Two dramatic late goals in Saturday's opening pair of matches did more than change the complexion of those games — they made the race for the final Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoff spots in the Eastern Conference that much more wide open.
In South Florida, an 89th-minute header from Leandro Gonzalez Pirez delivered a 2-1 win for Inter Miami CF over their Orlando City SC rivals — and with it, possession of the East's 10th and final playoff spot. Meanwhile, Atlanta United's Jon Gallagher got an 89th-minute equalizer in a crucial home match, only for the Five Stripes to give up a stoppage-time goal to D.C. United's Gelman Rivas and lose 2-1. The 2018 MLS Cup winners now sit in 12th in the East and on the outside looking in with three games to go. They're in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in the club's brief history.
Inter Miami: "It was a final"
There's reason to celebrate in Miami based on the result of this win. The Herons broke Orlando's 12-match unbeaten streak dating back to late August, and did it in a match where chances were plenty but finishes were few. Head coach Diego Alonso characterized the mindset of the team as being "in a final" — and with the win, moving on to another "final."
“Logically, winning today was very, very important," he observed. "I said before the game, it would be a rivalry game for us, and I said it was more than that. It was a final. That’s how the players played it and that’s how they won it. The game was important, the win was important and we won our first final today.”
"It was an even game, and in the end, the team that won was the team that wanted it," he added. "We tried every way to win it. It was an important win."
Yet, they know there's still work to be done to secure a playoff spot. For Alonso, the team's focus will be on a road trip to Texas on Wednesday to face FC Dallas.
“Our head has to be in the next game," Alonso asserted. "Our intention is preparing in the next four days to be able to play another final on Wednesday: Try to see if we can win the three points if we can, or bring another point home and allow us to keep alive the dream we have today of making the playoffs.”
For Gonzalez Pirez, the goal was special because of all that was involved with the match. "It’s something beautiful for a player to score a goal and in a stadium where there were fans. They supported us the whole game. It was a special game as well because it was Orlando – a Florida derby. And then [on top of that] in the final moments of the game. It was a special derby and special for me personally. But it makes me happy for the group. We fought the entire 90 minutes and we were pushing for the win the entire game. I think we deserved more for what we generated ... I think we were just winners. We did everything we could and we had luck on our side and we got the three points which are so important with so few matches remaining.”
Inter Miami have a tough road ahead when it comes to getting the points to stay in 10th (they're tied on points with Chicago Fire FC, but ahead on the "wins" tiebreaker). Following the FC Dallas match in midweek, they face powerhouse Toronto FC in East Hartford, before getting a Decision Day home match against FC Cincinnati as a final chance to get a vital three points.
Atlanta United: "It's just a heartbreaking loss"
Atlanta United's also in a position where nine points are obtainable, but Saturday's loss was further evidence of just how hard it's been for the Five Stripes to get points this year.
"It's a very frustrating loss, a heartbreaking loss," said Brooks Lennon. "We got back into it 1-1, and it's just a heartbreaking loss. We've still got a couple of games left and we’re going to fight 'til the end, so we can’t give up. We’re going to do everything we can to try and slip into the playoffs. But it's just a devastating, devastating loss."
Atlanta have three matches left, but two are tough road matches: A Wednesday tilt at Orlando, and a Decision Day trip to Columbus, with a home match against Cincinnati in between. They're also now just one point ahead of a D.C. team that had won just two matches all year prior to Oct. 14.
As much as Atlanta want to be "on to the next one," this loss will be a tough one to shake off.
"It’s a bitter pill to swallow, obviously, the way the game went," Gallagher relayed. "Coming back into it, equalizing late one, and then conceding almost immediately after is a tough one to take regardless of where you are in the table. But look, there’s still nine points to play for, so that’s the mentality we’re going to need and we should have going into those last three games."
Speaking of mentality, Gallagher observed, "sometimes we need a kick in the backside before we get going. I don’t know the answer to it, but it’s definitely something that’s going to carry through this whole season. I mean, If you look at the games that we’ve won, we’ve been on the front foot from the start and we’ve scored the first goal. So I don’t know how we get that every game but it’s more of a mentality thing, if I’m being honest."
Interim head coach Stephen Glass added, "I think we’re well aware it gives our playoff hopes a knock massively. But there are still nine points to play for and that’s the aim. We’ll try to get as many of them as we can."