For the 2019 season, the MLS has introduced a new playoff format. Last year, it was six teams in each conference, and the top two seeds each earned a bye. After a one and down first round, the conference semifinals and finals would feature two-legged series before the MLS Cup Finals. This year, however, the playoffs were expanded to include a seventh team, and now only the top seed in each conference earns a bye. Also, after the first-round matches, the conference semifinals and finals will only be single matchups. With all this change, it brings a whole new excitement and potential for unpredictability. Let’s look at the six first-round matches this season.
Saturday, October 19, 2019
New England at Atlanta
This is the first postseason matchup between these two sports cities since the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51. There is a bit of controversy heading into this game as Atlanta defender Miles Robinson, who played for the United States during the preceding international break, pulled his hamstring during a post-match training session. Despite the outrage from Atlanta United team officials and coaches, Atlanta must go on without their star defender. Atlanta is trying to become the first repeat MLS Cup Champions since the 2011-12 Los Angeles Galaxy. Their first obstacle is the team they last played at home, the New England Revolution, led by MLS Newcomer of the Year Carlos Gil. Despite losing Robinson, Atlanta and MLS superstar Josef Martinez will be too much for the Revolution as Atlanta moves on comfortably.
Prediction: Atlanta 4 New England 2
FC Dallas at Seattle
The Seattle Sounders are one of the best all-around teams in the MLS, but once again, the injury bug hit the Sounders as every major starter outside of goaltender Stefan Frei had to miss time due to injury. However, due to the major parity of the MLS, Seattle was able to survive shorthanded games and won enough when healthy to achieve the second seed in the Western Conference. The Sounders are healthy at the right time and come into the playoffs with momentum and two huge 1-0 victories, including a 94th-minute stoppage-time winner by Jordan Morris at San Jose. They take on FC Dallas who also comes into the playoffs with momentum. On decision day, FC Dallas needed to grab a win vs Sporting KC to secure a playoff berth and they got it done with an impressive 6-0 victory. Dallas has a very balanced roster and will give any team fits. With Seattle healthy and at home, I give the edge to Seattle, but it will be a win they will have to sweat out.
Prediction: Seattle 2 FC Dallas 1 (ET)
DC United at Toronto FC
This battle looks to be a slugfest. Toronto FC has had an up and down season. They won their first three games, then lost 10 of 21 games, then finished the season on a ten-game unbeaten streak to claim a home game in the first round of the playoffs. A productive season from Spanish midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo, who notched 12 goals and 11 assists, helped anchor a struggling offense and lead them into the playoffs. DC found their success this season with defense as they scored the 4th fewest goals as a team this season but went their final five games without conceding a single goal. However, the lack of offense became apparent when they had a two-man advantage at home vs last-place FC Cincinnati and failed to score a single goal. I expect neither side to gain any traction and this will be settled in a PK shootout. This time, DC will not have to go against Zack Steffen and will prevail by the skin of their teeth.
Prediction: DC United 0 Toronto FC 0 (DC Wins 3-2 on PKs)
Portland at Real Salt Lake
Both teams were expected to make the playoffs coming into the season, but neither had it easy. First, Real Salt Lake dominate at home with a 12-4-1 record but had to fire their coach, Mike Petke, in the middle of the season for yelling a homophobic slur at an official in July. That coach is now suing the team, and this caused RSL and the general manager, Craig Waibel, to part ways. Portland, on the other hand, had to play their first 12 matches on the road and had star newcomer Brian Fernandez, amid a great season, enter rehab. While RSL is the favorites, I expect the experienced Timbers to go into Salt Lake and grind out an ugly victory and head to Seattle for the second round.
Prediction: Portland 1 Real Salt Lake 0
Sunday, October 20
New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union
The surprise vs the disappointment. Offense vs defense. Philadelphia surprised many by holding the top spot in the eastern conference for several months while the Red Bulls also surprised many by taking a tumble to sixth place a season after winning their third Supporters Shield in six years. The Red Bulls relied on great defense while Philadelphia overcame a sometimes-porous defense to earn this home fixture. Despite many failures in postseason’s past for the Red Bulls, they will come out and dominate Philadelphia to earn a rematch with Atlanta from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Prediction: New York 3 Philadelphia 0
Los Angeles Galaxy at Minnesota United
This is without question the game in the first round that is must-watch television. Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes his MLS playoffs debut against a young and rising Minnesota United team who are just in their third year of existence. Minnesota is full of young and speedy players anchored down by former Sounders’ champion Osvaldo Alonso and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Ike Opara. However, they are battling Zlatan, a player who for over a decade, dominated against the world’s best, and will look to carry that into the MLS playoffs. With a weak backline, Minnesota will have their chances but will be ultimately be done in by Zlatan. MLS Playoffs. Welcome to Zlatan.
Prediction: Los Angeles Galaxy 3 Minnesota 2 (ET)