MLS Cup playoffs preview

First round showcases excitement of new format

There was always going to be a little controversy over the new playoff format MLS adopted for the 2019 season. Instead of a home-and-away series deciding every matchup until the final, one game decides who moves on to the next round.

Needless to say, the “win or go home” scenario made for some pretty exciting games in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.

As is heard often in sports, anything can happen in just one game. This is precisely what critics of the new format voiced when the MLS announced the changes. One game gives the inferior team, the one that finished lower in the standings, a chance to advance, because anything can happen in 90 minutes, whereas the truly better team has a higher chance to showcase its quality over two legs.

Those concerns were put to rest in the first round, with the home team winning five of the six games over the weekend.

Let’s look at those games more in-depth:

Atlanta United 1-0 New England Revolution

These two Eastern Conference sides set the tone, with New England pressing high as of the first minute, with Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer employing a similar tactic as well. It made for some wonderful attacking football and allowed the defensive lines on either end to take centre stage.

Finally, it was a tactical switch in the second half – De Boer bringing on another defender, switching from a three-man defense to a four-man unit, which allowed goal scorer Franco Escobar to move to the right wing and make his way forward more often.

A good idea in the end, considering this was Escobar’s third playoff goal in just six games, which is impressive in itself, especially as the defender has just two goals in the MLS regular season.

Philadelphia Union 4-3 New York Red Bulls

If you were looking for exciting soccer this weekend, chances are you weren’t disappointed at how this game turned out. The Union, hosting the New York Red Bulls at home, found itself in trouble early, going down 2-0 and then 3-1 at half-time.

It seemed a dire situation for Philly fans, their club looking like they would have to wait at least another year for their first playoff win in franchise history.

Jack Elliott managed to cut the deficit in half early in the second, and that’s when head coach Jim Curtin rolled up his sleeves and got to work; he would bring on Fabrice-Jean Picault in the 72nd minute, and within six minutes, he scored the equalizer. Marco Fabian was then brought on in the 103rd minute, finding a winning goal just two minutes later, assisted by, you guessed it, Picault.

Toronto FC 5-1 D.C. United

Without striker Jozy Altidore available, against a team that hadn’t given up a goal in five games, head coach Greg Vanney had a decision to make: who would play as striker? Vanney opted for Designated Player and playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, who usually makes a living occupying space in midfield.

Not a bad decision in the end, considering TFC’s first goal came off a Pozuelo rebound. Although D.C. United tied it with the last kick of the game, the Reds were able to brutally pull away in extra time for a 5-1 win.

It also brings the Wayne Rooney era to an end in the American capital, the English legend now heading to Derby County to pursue his career as a player-coach. We’re waiting for the movie.

Seattle Sounders 4-3 FC Dallas

The stats were truly against the Texas representatives in this one. The Sounders are built for playoff success and hadn’t lost a playoff game at CenturyLink Field in their last nine matches.

FC Dallas, on its end, has won just once in Seattle in its long history – in 2011. That being said, they did seem desperate to stop that trend, fighting back and erasing a two-goal deficit, and then clawing their way back again when Seattle went up 3-2.

Credit to them for forcing extra time, but Jordan Morris was having none of it on a night he could do no wrong, scoring the winner – his third of the night – in the 113th minute.

Real Salt Lake 2-1 Portland Timbers

This one really did go to the better team, despite the tight result. Real Salt Lake was particularly dominant in the first half, controlling play and causing the Timbers defensive woes with their rhythm.

Portland answered by pressing higher in the second and clawing its way back, and the Utahns needed a few key saves from Nick Rimando to stay in it, but their 87th-minute game-winner was thoroughly deserved.

Minnesota United FC 1-2 LA Galaxy

It just wasn’t meant to be for Minnesota. Hosting their first ever playoff game in front of a jam-packed Allianz Stadium, things seemed set for the Loons, who were hosting the LA Galaxy in a stadium they had only lost once in. To top it off, the self-proclaimed lion Zlatan Ibrahimovic was dormant, managing just two shots on target.

The difference was in the final third. If Minnesota was more dominant on the ball, it lacked that finishing touch in front of goal.

The Galaxy, on their end, had this kind of finishing going for them:

It’s hard to believe that Minnesota didn’t deserve a better fate after its first ever playoff game, but then again, the looming LA clash that will take place Thursday night seems pretty appealing as well.