Saint Louis FC substitute Joaquin Rivas scored the game-winning goal in Saturday night’s USL Championship playoff game at Dillon Stadium against the Hartford Athletic but Rivas wouldn’t have been in position to win the game if it wasn’t for the outstanding performance of goalie Kyle Morton.
Morton, 26, made five saves and some other tremendous plays to help Saint Louis FC win their first-ever playoff game with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Hartford before 2,200 fans, who brought an energy and spirit into the old ballpark despite wearing their masks.
It was a bitter end for Hartford, which won Group F in this pandemic-shortened season with a 5-0-1 record in their final six games of the season.
The game was scoreless – thanks to Morton and Athletic goalie Parfait Mandanda – through 90 minutes of action.
In the third minute of stoppage time, Hartford’s Sam Strong tried to clear a ball from the midfield for Saint Louis’ Mour Samb but the ball skipped forward. Kevin Politz collided with Samb, who stayed on his feet and pushed the ball forward to a streaking Rivas, who took two steps and ripped a shot toward the near post that Hartford goalie Parfait Mandanda had little chance to stop.
“It was a combination of a lot of things. It didn’t just start back there,” Hartford’s Danny Barrera said. “It started with our forwards, our midfield and all the way to the back. It seemed like one of those situations we find ourselves in sometimes when the ball doesn’t bounce our way.
“And sure enough, it was a gut punch in the 90th minute,” he said.
The win puts the lame duck Saint Louis squad into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Louisville, who beat Pittsburgh, 2-0 on Saturday night. Saint Louis announced in late August that the club would fold at the end of the season with an MLS expansion due in the city in 2023 and financial pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hartford had chances early and Saint Louis’ 6-foot-4 Morton, who has 17 USL Championship shutouts in the past two seasons, was up to the task.
Barrera had a hard shot tipped over the cross bar by Morton in the first five minutes of the game. With 13:14 gone in the game, Gabriel Torres couldn’t get his left-footed shot past Morton. Later in the half, it was Aidan Mesias, who slipped in behind the Saint Louis defense to get a cross from Ever Guzman but Morton got his hands on the ball to redirect it away from the net.
“We were the better team on the pitch. We created three or four proper chances to score and we didn’t score on them,” Hartford head coach Radhi Jaïdi said. “It goes back to the same area we needed to develop since the start of the season and I am thinking of decision making and execution of the pass and execution of the finish.”
Morton made a nice save on Alex Dixon early in the second half and had a tremendous stop of substitute Markus Naglestad with 15 minutes left in the game. Naglestad took a nice feed from Dixon and drove down the right side of the penalty area.
Morton came out of the box to challenge Naglestad, who couldn’t get a shot off, leading the game scoreless.
Mandanda had some good saves, too, most notably a hard shot from Saint Louis’ Tyler Blackwood early in the game that he pushed over the crossbar. Early in the second half, Saint Louis’ Guy Abend shifted through a pair of Hartford defenders on the left after taking a throw-in and had a low shot from a narrow angle saved by Mandanda.
Jaïdi criticized the referees afterwards. “We’ve been struggling with this since the start of the season,” he said. “If you referee you have to step up to the level (of competition). Tonight, it was the playoffs. I don’t think the referee did this job the right way and he was really poor.”
JOHNSON RECALLED: On Thursday, Hartford’s Tyreke Johnson was recalled by England’s Southampton FC. Johnson, who played a mix of left wingback and forward for Hartford, played in 15 of 16 matches, starting 11. He scored two goals, most memorably a highlight reel goal in the home opener against Loudoun United where he put defender Adam Lundegard though the spin cycle.
PLAYOFFS RETURN: It was first professional postseason game in Hartford since 2015 when the Hartford Wolfpack, AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, hosted the Eastern Conference finals. The Hartford Whalers final playoff game in Hartford was in 1992 when the Whalers beat the Montreal Canadiens in overtime in game 6 of their first round series. The Canadiens won game 7 in double OT to take the series. The Yard Goats, the Double A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, have yet to qualify for the postseason in Hartford.
St. Louis FC 1, Hartford 0
St. Louis FC (8-5-4) 0 1 — 1
Hartford (11-5-1) 0 0 — 0
Goal: Joaquin Rivas (STL) 92; Saves: Kyle Morton (STL) 5, Parfait Mandanda (H) 3; Shots: Hartford, 15-10; Shots on target: 5-4, Hartford; Corner kicks: Hartford, 5-2
2020 USL Championship playoffs
Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Louisville 2, Pittsburgh 0
St. Louis FC 1, Hartford 0
Charleston 2, Charlotte 1
Tampa Bay 4, Birmingham 2
Western Conference quarterfinals
Reno 4, L.A. Galaxy II 1
Game 6: Sacramento (8-2-6) at Phoenix (11-3-2)
Game 7: Tulsa (6-2-7) at El Paso (9-2-5)
New Mexico 1, San Antonio 0
Eastern Conference semifinals
Game 9: St. Louis FC (8-5-4) at Louisville (12-3-2)
Game 10: Charleston (10-3-3) at Tampa Bay (11-3-3)
Western Conference semifinals
Game 11: Reno (12-2-3) vs. winner game 6
Game 12: Winner game 7 vs. New Mexico (9-4-3)
Eastern Conference championship
Game 13: Winner game 9 vs. winner game 10
Western Conference championship
Game 14: Winner game 11 vs. winner game 12
USL Championship finals
Game 15: Winner game 13 vs. winner game 14
A special shoutout to all the @hfdathletic fans that kept Dillon rocking all summer long. They made sure they closed out the year in style tonight @MadHatMassive @hartford19s @EastSideRising @WhaleCity_FC @WFSBnews pic.twitter.com/cgDMTU9OEX
— Elliott Polakoff (@ElliottPolakoff) October 11, 2020