2019 MLS Playoffs Preview

A record-setting regular season of Major League Soccer has concluded, making way for what should be a thrilling playoffs.

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The Major League Soccer teams have battled all summer to get themselves into the postseason, and they have finally made it (along with the brisk fall weather). Now that the dust has settled after a long regular season, there are 14 MLS teams that will be vying to lift the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on November 10. Here are the 2019 MLS Cup Playoff participants and what we expect to see when it matters the most.

The MLS Cup Playoffs will be in a new format starting this year: instead of reseeding teams like in years past, the 2019 playoffs will feature each of the top-seven teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences. The top seed from each will receive a bye, while the two and seven, three and six, and four and five seeds will face each other in the knockout first round. Another major change in the format is the elimination of the two leg rounds. Instead, the games will be single elimination, opening the way for upsets.

First off, we should take a look at the top teams from each conference, whose successes granted them a first round bye. In the East, New York City FC grabbed the top spot in the conference by racking up 18 wins and 10 draws, only losing six games all year. They achieved this feat by being one of the highest scoring teams in the MLS. It was a team effort when it came to their scoring output, led by three players with double-digit goal tallies. Héber Araújo dos Santos scored a team-high 15 goals, good enough for fifth best in the league. Behind him were Alexandru Mitrita and Valentin Castellanos, who scored 12 and 11 goals, respectively. If NYCFC want to continue their success into a postseason run, they will need to continue their efficient goal scoring.

In terms of offense, the other one-seed set the bar for scoring output this season in the MLS. Los Angeles FC topped the Western Conference with a league-best 21-9-4 record. They implemented an attacking system that saw them net 85 goals, tying the record for most goals in an MLS season scored by any team. LAFC set a couple other records as well, including most points in a season (72) and best goal difference (+48). This was spear-headed by an incredible season long performance from Golden Boot winner Carlos Vela. Vela scored an MLS record 34 goals this season. He and teammate Diego Rossi’s fourth best 16 goals led the charge to the top seed in the West. If they continue to perform, as well as continue to make plays on defense, LAFC will be front-runners to win the 2019 MLS Cup.

Staying out West, we can speculate who will be looking to take on LAFC after winning in the round when fourth-seeded Minnesota United takes on fifth-seeded LA Galaxy. Despite ending the year only 15-8-11, Minnesota finished with a +9 goal differential, second best in the West. Their scoring attack was a balanced one, with Darwin Quintero leading them in both goals (10) and assists (five). Despite average scoring output, their solid goalkeeping was able to keep them up in the table, even with weak defense. Goalkeeper Vito Mannone ended the season second in saves with 129 stops and third in the MLS with 11 shutouts, demonstrating both Mannone’s reliability and the weakness of United’s defensive lines. As long as Mannone is in goal, Minnesota will have a chance in the playoffs.

The 38-year old star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who crossed the Atlantic to partake in his first MLS season for the LA Galaxy, hit 29 goals on the season, beating the previous league record before Vela put it to shame. Though Zlatan is enjoyable to watch, the rest of the squad does not meet the same intensity. Galaxy, the only team in the West to make the postseason with a negative goal differential (-1), ended the year 16-3-15. Beside their star, the next highest goal-scorer only netted six. Going up against a sound-defensive team in Minnesota, they will need Zlatan more than ever.

The next Western matchup involves third-seeded Real Salt Lake and sixth-seeded Portland Timbers. RSL rely heavily on their defense, which gave up the third least goals among playoff teams (41 goals). Albert Rusnak (10 goals), Sam Johnson (nine goals), and Jefferson Savarino (eight goals) are more than able to put the ball in the back of the net, but goalie Nick Rimamondo and his defense will need to be solid to give them a chance. RSL will use a 4-3-3 formation with plenty of help on defense to enhance their gameplay and increase their chances of victory.

The Portland Timbers also lacked massive goal scorers this season, with Jeremey Ebobisse tying with Brian Fernandez for a team-high 11 goals. However, the Timbers will be missing Fernandez, who has just voluntarily entered the league’s substance-abuse program. Fernandez once served a two-year ban due to testing positive twice for cocaine, and had been missing various games with a mysterious “stomach virus” since early September this year. While Portland does have a chance, Fernandez’s absence will make it difficult to surpass RSL.

Rounding out the first-round games in the West is the matchup of second-seeded Seattle Sounders and seventh-seeded FC Dallas. The Sounders only ended the year with a goal differential of +3, resulting in a record of 16-8-10. Raul Ruidiaz led the team with 11 goals from 72 shots, while Nicolas Lodeiro supported with 12 assists, tied for seventh-best in the MLS. Jordan Morris also did his work offensively, netting 10 goals and contributing 10 assists. Seattle’s issues this year came defensively, where they allowed 49 goals, tying for second-worst for Western Conference playoff teams. In order for the Sounders to proceed in the postseason, they must patch up their defensive game and improve their efficiency, racking up more goals with fewer shots.

FC Dallas will have a tough time when playing the Sounders. Dallas’s goal differential of +8 is tied for fifth best in the playoffs and they have the third most goals in the Western playoffs at 54. On the other hand, with an average defense and not a particularly strong offense, them winning a game at Seattle will be tough.

Moving to the Eastern Conference, fourth-seeded Toronto FC will take on D.C. United for the honor of battling NYCFC. Offensively, Toronto FC were led by star Alejandro Pozuelo, who scored 12 goals and also had 12 assists. Several of these assists went to teammate and U.S. National Team member Jozy Altidore, who was just behind him with 11 goals. Toronto finished the year with 57 goals scored and 52 goals let up, so they will need to rely on Altidore and Pozuelo to get to the next round.

Toronto FC may be favored in the matchup, but the D.C. squad is formidable, led by the legendary English star Wayne Rooney. This first round draw will be a rematch of the 1-1 draw between the two teams in June. D.C. United have been winning against strong teams as of late, beating the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy in the past two months. D.C. United finished the season level on points with Toronto, but have been much less explosive in terms of scoring, with 15 goals less than Toronto in the regular season. On the flip side, D.C. have been much more stingy on defense, allowing a conference low 38 goals. This will be one of the closer first round matchups, and it will all come down to clutch game ability.

Another first round matchup is between the third-place Philadelphia Union team and the formidable New York Red Bulls. The Philadelphia Union were in the mix for the top seed in the East until a late season collapse that saw them lose their last two games to the Columbus Crew and NYCFC. The Union and the Red Bulls are both hotbeds of homegrown players, and trusting the process has paid off for the Union this season. Rookie of the Year finalist Brenden Aaronson has been a breakout star this year and could be the spark that vaults the Union into round two of the playoffs.

The Red Bulls are also arriving to the playoffs on a skid. They were thrashed 3-0 by the lowly Montreal Impact in the final game of the regular season. The Red Bulls are a perennial playoff contender, but they have never lifted the MLS Cup and are known for early playoff exits. Bradley Wright-Phillips is the Red Bulls’ leading scorer, but the Red Bulls lost Chelsea-bound Matt Miazga this season, who was a vital cog to their defense. The playoff game will be all about who can bounce back into peak form.

Rounding off the Eastern Conference is the matchup between defending champions Atlanta United and the New England Revolution. Since Atlanta joined the MLS, they have taken the league by storm. Ezequiel Barco is a rising star for Atlanta, and Josef Martinez is leading the charge as ever. Atlanta and New England squared off in the last game of the regular season, and Atlanta prevailed 3-1. Atlanta should win this game, and they have a viable case to repeat as MLS Champions.

Entering the postseason, every team has a clean slate and a chance to end up champions. There are some solid frontrunners in LAFC, NYCFC, and Atlanta, but hungry underdogs in Minnesota, Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia, and Toronto all could win on any given night. One thing is for sure: the 2019 MLS Playoffs will not lack excitement.