MLS playoffs 2018 first round schedule, TV, streaming info, previews
Wayne Rooney, Carlos Vela and Coatesville-born U.S. national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen will all be in the spotlight.
The MLS Cup Playoffs start Wednesday night, with the Union's trip to New York City FC kicking off the postseason.
Here's a viewer's guide to the first round, with TV and online streaming information for every game, plus a player to watch from each team.
E3. New York City FC vs. E6. Philadelphia Union
Wednesday, 7 p.m. at Yankee Stadium, New York
New York player to watch: M Maxi Moralez
The Union know what's coming from him. Everyone knows what's coming from him, really. You saw it Sunday night. But stopping him is no small task. And you can bet he knows full well that City have never won a playoff round in their history.
Yes, really: even though they've finished second in the East twice, they were knocked out in the conference semifinals both times. In fact, they've only ever won one playoff game: a 2-0 victory over Columbus at home last October that left them one goal short of advancing on aggregate.
David Villa was front and center for that heartbreak, and is trying to prolong what could be his last season in New York. He can't do it alone, though. Moralez is the player who can do the most to help.
Philadelphia player to watch: D Auston Trusty
He has done so much in his first year as a pro, and surely has many great accomplishments to come. But his own goal in Sunday's loss was his second such lowlight of the year.
Yet three days after the Open Cup final howler, the 20-year-old Media native pitched a shutout in Columbus — and in his fifth game in 15 days, to boot. If he can summon that kind of performance again, it will give a big boost to the Union's chances of an upset.
W4. FC Dallas vs. W5. Portland Timbers
Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. at Toyota Stadium, Frisco Texas
Dallas player to watch: D Reggie Cannon
A defender? A right back, no less? Really? Yes, really. The 20-year-old right back earned his first senior U.S. national team cap in the game against Peru earlier this month, and could be DeAndre Yedlin's backup for much of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle.
Cannon averaged 2.8 tackles and 1.6 interceptions in 33 league games this year, and completed 87.6 percent of his passes. He faces a tall task against Portland's dynamic attack, especially if Sebastián Blanco returns to the left wing.
Portland player to watch: M Diego Valeri
Few players in the league are more worth the price of admission than the Argentine playmaker, a cult hero in Portland and much of the rest of MLS too (except for Seattle and Vancouver, of course). Valeri's average of 3.1 chances created per game ranked third in MLS in the regular season. He recorded 10 goals and 10 assists, becoming only the third player in MLS history to hit those numbers in four seasons.
He is also one of the nicest people in MLS. Sure, that only goes so far, but not every star in the league does as much community service work as Valeri does. And as you've seen if you follow him on Twitter, he's raising his daughter to be one of Portland's future soccer stars.
E4. D.C. United vs. E5. Columbus Crew
Thursday, 8 p.m. at Audi Field, Washington, D.C.
D.C. player to watch: F Wayne Rooney
It would have been enough if D.C. had just made the playoffs, but to climb high enough to earn a first-round home game really is stunning. Rooney finished the regular season with 12 goals and seven assists in 20 games, and ranked fifth in shots per game with 3.6. He might win the MVP award this year. If you're grading the candidates by the prize's name — most valuable instead of most outstanding — who else is in the running?
Montreal's Ignacio Piatti and the L.A. Galaxy's Zlatan Ibrahimović were leading contenders, but didn't make the playoffs, so they're out. Atlanta United's Josef Martínez is the chief competition, and maybe the only competition, thanks to his MLS record 31 goals. The last of them came Sunday, snapping a four-game scoring drought.
(Good thing he got it, because a five-game drought to end the season would have looked pretty ugly. And the 4-1 faceplant at Toronto that cost Atlanta the Supporters' Shield was ugly enough.)
What matters most to this award voter is that Rooney doesn't have teammates of Atlanta's caliber. With all due respect to Luciano Acosta, he isn't Miguel Almirón, and D.C.'s lineup as a whole isn't Atlanta's. D.C. wouldn't be in the playoffs without Rooney. That's the definition of valuable.
Columbus player to watch: GK Zack Steffen
Last year, the Coatesville native led his team into the first ever playoff game in Atlanta's hothouse, and left the place silenced. This year, he leads the newly-saved Crew into the first ever playoff game at Audi Field, as one of MLS' original rivalries comes back to life. D.C. and Columbus played epic playoff series in 1997, 1998 and 1999, but haven't met on the big stage since then.
These playoffs could be Steffen's swan song with the Crew, with European suitors likely to resume pursuing him over the winter. If he can lead Columbus on another deep playoff run, his transfer value should go up even more.
W3. Los Angeles FC vs. W6. Real Salt Lake
Thursday, 10:30 p.m. at Banc of California Stadium, Los Angeles
Los Angeles player to watch: M Carlos Vela
Had the crosstown Galaxy not choked at home against Houston on Sunday, this game would be an El Trafico rivalry showdown. Alas, it will lack that buzz, but it's still a big deal that LAFC got a playoff home game in its first ever season. Bob Bradley should be the leading candidate to win Coach of the Year.
It helps to have great players, of course, and Vela is one. He had 14 goals and 13 assists this year, and his 2.9 chances created per game ranked sixth in MLS. Now he steps onto the playoff stage. And it won't go unnoticed in star-studded Los Angeles that the Galaxy's big names — including Vela's Mexican national team colleagues Gio and Jonathan dos Santos — will be on their couches, not the field.
RSL player to watch: GK Nick Rimando
This wasn't a vintage year for one of MLS' all-time great goalkeepers. Though he made over 100 saves for the first time in 11 years, and delivered seven shutouts, he was scored on 57 times — the worst total of his career. Goalkeeping stats can be a bit deceiving, because teammates' defensive efforts matter too.
But in a one-game playoff, who else would you rather have in net? Especially if the game goes to penalties? If RSL pulls off the upset, Rimando will surely be a big reason why.