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Nashville 1-1 Red Bulls: twelfth straight playoffs clinched at eleventh hour

First-minute Fábio finish enough to secure last spot in East for Red Bulls, who face Philly in first round

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Nashville SC
Gerhard Struber’s “boys” celebrated playoff qualification in Tennessee on Sunday night.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

While the song wasn’t always in tune for the New York Red Bulls in the Music City, they hit enough of the right notes to survive Decision Day.

Fábio’s elegant finish in the game’s opening minute was enough for the Red Bulls to endure a siege from Nashville SC over the ensuing 90 and secure the 7th and final spot in the MLS playoffs. Hany Mukhtar scored a delicious free kick before the half to equalize for Nashville before a back-and-forth second period drew no further blood, ending in a draw that got New York where they needed to be.

It was not only New York’s first ever away game in Nashville, but the first Decision Day where the club’s playoff positioning was in doubt for many years. Much of the discourse around the game during the week focused on the impending absence of yellow card suspended-Patryk Klimala, with manager Gerhard Struber shifting to a lone striker formation with Fábio up top behind dual 10s Caden Clark and Cristian Cásseres.

The attacking trio manage to produce just about as early as you could ask. A dovetailing interchange with Clark left Cásseres free down the right channel in the game’s first 30 seconds. Cásseres would fire a low cross towards Fábio, who deftly hooked the ball over Nashville defender Eric Miller with his first touch and then slotted past goalkeeper Joe Willis to give the Red Bulls a cathartic early lead.

A thrilling affair would ensue at Nissan Stadium over the remaining 89 minutes, with both teams trading huge punches. Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman would escape from Cásseres on a corner and blast a header just over the bar, which was responded to by medium-range blasts from Cásseres and a marauding Tom Edwards that were nervously handled by Willis.

However, Nashville would find their way back into the game through their star man in the 38th minute following an Andres Reyes foul on the edge of the box. Hany Mukhtar, the former Red Bull Salzburg player who’s launched himself into the league MVP race, curled a Beckham-esque free kick past Carlos Coronel from a tight angle on the side of the penalty area.

Despite momentum and verve from New York in the early moments after halftime, Nashville would find more of a foothold in the game as the second period played out. Mukhtar was narrowly stopped twice by the ever-reliable Coronel - first on a free header and moments later in a breakaway on the right side of the penalty area. But the Red Bulls would provide the most threat in the game’s final minutes, most notably a curling attempt by Omir Fernandez that clanged off the post and a penalty shout for substitute Youba Diarra that was rejected by referee Drew Fischer after video review. But when Fischer blew the final whistle minutes later, the New York bench (including Gerhard Struber, who earned his fourth yellow card of the season with a second half outburst) erupted after their recovery from a nightmare midseason low point was confirmed with a positive away result that ensured playoff qualification.

“I remember comments from the media who give us nothing,” said a defiant Gerhard Struber post-match after his team (which had a 7% chance at playoff qualification in August) completed their comeback.

“Sometimes even the players think the coach is crazy for thinking we can do this. We took the challenge of our season in the right way. In the first few months there was a learning curve and a bit of a roller coaster but now every player knows what we want.”

Team captain Sean Davis, whose 90 minute performance against Nashville meant he played every single minute of New York’s 2021 campaign, said that while the team isn’t satisfied with just playoff qualification for the twelfth straight year, they are thrilled to be able to show their progress.

“We invested everything we had (to turn the season around.) The coaching staff stayed on top of us and maintained a proper dialogue to get us where we needed to be. I’m fortunate to play for a club with such high standards...but making playoffs is the bare minimum here.”

Cristian Cásseres reiterated the attitude shown by Davis, stating “it’s a new season now” following the team’s recovery and the fast-approaching playoffs ready to start.

“In reality (this season) was difficult,” said the Venezuela national team midfielder. “But little by little we improved. We became a unit and started playing like a family.”

Gerhard Struber also emphasized his team’s progress, and maintained his focus on the future in how he prepares his team for the first round playoff fixture against Philadelphia Union later this month.

“I know very little about past teams (who have faltered in MLS Cup playoffs) and I only know about my own team right now, who have made big steps to be a strong team. We will come back to training on Thursday and come up with a good plan for Philly.”

“This is a completely new team with a new identity and we handled the challenge of our season in the right way. This is a strong team with big goals.”