Red Bulls Playoffs
Elias Manoel and Tom Barlow celebrate during the New York Red Bulls’ 5-2 win over Charlotte FC in the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs Wildcard game. Both players scored goals with Manoel (left) scoring the sixth ever hat trick in league playoff history (Credit: Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos / Getty Images Sport / Getty)

The New York Red Bulls have momentum. It is a crazy sentence to read, especially at this time of the year. But following the team’s 5-2 win over Charlotte FC in the MLS Cup Playoffs Wildcard game, it is hard to argue. They’ll need it too as they prepare to face FC Cincinnati in a best-of -three series starting this weekend.

Wednesday’s game was confusing. Not in how things played out, but in how it felt. The crowd was announced as 16,074. But it felt closer to 10, maybe 12, thousand people. It felt less like an MLS Cup game and more like a U.S. Open Cup game. The short notice (clinching on Saturday) and the mid-week date didn’t help that.

Whenever a goal was scored, the P.A. announcer said it was that player’s X number “of the season”. Not first of the playoffs.

But those were secondary to the team on the field itself. Because in the end the five goal performance made the half full Red Bull Arena sound good. It was one of the best pro-Red Bull crowds this season. Helped no doubt by the smaller away fan contingent, who’d said over 1,000 tickets were available for Charlotte fans.

For a team missing multiple stars due to injury (Lewis Morgan, Dante Vanzier), the Red Bulls’ first half didn’t play like it. The offense had little issue getting through Charlotte’s backline towards keeper Kristijan Kahlina. A brace by Elias Manoel and a stunner free-kick goal from John Tolkin made it 3-0 before the break.

JMi had already made his mark on the postseason before it started. His penalty kick against Nashville SC on Decision Day got RBNY into the playoffs for a 14th straight season. For Manoel, those two goals were his fifth all-time against Charlotte. Most of his goals on U.S. soil have been against Charlotte.

“I don’t think that we had an overwhelming amount of shots and opportunities but we were efficient,” head coach Troy Lesesne said after the game. “The individuals that got on the end of those goals were able to execute in critical moments and not just the goals, but some of the balls that were played for the final moment were really impressive.”

If New York didn’t score any other goals on Wednesday they still would have won if Charlotte scored twice like they did.

Instead, Tom Barlow re-directed in his second-ever playoff goal and Manoel made history. For Barlow it was his second goal this month. Manoel’s third goal of the night in the 78th minute was the first ever RBNY postseason hat-trick. It is also the sixth-ever in MLS Cup Playoff history.

“For me Elias is absolutely hitting form,” said Lesesne. He was hitting form in June, in July, and then he got injured and that was unfortunate because I thought he was really building momentum

“I think now what you’re seeing in the performance that he had against Cincinnati a few weeks ago was really important to give him confidence, but also just how he’s pressing. The way that he pressed him and Tom together in the first half, Charlotte had completely changed the way both with the score line but also with the way we were playing, they had to change their game.”

New York advances in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2018. Since then, the team has been eliminated in the single-leg First Round by various teams. Though, in a quirky way, some could argue advancing from the Play-In game puts RBNY in the First Round of the 2023 playoffs.

In a way, this game might justify the new MLS Playoff format. The design has been maligned since it was introduced earlier this year. With nine teams from each conference qualifying it felt as though the bar was too low. Combined with a system where the Quarterfinals are a best of three series, allowing more teams to have home playoff games, before going back to single leg. It felt random, confusing, and tough for neutrals to follow.

All of those points are still valid in their own right. But both Wild Card games were entertaining. A high scoring affair and a penalty kick shootout showed both teams in the 8th and 9th spots.

It also helps teams like the New York Red Bulls. They now have a guaranteed second home playoff game. Plus, while they have less rest than Cincinnati they do have the benefit of coming off a hot win.

Combined that with RBNY’s previous performances against the Supporters’ Shield champions this year. A stoppage time loss in Harrison and a vital, shocking win on the road to keep the late season playoff push alive.

The format was also supposed to help higher seeds too. Back in 2021, with COVID also a factor of course, the New England Revolution were the highest seed in the East for the playoffs. The team had nearly a month layover between its final regular season game and it’s first playoff match after getting a bye to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They lost to New York City FC in penalty kicks.

This year Supporters’ Shield champions Cincinnati only have to wait a week for their first match.

That game is this Sunday, Oct. 29, in Ohio. The second leg at Red Bull Arena will be next Saturday, Nov. 4, with the season of one team on the line. A third game, if needed, will be back in Cincy the following weekend.

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