia took over.
Ten years after helping the Battery claim the USL Second Division title, the veteran shot-stopper denied San Jose’s Oswaldo Alanis, Jackson Yueill and Cristian Espinoza in successive shots to send his side through.
The successes in the First Round weren’t limited to Championship alumni. 2019 USL League One All-League selection Ricardo Pepi (North Texas SC) produced a key goal in second-half stoppage time for FC Dallas to send its game with the Portland Timbers on Sunday night to extra time and eventually a shootout, where former Austin Bold FC loanee Ema Twumasi scored the decisive goal from the spot in an 8-7 shootout victory for Dallas.
Pepi was one of three teenagers to find the net in the postseason’s early going, with former New York Red Bulls II midfielder Caden Clark scoring his first postseason goal for the Red Bulls against Columbus Crew SC and Busio finding the net for Sporting. The only player younger than the trio to score in the MLS postseason? That would be current veteran Jozy Altidore, who was 16 when he scored his first playoff goal for the Red Bulls in 2006.
Former Charleston Battery midfielder Brian Anunga seized his chance at a first start in the MLS postseason for Nashville SC as he went 105 minutes in the club’s win against Toronto FC and put in a strong display in central midfield. The former Championship All-League selection completed 49 of 61 passes, made 11 recoveries and three interceptions and had one key pass.