The decision to charter a trans-Atlantic flight to ferry Inter Miami star Rodolfo Pizarro home from Mexican national team duty in order to ensure his availability for Friday’s playoff game vs Nashville SC proved one of the biggest stories in the leadup to the match.
What drew somewhat less attention was that Nashville, too, had a key attacking piece jet back from international action in similar fashion. And lo and behold, it was Costa Rican winger Randall Leal who seized the spotlight at Nissan Stadium, smashing a vicious long-range strike past Miami goalkeeper John McCarthy just 14 minutes in to set Nashville on course for a comfortable 3-0 victory.
Watch: Randall Leal opens the scoring for Nashville
“I'm really happy with the way we started the game,” said Nashville veteran Dax McCarty, who capped the historic result – the first playoff win for an expansion side since the Chicago Fire way back in 1998 – with a rare goal of his own. “We started really brightly, got just a fantastic goal from Randall and that really gave us confidence, set us on our way.”
Leal was joined in the NSC starting XI by fellow Designated Players Hany Mukhtar and Jhonder Cadiz for the first time all season, an injection of quality that also brought a surge of confidence through the entire squad.
“The really important part,” said head coach Gary Smith, “is having your DPs on the field. And with Jhonder, Hany and Randall all on the field at the same time, there's an air of expectation, there’s a different feel about the group. The guys, I think, look at what we're capable of and go into the game with far more vigor. And I think you saw that in the first 20, 25 minutes … looking back now, the game was won in 20 minutes, 20-25 minutes, and that's real credit to the way the guys went about their business.”
While hailing Leal’s “moment of brilliance” and the overall intensity of his group, Smith was quick to offer empathy for Inter, who were deprived of key starters Gonzalo Higuain and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez on Friday. Miami were well off the pace all night, though that isn’t stopping Nashville from thinking big as they prepare for a quick turnaround to Tuesday’s Round One clash with Toronto FC at the Reds’ Stateside base in East Hartford, Connecticut.
“They're a top side, and then when we start talking about elite teams in MLS, this Toronto team have to be spoken [of] in that category,” said Smith. “They're well balanced, they’re competitive, they're organized, they have pace, they have power, they have some terrific individuals who are capable of turning a game on its head in a moment. And it will be a very, very tough game.
“But I think if you look at how we've adapted and how we've managed to evolve in our development, and as a team, we've gone away from home to some tough places and we've made not only competitive games but we've gone and scored goals. We've managed games well.”
Nashville closed out the regular season on a 4-1-2 run and Friday’s win extends that strong form, leaving the Boys in Gold with a “why not us?” mindset.
“The thing that I like about our group was, in the locker room after the game, we're happy, we celebrate with each other. We're like a family,” said McCarty. “But once we're done tonight, we move on and we focus on Toronto, because I think that there's more out there for us. I think that we can continue to surprise people and go deep into these playoffs.”
Leal was asked if his team can hoist MLS Cup.
“Always, always, we need to think like this,” he responded immediately, flashing his rapidly-improving English language skills. “If we don’t think like this, it's better to stop here. I think this is the conviction that we have on the team. But OK, we need to go step by step.”