Saint Louis FC won the first, and potentially last playoff game in their history as a club courtesy of a dramatic stoppage time winning goal from substitute Joaquin Rivas. In a hard fought game, Saint Louis extended their life as a franchise with this hard fought win and simultaneously ended the first ever playoff run of Hartford Athletic.
This was Hartford’s first ever playoff appearance, and they had earned the right to play the game at home courtesy of a 2-0 win at New York Red Bulls last weekend to seal first place in Group F. Goals from Conor McGlynn and Tyreke Johnson had sealed the three points at New York, but neither man featured in the starting lineup here. McGlynn came off the bench for that game, and that was also the case here with Aiden Mesias, Justin Haak and captain Danny Barrera all retaining their place in central midfield. Southampton loanee Johnson returned to his parent club in midweek and was replaced at left wingback by Gabriel Torres.
Coach Radhi Jaidi made one more change to the starting lineup as center back Matheus Silva returned into the defensive line of a 3-5-2 formation in place of Alex Lara. Leading goal scorer Alex Dixon led the line up front alongside veteran Ever Guzman, with the pair having scored 6 and 5 goals respectively during the regular season.
Saint Louis were in their last season of existence as a club, with the announcement that they would cease operations being made in August during the season. The financial impact of COVID-19 was cited as a reason for winding up, with the announcement of expansion MLS franchise Saint Louis SC surely making things much more difficult for the club to be marketable in their community.
A last day win over Indy Eleven allowed Saint Louis to leapfrog Indy into second place of Group E and seal a playoff berth. Earlier in the week, Saint Louis had needed the help of Sporting Kansas City II who obliged with a 2-1 win at Indy, as the Eleven would have sealed a playoff berth with three points from either of their last two fixtures. The clinching of a playoff spot was also notable, as Saint Louis had now become the first club to make the postseason in both the Eastern and Western conference.
Coach Steve Trittschuh named an unchanged lineup from the Indy win in a 3-5-2 shape with leading goal scorer Tyler Blackwood (6 goals) partnering Kyle Greig in attack. Russell Cicerone (5 goals) and Paris Gee lined up at right and left wingback respectively, and the flank duo were the only players to feature in every game so far this season for the club.
The first attack of the game came in the 3rd minute when Torres carried the ball forward before Barrera set up Dixon to fire a shot that was blocked by Saint Louis midfielder Guy Abend.
Hartford kept up the early pressure and Mesias squared the ball to Guzman who had his shot tipped over the bar by keeper Kyle Morton. The quality and selfless nature of Guzman’s strike partner Dixon was on display during the creation of this chance. Unable to shoot himself, Dixon used his body to block off defender Phanuel Kavita’s path to the ball, and cleared the path for the ball to find Guzman.
Hartford failed to take advantage of the resulting corner when Barrera’s cross floated harmlessly over the bar and out of play.
A fired up home team, spurred on by an expanded capacity crowd of over 2,000 kept Saint Louis on the back foot when the resulting goal kick was taken short and Hartford pressed high with intensity. Left wingback Torres forced Gee to cough up possession before exchanging passes with Haak and swinging in a cross that was cleared by Sam Fink.
Wary of the early high pressure, Morton waved his team up the field from the next goal kick and the visitors got some relief when forward Greig won a free kick during an aerial challenge with Sam Strong for the ball.
Saint Louis almost took advantage of the set play when Todd Wharton’s lofted ball into the penalty area fell to Blackwood who drilled a shot on goal that Parfait Mandanda tipped over the crossbar. Wharton sent in the resulting corner but his low cross was easily cleared by Barrera at the near post.
Hartford were soon up the other end of the field and Idan Cohen sent in a high cross that goalkeeper Morton tipped over the goal to concede a corner. Cohen drove the corner to the back post where Kevin Politz looped a header into the arms of Morton.
Both teams were showing the intent to attack, and Saint Louis striker Greig checked deep to receive possession before spreading the ball wide left. Wingback Cicerone twisted and turned past Cohen into the penalty area before firing a near post shot that was saved by Mandanda.
In the 14th minute, Mesias found space in central midfield and combined with Barrera to tee up Torres who forced a diving save out of Morton from 20 yards out. Cohen took the corner, but for the second time Hartford wasted a set play by sending a cross too high and over everybody for a goal kick.
Hartford soon received another attacking set play when Wal Fall was whistled for a hand to the face of Mesias. Barrera sent the ball into the penalty area and it was headed away by Politz. Hartford defender Silva received a yellow card for a foul on Greig as Saint Louis cleared their lines.
Undeterred, Hartford kept coming forward and Guzman was released down the right flank before sending a cross into the penalty area for strike partner Dixon that was claimed by Morton.
Hartford carved out a golden chance to take the lead in the 21st minute when Cohen found Guzman out wide and the subsequent cross found a wide open Mesias 6 yards out, only for Morton to pull off a reflex save and concede a corner.
The ball into the area from Cohen was knocked behind by Fall to concede another corner, before Greig cleared away Barerra’s cross at the near post.
Saint Louis had their biggest chance of the game so far when Fall dropped deep and received possession inside the center circle before paying striker Greig in behind with a raking through pass. Greig fizzed a ball across goal that was just beyond the reach of Blackwood and Abend with the goal gaping.
The high press system implemented by Hartford was causing a lot of turnovers in the first half, and pressure from the strikers caused central defender Kink to play a loose pass that was intercepted by Barrera around the halfway line. Barrera launched an immediate counter attack that resulted in a shot from Dixon being blocked by Kavita.
Hartford won a free kick in the 38th minute when Gee fouled Torres with a reckless challenge. Barrera found Haak with a chipped cross into the penalty area but the midfielder guided his header wide.
In what was becoming a trend from the resulting goal kick, Saint Louis set up to play short, but Morton waved his team up the field after both Hartford strikers set up on the edge of the penalty area looking to jump on a short pass.
Saint Louis won a corner when Gee’s throw in was headed behind by Torres, but Wharton’s ball into the penalty area was headed clear by Politz.
As the clock ticked into injury time at the end of the first half, Strong received a yellow card for a foul through the back of Blackwood. Notably, this left two of the Hartford back three on a yellow card, with both bookings being received for fouls conceded in the attacking half of the field.
Halftime arrived with the game locked in a 0-0 stalemate and both teams will have found a reason to be confident for the second half ahead.
Hartford were having success with their press, forcing turnovers in the attacking half and registering a 7-4 advantage in shots.
Saint Louis were creating chances of their own and had a 57% advantage in terms of possession. Also, coach Trittschuh would likely remind his forwards and wingbacks that Silva and Strong, the two outside defenders in the Hartford back three would spend the second half playing on a yellow card.
Saint Louis carved out the first chance of the second half in the 50th minute when a cross from Gee was just out of the reach of Greig, before a second cross from Cicerone was blocked by Barrera.
The resulting throw in was taken to Abend who jinked into the penalty area, beating multiple defenders on the dribble before having his shot saved by Mandanda.
Hartford’s first chance of the second half came when Torres teed up Dixon inside the penalty area and the striker drilled his shot wide of the goalpost.
Torres was soon on the attack again and had a cross cleared by Wharton before a second ball into the area from the Brazilian was claimed by goalkeeper Morton.
Hartford coach Jaidi made the first substitution of the game in the 57th minute, replacing Mesias with Rogers in midfield.
Rogers did not take long to make an impact and played a pass in behind for Barrera who latched onto it before dropping a pass back to Dixon who fired over the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area.
Saint Louis made their first substitution of the game in the 69th minute, when coach Trittschuh replaced midfielder Abend with Rivas.
A minute later, Jaidi was forced into his second substitution when striker Guzman limped off with an apparent hamstring injury and was replaced by Markus Naglestad.
Saint Louis came forward when Gee raided down the right flank and sent in a driven cross that Mandanda parried high into the air. The ball fell to Greig but the striker was crowded out by a trio of defenders before Silva completed the clearance.
Greig was challenging for a ball again minutes later and this time received a yellow card from referee Kevin Broadley for a kick on Hartford midfielder Haak.
As had been the case all season, Dixon was a focal point of Hartford’s attack and he checked deep to receive possession before carrying the ball forward and firing a shot over the crossbar from 20 yards out.
A minute later, Dixon checked deep again and released Naglestad in on goal only for Morton to produce a big 1v1 save.
Saint Louis substitute Rivas made his first contribution when he set up Blackwood and the English striker fired his shot high over the bar, sending the game into the second half hydration break with the score still locked at 0-0.
In the 81st minute, Hartford coach Jaidi made his third substitution and replaced Cohen with McGlynn. Saint Louis coach Trittschuh responded by withdrawing striker Blackwood and replacing him with Mour Samb.
Hartford continued to push forward in search of a crucial goal and McGlynn fed Barrera who dribbled to the edge of the penalty area before curling a shot wide.
Barrera came forward again a minute later after being fed by Torres, and this time his shot was blocked by Fink as the Saint Louis defensive line held strong.
The visitors were riding out a spell of pressure and Fink was soon called into action again to head away a Rogers cross before dispossessing Naglestad with a sliding tackle inside the penalty area.
Saint Louis midfielder Fall received a yellow card in the 89th minute as he crashed into Haak inside the center circle. Barrera took the resulting free kick but his lofted ball into the penalty area cleared everyone on the way out for a free kick.
IN the third minute of stoppage time, Saint Louis found the decisive breakthrough and both substitutes combined to do the damage. A deft flick from Fall released Samb and a tackle from Strong saw the ball ricochet back to Samb. Politz then put in a heavy challenge only for the loose ball to fall into the path of Rivas who drove into the penalty area before firing a shot past Mandanda that sparked wild celebrations among the Saint Louis players and travelling fans.
The goal was the result of an advantage being played by referee Broadley, and before the game kicked off again Politz was booked for his foul on Samb in the buildup to the goal.
With Hartford in desperation mode, Torres lofted a ball into the penalty area but Fink headed it clear. A Barrera cross was later cleared by Fall before Tobi Adewole beat Barrera to a long ball forward and cleared the ball as the final whistle blew, bringing a close to Hartford’s season.
With this win, Saint Louis extended their life as a club by at least one more week, and will travel to face Group E winners Louisville City in the quarter finals. They will have no doubts as to the size of the task at hand, having lost to Louisville at home on September 26th.
Hartford performed well both in this game and throughout the regular season but the late goal conceded meant their season would end on a bitter note. Having sealed the first playoff appearance in club history, the club will now head into the offseason looking to make the moves needed to solidify themselves as an Eastern Conference contender.
90+3’ STL Joaquin Rivas (Mour Samb) 0-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
#1 GK Kyle Morton (Saint Louis FC) – A strong performance from the shot stopper, who kept the scores level with a string of quality saves before Rivas netted the dramatic late winning goal.
3: LM Gabriel Torres – Strong defensive performance and simultaneously a driving force in the attack, Torres has been a top performer for Hartford all season and showed well in the biggest game of the year.
2: CM Justin Haak – Consistent ball winner and quality passer of the ball, Haak fought well in the heart of midfield for the home team throughout this tight contest.
1: CF Alex Dixon – Provided a top end threat and also checked deep well to receive possession in space and drive the attack forward.
Saint Louis FC
3: GK Kyle Morton – Man of the Match.
2: CM Sam Fink – Playing centrally in the Saint Louis back three, Fink tightly marshalled the Hartford strikers and came up with a series of blocks and clearances to anchor the clean sheet.
1: CF Kyle Greig – Sizable target man who spearheaded the attack and relieved pressure all game for his team by holding up play and challenging for aerial balls.
HAR: Mandanda, Silva, Politz, Strong, Torres, Haak, Mesias (Rogers), Barrera, Cohen (McGlynn), Dixon, Guzman (Naglestad).
STL: Morton, Kavita, Fink, Adewole, Cicerone, Abend (Rivas), Wharton, Fall, Gee, Greig, Blackwood (Samb).
Full highlights of the game can be found on the USL Championship Youtube page here.