MLS Cup Round 1 preview: Everything you need to know
The international break has come and gone, meaning the revamped MLS Cup playoffs are about to kick off. A 14-team field, single elimination all the way to MLS Cup, no more international breaks interrupting the postseason in its most dramatic moments -- the 2019 playoffs have a fresh, vibrant feel. With that buzz firmly established, we break down each of the six Round 1 matchups, which start Saturday.
2. Atlanta United vs. 7. New England Revolution
1:00 p.m. ET Oct. 19
Backstory: Atlanta United are the defending champions and remain among the best teams man-for-man in MLS. Despite a coaching change and the sale of Miguel Almiron, the Five Stripes maintained their elite club status. Nothing short of an MLS Cup will do for a club that sets such a high standard.
The Revs are lucky -- and perhaps happy -- just to be here. The achievement for New England was turning around a mess of a season after the arrival of Bruce Arena in May. Arena brought a new attitude with him, coinciding with strong investment from ownership. For New England, it's mostly about the future.
Playoff path: Atlanta's run to second place in the East and home-field advantage for at least two rounds did not come easily. The early-season adjustment period for new boss Frank de Boer nearly undermined the campaign. A strong defensive record and the goal scoring of Josef Martinez carried the team through.
New England managed to win only two of its last 10 games and still make the postseason. Abetted by a poor group behind them in the standings, the Revs pulled off their miracle largely by limiting losses. From May 11 to Decision Day, New England lost only three times.
Connecting thread: The most obvious common denominator between Atlanta and New England is in their ownership. Both clubs are controlled by groups with NFL interests and play in massive NFL stadiums. In that similarity is also contrast: While Atlanta has turned itself into a leading light of MLS, the Revs are still working out how ambitious they want to be.
Tactical contrast: In De Boer's possession-focused system, Atlanta will aim to control the ball while looking for ways to exploit diagonal runs and the work of wing players. Julian Gressel is especially adept at late runs into dangerous areas and has the intelligence to make good decisions in and near the box.
The Revs figure to use their high press to try to force mistakes that can be turned into scoring chances. The Decision Day matchup will serve as data for Arena to tweak the height of his line and the intensity of the press. Despite the scoreline, New England made things difficult for Atlanta in midfield and could use that tactic again.
Headaches: Martinez's remarkable recovery removes one problem for De Boer, but an injury to Miles Robinson, the center back picked up with the U.S., creates another. Atlanta's manager must juggle his back line and assess the risk of inserting a replacement without Robinson's athleticism or quality on the ball.
New England's biggest headache is overcoming history. The Revs have never beaten Atlanta United in five meetings and will be firm underdogs Saturday. The energy in Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be intense, and it will behoove the visitors to find a way to quiet the crowd early.
Star man: Martinez's record run of goals in 15 straight games speaks to his incredible ability. The knee injury he suffered on Sept. 21 looked like a heavy blow to Atlanta's championship chances. His return to the field and scoring against New England on Decision Day put the Five Stripes back in the hunt.
Gustavo Bou has shouldered the goal-scoring load since joining, but the Revs' most influential player is midfielder Carles Gil. The Spaniard scored 10 goals and collected 14 assists in 2019, leading New England in both categories. The best attacking moments typically run through Gil.
Where it will be won: On Decision Day, the Revs tried to clog up the midfield and had a modicum of success. Altanta's posture -- will it be willing to let the Revs have the ball -- and New England's midfield press will determine the outcome.
X factor: It seems odd to call Gressel an X factor at this point, but the German midfielder is so often the player who springs the United attack or arrives to fire home a shot that he remains the first name that comes to mind for the label.
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In addition to Gil and Bou, the Revs can threaten through the speed and industry of Cristian Penilla. Look no further than New England's goal in Atlanta on Decision Day for what the Ecuadorian can do when given half a chance through an error.
Atlanta will win because: It's simply better. If we need to be more specific, United will see off the Revs because of the litany of goal threats and a midfield that works as well together as any in MLS.
New England will win because: The Five Stripes make mistakes. The Revs will try to force said mistakes, but either way, the only real path to victory for New England is if it is gifted more than one opportunity through giveaways and errors by Atlanta.
Prediction: Atlanta United 3-1 New England Revolution. -- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
2. Seattle Sounders vs. 7. FC Dallas3:30 p.m. ET Oct. 19
Backstory: As in previous seasons, Seattle had a rough first half but righted the ship in late summer and methodically marched to a second-place finish in the West. Once again, expectations are high for a deep playoff run.
FC Dallas is young and bursting with talent, which makes it a difficult out for anyone. Coach Luchi Gonzalez has stuck to the "play your kids" philosophy, and it paid off with a postseason berth. How all those young players will handle the playoff pressure is another story.
Playoff paths: Seattle punched its postseason ticket with a full two games to spare and emerged from a seven-team scrum in the Western Conference to finish as the 2-seed. FC Dallas needed a final day win over Sporting Kansas City at home and achieved that with flying colors, scoring as much as Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (six) on the same day to clinch.
Connecting thread: From 2014 to 2016, Seattle and FC Dallas squared off in the postseason and delivered some drama. Seattle squeaked past the Texans in 2014, 1-1 on aggregate, thanks to an away goal. FC Dallas got its revenge in 2015 in a wild conference semifinal that saw three goals in the waning minutes of the second leg that ended in a penalty shootout win. The next year as part of a late season surge to MLS Cup, Seattle leveraged a 3-0 first-leg win to eliminate the Supporters' Shield champions in the conference semifinals 4-2.
Tactical contrast: The Sounders are playing more direct soccer these days to ease the burden on a revamped defense, and the likes of forwards Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz are players who can wreak havoc on FCD's tendency to leave gaps. The Texans are feast or famine when it comes to their possession-based attack; they could hit five goals one game and zero the next. The good news is that center forward Zdenek Ondrasek has found his footing in MLS -- he even scored the winner for Czech Republic over England last week in Euro 2020 qualifying -- and gives FC Dallas a legitimate scoring threat at the No. 9 position.
Headaches: Colombia international Santiago Mosquera might have played his way into a starting role on the left wing over Dominique Badji with a strong close to the season, including a start in the Decision Day walloping of Sporting KC. Seattle boss Brian Schmetzer has a center-back quandary with Roman Torres, Xavier Arreaga and Kim Kee-Hee vying for two spots in defense. Torres has recently returned to the lineup and looks to have nailed down a spot, so Schmetzer has to figure out who he prefers in that pairing.
Star man: Nicolas Lodeiro is the straw that stirs the Sounders' drink, and it's imperative that he's at his playmaking best for Seattle to advance. Goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez has been quietly good this season in Big D, and Ondrasek's scorching form puts him in the conversation, but Michael Barrios (15 assists) is still the one to create Dallas' scoring chances.
Where it will be won: FC Dallas needs a quick start to pile pressure on the hosts and provide a confidence boost for a team with plenty of players lacking playoff experience. If not, Seattle has more match winners on the field, with Ruidiaz and Morris boasting strong playoff pedigrees.
X factor: He might be a defender, but Matt Hollingshead has emerged as quite the goal threat in 2019. The left back scored six goals and has been stellar defensively. Why is he not with the national team? He might drive fans crazy with his inconsistency or the tendency to go missing, but Joevin Jones can turn any match in Seattle's favor with his speed, deep runs and inch-perfect crosses.
Seattle will win because: The Sounders were extraordinary this year in close games. They claimed 12 wins by a one-goal margin, with six of those by a 1-0 final scoreline. Although not a team for the faint of heart, this squad shows that kind of mental toughness that often counts in the postseason.
Dallas will win because: With Ondrasek in great form at the moment and expectations low, a team playing with no pressure will sneak out of Seattle with a win.
Prediction: Seattle 1-0 FC Dallas. -- Arch Bell (@ArchBell)
4. Toronto FC vs. 5. D.C. United6:00 p.m. ET Oct. 19
Backstory: Toronto FC is a dynasty on hold. The 2017 MLS Cup champions took a big step backward in 2018, missing the playoffs despite the league's highest payroll. This year is therefore a stride toward reclaiming what the Reds believe is their proper place at the top of the league.
The opening of Audi Field and the signing of Wayne Rooney were game-changing events in the history of D.C. United. A club that lagged behind the vanguard of the league could now attempt to compete on a more even footing. Rooney's imminent departure raises new questions, and D.C. is still a second-tier club in terms of spending, but there's new hope in Washington.
Playoff path: For most of 2019, Toronto looked unsure of itself. Injuries, absences and changes via departed big names caused TFC to struggle with consistency. The talent was there, and a late 10-game unbeaten run showed the Reds to be a force to be reckoned with in the East.
D.C.'s fifth-place finish was a mild disappointment considering its early place among the conference leaders. Only a late-season run of excellent defensive play kept it from dropping further down the table. Goals are missing, but the Black and Red can thank Bill Hamid & Co. for giving them a shot.
Connecting thread: Although D.C. United is the older MLS club by more than a decade and Toronto's best era is so recent, both clubs arrive at the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs with dreams of reclaiming former glory. D.C. is the original MLS dynasty and believes the game-changing effects of Audi Field could push the club back to the top. TFC still spend more than anyone and want to see the return on that investment lead to a second MLS Cup title.
Tactical contrast: TFC uses the passing ability of Michael Bradley to stretch the field. Alejandro Pozuelo will play from the hole, picking up balls from the wingers and pushing them in to Toronto's center forward. The Reds' approach changes if Jozy Altidore is unable to bounce back from his quadriceps injury.
D.C. United will play a deep line of confrontation on the road in Toronto, counting on Paul Arriola to run the channels and latch onto balls played out of the rear of the formation. The attack has gone missing the past three months, so the plan will almost entirely focus on defending.
Headaches: If Altidore can't play, Toronto has a massive problem replacing him at the front. The American's influence goes beyond goal scoring, with his hold-up play and passing crucial to TFC's ability to break down what will be a resolute United defense.
A similar problem exists for Ben Olsen. Wayne Rooney is a must-start, but his ability to impact the game is hurt by the lack of a viable partner up top. Recently, Olsen has turned to playing Arriola underneath Rooney, more a nod to defending than to the attack.
Star man: Pozuelo arrived in March following a protracted transfer process and immediately became TFC's most important attacking player. His goal-scoring exploits were a bit of a surprise, but with international call-ups and injuries, his all-around offensive contributions were crucial.
If D.C. is going to be a threat to score in Toronto, it will likely be Rooney who pulls the string or finds the moment that leads to a goal. There's an extra bit of pressure on Rooney to deliver in his second playoff game, given his impending departure.
Where it will be won: United's ability to hurry and harry Bradley will determine how long it can keep Toronto off the board and perhaps spring an upset, especially if Altidore is missing.
X factor: If Altidore can't go, the Reds will be searching for goal threats. That makes the case for Omar Gonzalez as the X factor for TFC a strong one; not only will the center back be crucial to Toronto's defensive effort, but he can also be a threat on set pieces.
Arriola is D.C.'s second-best player and will carry his usual weight on both sides of the ball. If D.C. is going to win on the road in Canada, it's a decent bet that Arriola will have a hand in the victory.
Toronto will win because: It has the better talent throughout a squad with match winners such as Pozuelo. The home crowd should push the Reds on, even if Altidore is missing and Toronto needs to be more creative to find chances against a strong United defensive group.
D.C. will win because: Bill Hamid in goal and Olsen's disciplined tactics elsewhere keep TFC off the board and let United squeeze a goal from a set piece or an opportunistic moment. Rooney pops up with some magic, perhaps combining with Arriola to find a way around Toronto on a breakaway.
Prediction: Toronto FC 1-0 D.C. United -- Jason Davis
3. Real Salt Lake vs. 6. Portland Timbers10:00 p.m. ET Oct. 19 (watch live on ESPNEWS)
Backstory: It has been a turbulent season off the field in Salt Lake, with the controversial firing of head coach Mike Petke, yet despite all those distractions, things have come together nicely on the field under interim boss Freddy Juarez, with RSL securing the 3-seed in the west.
Portland endured a roller-coaster season that started with 12 straight road matches and no wins in its first six (one draw, five defeats). Despite a few bumps along the way, coach Giovanni Savarese managed to rally the troops, and a home-heavy second half of the season finally yielded a postseason berth.
Playoff path: Rio Tinto Stadium was home sweet home for RSL in 2019, accounting for 12 of the team's 16 wins. But it was a four-match stretch amid Petke's suspension and eventual firing that made the difference, with Juarez guiding RSL to 10 points out of 12 in late July and early August. For Portland, a four-win July and a four-match unbeaten run to end the season were just enough to nudge this team over the playoff line.
Connecting thread: The first and only time these two sides faced each other in the postseason was RSL's 5-2 aggregate win in 2013. However, Portland has won the past six head-to-head matches.
Tactical contrast: The 2019 RSL team is a far cry from the version that coughed up 58 goals during the regular season in 2018. The current group has conceded just 41 goals, third-best in the league behind Los Angeles FC and DC United. Although it has given up offense in the process (55 goals in 2018 to 46 in 2019), a tighter, more compact defense should aid RSL in the postseason.
The Timbers are one of the best teams in the league on the counterattack, and after their sweep of RSL during the season, it will be interesting to see if Juarez deploys a strong defensive posture, even with Brian Fernandez unavailable and Diego Valeri hampered by injury.
Headaches: Juarez has an interesting decision to make up top. The only RSL player to score against Portland this season was Sam Johnson, who started just 15 of 24 games this season. But his pace and ability to create holes in the Portland defense might win out over Corey Baird or Damir Kreilach. For Portland, it remains to be seen if Diego Valeri has recovered from injury, but even at 80% fitness, you can't help but think that Savarese will be tempted to play his veteran midfielder.
Star man: For RSL, it's a close race between Jefferson Savarino and Albert Rusnak in 2019, but for this one game, the nod goes to Savarino, who is in excellent form for both club and country and could use these MLS playoffs as a springboard to an overseas move this winter. Meanwhile, with Fernandez out and Valeri's status uncertain, all Portland eyes will be on Sebastian Blanco. The Argentine playmaker has picked up the slack in the absence of those 19 goals and 17 assists. With a pair of goals and an assist in his past three, Blanco has to be the go-to guy.
Where it will be won: For RSL, it's vital to stay mistake-free, in midfield most of all. Portland will be on the prowl for any sloppy mistakes in the middle, which is where Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse can put RSL to the sword. If Johnson is on the field for RSL and can stretch the Timbers' defense, the chances will come for the hosts.
X factor: Sebastian Saucedo can provide a lot of punch off the bench. The weather is going to be cold and nasty Saturday, and a strong body like Saucedo, against a tiring defense in the second half, could help spark a late winner if needed. On the other side, it's the ultimate MLS playoff X factor: Dairon Asprilla. The Colombian "Mr. October" scored on the final day of the regular season against San Jose and has three goals and four assists in just 693 postseason minutes.
Salt Lake will win because: The absences of Fernandez and Valeri will be too much for Portland to overcome against an RSL back line that is considered one of best in the league. The hosts have just enough in attack to advance.
Portland will win because: The Timbers' winning streak against RSL will continue on the strength of Blanco and Ebobisse making the most of RSL's midfield errors. This group knows how to get the job done away from home in the postseason.
Prediction: Real Salt Lake 0-1 Portland. -- Arch Bell
3. Philadelphia Union vs. 6. New York Red Bulls3:00 p.m. ET Oct. 20
Backstory: Qualifying for the playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons, Philadelphia in 2019 has been rewarded for its faith in manager Jim Curtin by leading the Eastern Conference for much of the season. With a dynamic core of homegrown players augmented by astute recruitment from new GM Tanner Ernst, the Union have raised their expectations this season.
This is the Red Bulls' eighth consecutive postseason appearance, with three Supporters' Shields won in that time. Without an MLS Cup win, it's hard to call the club a dynasty, but this team is routinely in the conversation to lift MLS' crown jewel -- or it would be if it didn't have such an awful playoff history.
Playoff path: After something of a slow start, Philadelphia was atop the Eastern Conference for most of 2019. However, three losses in its final four matches condemned this team to the No. 3 seed. Kacper Przybylko has proved an inspired addition, leading the club with 15 goals (fifth in MLS) in his first season in MLS, and the emergence of Rookie of the Year finalist Brenden Aaronson -- not to mention Mexico international Marco Fabian -- has ensured that the club has no shortage of attacking threat.
For the first two months of the season, whether the Red Bulls would make the postseason was a valid question. They sat as low as 11th in the East, star Kaku was self-destructing, and questions were being asked of Chris Armas' managerial future. The club recovered, playing well enough to back into the playoffs, but a decidedly .500 record (14W-6D-14L) underlines a mediocre season for a club with bigger aspirations.
Connecting thread: These are two of the league's most revered academies, but while the Red Bulls' homegrowns experienced something of a stagnant season, the Union's Aaronson enjoyed one of the league's biggest breakout campaigns.
Tactical contrast: Philadelphia creates by committee, with Haris Medunjanin, Jamiro Monteiro and Ilsinho -- with the latter typically coming off the bench -- shouldering much of the playmaking burden. The variety of contributors makes it a challenge to close down conduits between that trio and potent finishers such as Przybylko, Fabian and Fafa Picault.
The Red Bulls pioneered the press in modern MLS, and that hasn't changed under Armas. They will live by the turnovers created in the attacking third, leading to quick-strike goals from the likes of Daniel Royer and Kaku, but they will similarly die by the space left behind the press, with both Aaron Long and Tim Parker having underwhelming seasons.
Headaches: Where have the goals gone? The Union scored just three goals from open play in their final five matches of the season, two of which came from Przybylko. If they're going to get the better of the Red Bulls, they need bigger contributions from Picault and especially Fabian.
Long and Parker were meant to be a star center-back pairing in MLS, and in 2018, that looked to be the case. This year, though, after Long's head appeared to be turned by a summer approach from West Ham, that hasn't been the case. The Red Bulls rank fifth of seven Eastern Conference playoff teams in goals conceded and were bettered by two of the conference's non-playoff sides as well.
Star man: It has to be Przybylko. He has directly contributed to 19 goals this season, a number no one else in Philadelphia has come close to matching.
Kaku might have drawn all the headlines the past two seasons -- sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes not -- but Royer has consistently been the driving force this season. His energy from wide areas is instrumental in the Red Bulls' pressing game, and he's equally dangerous as a finisher and creator, as evidenced by his 11 goals and eight assists.
Where it will be won: In Philadelphia's ability to progress the ball forward from the back. If Andre Blake and the defenders in front of him can successfully get the ball into midfield, where the Union's creativity lies, they can break the Red Bulls' press and exploit a vulnerable defense.
X factor: Fabian has the sort of quality that if the stars align -- and they rarely have this season -- he can decide a game all by himself. If he plays to that potential, it's difficult to envision the Red Bulls advancing.
The Red Bulls have perennial goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, and they signed TAM forward Mathias Jorgensen, but it is unheralded Brian White who has been their most dangerous striker in 2019. He just returned from a six-week layoff through a high-ankle sprain, but his nine goals in 16 starts this season suggest he'll be the man to carry New York through.
Philadelphia will win because: The Union's attack-by-committee ethos will prove too unpredictable for a Red Bulls defense that has struggled to catch its breath this season.
Red Bulls will win because: They've been here before. The last time the Union advanced past the first round of the playoffs was 2011, and New York has won a playoff series in four of the past five years.
Prediction: Philadelphia Union 2-0 New York Red Bulls -- Austin Lindberg (@LindbergESPN)
4. Minnesota United vs. 5. LA Galaxy
8:30 p.m. ET Oct. 20 (watch live on ESPN)
Backstory: Although its first two years of MLS existence were largely forgettable, Minnesota's three-year plan proved prophetic, including moving into Allianz Field and qualifying for the playoffs in Year 3. A defense that was record-breakingly bad those first two years was fortified to become the team's strength, and the Wonderwall has made trips to the Twin Cities a nightmare for all comers.
No team in MLS has the history of the Galaxy: five MLS Cups, four Supporters' Shields and missed playoffs only twice in the past decade (the past two seasons). In captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Los Angeles also has unrivaled star power. Since the club's first MLS Cup win in 2002, it has never gone five seasons without lifting the league's most prized silverware; the 2019 postseason marks five seasons since the Galaxy's most recent MLS Cup.
Playoff path: Minnesota was a bubble team for the first three months of the season, only for a summer run of form to vault it to second in the Western Conference down the homestretch. A tough end of the season with a draw vs. LAFC and a loss in Seattle dropped the Loons into this 4-vs.-5 matchup with the Galaxy.
To say it has been an up-and-down year for the Galaxy would be an understatement. For most of the first half of the campaign, they were best of the rest in the West behind LAFC, but a midsummer swoon raised questions of a third straight postseason without Los Angeles' original MLS club. The Galaxy made it, obviously, but dropped their last two games of the regular season to Vancouver and Houston -- two clubs with nothing to play for.
Connecting thread: Both teams should be desperate. Both teams could've and should've finished higher in a Western Conference that is wide-open behind LAFC. Neither team has made the playoffs the past two seasons. Neither team will be satisfied with a one-and-done postseason, considering the circumstances: Minnesota with a decided home-field advantage giving it a boost and the Galaxy with the godlike talents of Ibrahimovic.
Tactical contrast: Minnesota is often at its best possessing the ball, circulating in the attacking half and taking advantage of opportunities in wide areas through the superb performances of full-backs Romain Metanire and Chase Gasper. The Loons have been let down by their insistence on crossing, when a greater emphasis on combination play in the channels can create more space for an attack that is low on confidence at present.
For a team with as many weapons as the Galaxy have, everything still runs through Ibrahimovic. Cristian Pavon, Uriel Antuna, Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos all possess something unique in LA's moves forward, making them on paper a versatile and unpredictable attack. But ultimately, the Galaxy will live and die by their big No. 9.
Headaches: Minnesota creates chances like few other teams in the league, but finishing has been a problem down the stretch. Of the four goals this team scored in the final four games of the regular season, none was scored by an attacking player.
No playoff team in either conference is as porous as the Galaxy; in fact, just four clubs conceded more this season. Three times in their final seven matches, the Galaxy allowed four goals, including those losses to eliminated Vancouver and Houston.
Star man: Darwin Quintero was Minnesota's first Designated Player, and he remains the most talented man in the squad. The club's front office spoke of MVP expectations early this season, after three goals and three assists in his first four contests, but he has cooled considerably since then, despite notching 10 goals and five assists -- hardly numbers to scoff at, especially in what's considered a down year.
Ibrahimovic is the star man at the All-Star Game, let alone with his club. He has scored 56 goals in 52 MLS matches and is arguably the best player to have ever played in the league. In a Galaxy team full of stars, Ibrahimovic shines brightest.
Where it will be won: In transition. Minnesota will need to be especially careful not to give the ball away, as the pace and dynamism of Cristian Pavon and Uriel Antuna can easily create opportunities for the other and Ibrahimovic on the break. Minnesota has the fifth-best defense in MLS, but careless possession in the middle third especially will put Defender of the Year finalist Ike Opara and Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Vito Mannone to the test.
X factor: In a season in which Minnesota has seen its attack blow hot and cold, with a rotating cast of goal scorers carrying the club to victory, Mason Toye is perhaps the most unpredictable and has the most potential. His brace singlehandedly sank LAFC in the Loons' surprise 2-0 win at LAFC in September.
Jonathan dos Santos has the defensive nous to disrupt Minnesota's possession game, the vision to quickly put the ball in dangerous areas in transition and the finishing ability to get on the end of a move. He also has two goals and an assist in five career matches against the Loons.
Minnesota will win because: It has the defensive strength in Mannone, Opara, Metanire, Gasper and Michael Boxall to keep a prolific attack at bay while possessing great depth in attack, the breadth of which will keep a vulnerable defense guessing.
Galaxy will win because: Zlatan gets what he wants, more often than not. And if the Loons do manage to keep him quiet, all the attention paid to the Swede will leave plenty of opportunities for the likes of Pavon, Antuna and Sebastian Lletget to take advantage of.
Prediction: Minnesota United 3-2 LA Galaxy -- Austin Lindberg