The Union will host Nashville SC in the second round of the MLS playoffs on Sunday, after MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar led the East’s No. 3 seed to a 3-1 win over No. 6 seed Orlando City on Tuesday at Nissan Stadium.
Orlando opened the scoring with a 14th-minute header by Daryl Dike off a corner kick. It gave Dike a five-game scoring streak, and boosted his candidacy to return to the U.S. men’s national team for its winter training camps and January World Cup qualifiers.
Nashville equalized seven minutes later when Mukhtar hit a blast from 23 yards that Orlando’s Antonio Carlos got a foot on as he tried to block it, but to no avail.
Mukhtar’s class shone again when he scored a dazzling winner in the 74th minute, his 18th goal of the season to go with 10 assists. After some sharp give-and-go passing with former Union striker C.J. Sapong, Mukhtar received the ball some 40 yards from goal on the right wing. He cut inside with some fancy footwork, danced past Emmanuel Mas, and shot through Robin Jansson’s legs.
Jhonder Cádiz put the icing on the cake in the game’s final seconds, corralling a long ball 25 yards from goal and breaking past the Orlando defense to finish.
Both teams contended with a grass field at Nissan Stadium that had been beaten up by the NFL’s Titans and painted over to look better for soccer. That served as a reminder of the importance of the Union finishing second in the standings. There should be no concerns about the playing surface at Subaru Park on Sunday, just cold weather.
The Union and Nashville have met twice previously this year, with one home game for each team and both games ending in 1-0 home wins. Sapong scored in the second minute at Nashville on July 3, his first goal against his old team since being traded to Chicago in early 2019; and Kacper Przybylko’s 11th-minute penalty at Subaru Park made the difference on Oct. 23.
The latter game went a long way toward getting the Union the No. 2 seed, which the Union earned on a total wins tiebreaker after both teams finished the regular season with 54 points.
In his postgame news conference Tuesday, Mukhtar said “we can go there and beat Philly … we have the attitude to do that.”
The midfielder didn’t speak with the same bravado New York Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber used last week in insisting that his team would win in Chester.
Nashville manager Gary Smith took care of the bulletin board material.
He called the Union “a terrific team” with “a wonderful home record,” and said “the game on Sunday coming up will be incredibly tough.” But he also called that penalty kick at Subaru Park “fortuitous,” and noted that Nashville brought many of its big guns off the bench that night.
Smith said the Union “were better than us on the day,” then added he was “not sure they deserved to win,” and said his team will “go there with a lot of confidence.”
And he noted that if MLS used global soccer’s standard of having goal difference be the first standings tiebreaker instead of total wins, the upcoming game would be in Nashville instead.
“We go to Philadelphia at the weekend knowing that in any other league in the world, we’d have been second, and we’d have been playing here again,” Smith said. “But we knew the rules when we started the season.”
Sunday’s game at Subaru Park will kick off at 5:30 p.m., with a national TV broadcast on ESPN and ESPN Deportes. And coincidentally (or perhaps not), the Union will be the first visitor to Nashville’s new 30,000-seat stadium that opens next year. That game is set for May 5, just over two months after the 2022 season kicks off.