The Stage Is Set for Another Emotional Contest at Q2
Austin FC looks to the semifinals after an epic playoff debut
If there was a script for Austin FC's first MLS Cup Playoff game, it surely did not include conceding two Real Salt Lake goals in the opening 15 minutes.
Or maybe it did. And maybe it also included Sebastián Driussi, the club's cool-as-ice MVP candidate, scoring a brace to force the match to penalty kicks, and maybe it included Brad Stuver, the career backup-turned-folk hero goalkeeper, making two huge saves in the shoot-out to secure a 19th match for the Verde and Black at Q2 Stadium.
Who wouldn't want to watch that screenplay? A near-three-hour epic from opening kickoff to RSL winger Tate Schmitt's clinching penalty miss that landed somewhere in Bastrop County, if it landed at all, seen by 20,738 in person and countless more in homes and bars around the Texas capital. Quite the premiere for the MLS Cup Playoffs in ATX.
"Emotional," head coach Josh Wolff summarized. "Resiliency, teamwork, collective – our roots on display always."
When you really think about it, of course El Tree gave up two first-half goals to RSL striker Sergio Córdova before coming all the way back to advance to the Western Conference final four. Comebacks were a theme of the club's regular season, winning three matches in which they trailed at some point by two goals. Sunday was the fourth, setting the MLS record.
"It's kind of our trademark," Wolff joked in his postgame remarks.
The difference in the 90 minutes was a familiar one for Austin FC in 2022: Sebastián Driussi. The Argentine headed home a Diego Fagúndez cross in the 31st minute to defibrillate an anxious Q2 crowd and halve the RSL lead.
However, the home side still trailed at halftime, when Wolff opted for a triple substitution of attacking players. That much, he could control. What he couldn't anticipate was RSL striker Rubio Rubín, already on a yellow card, torpedoing after a hopeless ball toward Stuver and catching the goalkeeper forcibly enough to draw a second yellow and ensuing red card in the 52nd minute. Stuver did his part to make sure the contact didn't go unnoticed.
"We had talked about it at halftime, we made everyone aware that Justen Glad and Rubio both had a yellow card," Stuver said. "When he was running full tilt at me I was a little confused, and then he slid, and I just kind of stayed in there and got caught for it. I don't know what he was thinking in that moment. Got a nice little bruise on my shin," he half-boasted.
Small price to pay for reducing the opponent to 10 men. RSL hardly saw the ATX half of the field from that point on, reverting to an ultra-low block of all-out defense that survived every Verde attack through normal time. Midseason Designated Player acquisition Emiliano Rigoni helped the RSL cause by missing two A+ chances in front of goal, but in the second minute of stoppage time, Rigoni fired a right-footed volley that struck defender Scott Caldwell in the arm, and referee Victor Rivas pointed straight to the penalty spot. It was the opportunity Austin FC had been desperately chasing, but it still needed to be converted. Driussi handled that effortlessly to level the score and extend both the match and the Austin FC season.
Driussi found the back of the net twice during the 30 minutes of extra time, but both were waved off for infringements in the buildup. The first MLS Cup Playoffs match in Austin history required the first penalty shoot-out in Austin FC history to determine a winner.
Driussi, Fagúndez, and Rigoni all scored for the Verde and Black, but the moment belonged to Stuver. He guessed right on all of RSL's first spot kicks, saving two, including one outrageous fingertip deflection onto the crossbar. "I got really nervous because I knew I saved it, but I didn't know if it was going to, like, come down into the goal because it was still moving and still had a chance to go in." It didn't. The ball came to rest inches from the goal line. Stuver wasn't needed for Tate's sky-high miss to seal the match, so you can credit that save to the Verde Wall.
Austin FC now turns its attention north to bitter in-state rivals FC Dallas in what is sure to be another emotional contest at Q2 for a spot in the Western Conference Final. The stakes are raised. The antagonist is compelling. It all sets up for a thrilling sequel that might actually do justice to the original. Then again, we'll have to see how the script plays out.