The message was pretty simple for the Riverhounds before Sunday's match against Tampa Bay -- win and make the playoffs or lose and face an uphill battle with two games remaining on the regular season docket.
In front of the biggest crowd of the year, the Riverhounds overcame a late comeback to hold off Tampa Bay, clinching a playoff berth with a 3-2 victory.
Going into the game, the Riverhounds were tied for seventh place with 34 points, and Tampa Bay was a spot behind with 31 points. The top eight teams in the USL make the playoffs, and with a loss, the Riverhounds would have fallen back to ninth with two games remaining.
But the win seals the Riverhounds' spot in the playoffs as at least the No. 8 seed, as they are now tied with Los Angeles for sixth place.
"This is a tough team," said coach Justin Evans. "[Tampa Bay] played last night and knew what was at stake too. For us, we knew what we needed to do, and it was just sitting there in front of us."
The first half was a deadlock, as the Riverhounds missed several passes and couldn't string together many scoring opportunities. They came out strong in the second half, though, when a handball off a pass gave the Riverhounds a free kick in the 53rd minute. Forward Jose Angulo, the Riverhounds' leading scorer with 13 goals, nailed the free kick by slipping the ball through the left side of the net.
The Riverhounds would score two more goals, one on a rifle from midfielder Rob Vincent in the 60th minute and one off a cross to the left side of the goal from midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan to forward Darren Amoo in the 68th minute.
With a 3-0 lead, the game looked to be over, but Tampa Bay scored twice in the last 20 minutes of the game, including a goal in the 86th minute that made things a little more interesting.
"We just stopped playing," Evans said. "We got up, 3-0, and just made it too difficult. We stopped connecting passes and getting it forward. It's nothing we told them to do, it's just something that happens in a game where you're trying to protect, and everybody is tired."
For a team that needed eight games to get its first win at the beginning of the season, the playoffs were all that mattered.
"This is one of those games where you didn't even have to discuss the message before the game," said Jason Kutney, the team's CEO and midfielder. "There was only one thing that needed to be done tonight. To start the season the way we started it and to come back and make the playoffs ... amazing."
Everett Cook: email@example.com and Twitter @everettcook