The MLS NEXT Pro season is officially in crunch time for the back end of the playoff field, and the Western Conference is uncomfortably tight for those hovering above and below the cut line.
These times make the heroics of star players shine a little brighter than weeks past, and North Texas SC's goalkeeper Antonio Carerra had the biggest performance in Matchday 24, which went the longest way in keeping his side out of the clutches of elimination.
Carerra's safe hands kept NTSC's playoff hopes alive and garnered some power in the West. In all, he collected 10 saves, a career-high, and was good for a 37/43 (87%) passing rate in a narrow 1-0 road win over Whitecaps FC 2 on Friday.
“It’s something that I am proud of, and I will enjoy it with my boys," Carerra said after the match. "We are on an away trip so I will enjoy it with them. Like coach (John) Gall said, it's my job. My job is to make saves, I made 10 saves, but we have to keep going. We keep pushing and that is the new standard. We build from this going forward.”
The importance of the clean sheet can not be overstated. North Texas SC must approach each game from here on out as if there is no margin for error as the wide-open Western Conference playoff race could very well come down to goal differential on Decision Day.
Carerra is the first North Texas SC player to take the Player of the Matchday honor in 2023 and is the second-ever goalkeeper to claim the award.
“Of course we are ecstatic," said Carerra. "You can tell the progress and work the team has put in. Like coach (John) Gall said, tonight’s game was all about grit. We worked from the first whistle of the match to the final whistle. Not just me, but the whole team from the defenders, midfielders, and forwards. The goal was pure grit, we worked hard for it. Today was a battle and our players and team won that battle.”
Friday was not the first time Carerra has impressed lately. The young U.S. men's national team prospect has consistently been one of the best goalkeepers since MLS NEXT Pro's inception. Interim head coach John Gall should be pleased to see La Muralla (The Wall) playing at his best in the critical stretch North Texas SC finds itself in.
They resume the campaign on Matchday 25 with a heavyweight tilt with Western Conference-leading Colorado Rapids 2 on Sunday, September 3. Rapids 2, who once held a 12-game unbeaten streak, have come back down to earth recently with two losses in the month of August. There's never a good time to play them, it seems, but NTSC can get momentum on their side with a win.
You can catch that match and several others here at MLSNEXTPro.com, as well as the rest of Matchday 25 action on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.