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What to watch in the MLS playoffs first round: New England vs. Montreal, Nashville vs. Miami

These games will determine the Union's opponent in their playoff opener.

Gonzalo Higuain, center, will try to lead Inter Miami to a win at Nashville SC.
Gonzalo Higuain, center, will try to lead Inter Miami to a win at Nashville SC.Read moreEduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP

Major League Soccer’s playoffs start Friday night with the two games of the Eastern Conference play-in round. Both contests affect the Union, since the lowest seed that advances will come to Subaru Park on Tuesday. And we won’t know the full outcome until the end of the night, because if 10-seed Miami beats 7-seed Nashville in the late game, that’s who the Union will face.

If Nashville wins, they’ll play Toronto and the Union will host the New England-Montreal winner.

While the home teams are naturally favored, if both road teams win, the matchups would be Toronto-Montreal and Philadelphia-Miami. Those would be some headline-worthy contests, especially compared to the Union facing New England for the sixth time this year.

Here’s a look at Friday’s matchups. Home teams are listed first, as is soccer’s tradition; times are when the TV broadcasts start; and betting odds are via Rivers Casino, updated as of Thursday afternoon.

8. New England Revolution vs. 9. Montreal Impact

6:30 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes)

Records: New England 8-7-8, 32 points; Montreal 8-13-2, 26 points. (Both teams went 0-1 in MLS Is Back Tournament knockout round games.)

Odds: New England -195, Montreal +480, tie +350

Key matchup: New England M Carles Gil vs. whoever stands in for Piette

It was bad enough that Piette got sent off in the regular-season finale, but even worse, it came in the 92nd minute of the Impact’s playoff-clinching win at D.C. United. The Quebec native is the team’s heart and soul, and a defensive bulldog in central midfield.

Though Gil has only played six games this year, he’s one of the league’s better playmakers. He’ll have a much easier time finding forwards Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa without Piette chasing him around.

» READ MORE: Union’s Jim Curtin wins MLS Coach of the Year after historic successes on and off the field

7. Nashville SC vs. 10. Inter Miami

9 p.m. (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)

Records: Nashville 8-7-8, 32 points (didn’t play in MLS Is Back Tournament due to a coronavirus outbreak in the team); Miami 7-13-3, 24 points (went out of the tournament in the group stage). Nashville edged New England for 7th on the goal difference tiebreaker by one goal.

Odds: Nashville +155, Miami +190, Tie +220

Key matchup: Nashville D Walker Zimmerman vs. Miami F Gonzalo Higuain

UPDATE: Or not, because Higuain and four other Miami players — including starting centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez — are out due to a COVID outbreak in the team. Expect to see Julian Carranza at striker instead. That changed the betting odds too, of course: Nashville is now +115, Miami is +275 and a tie is +215.

Miami only made the playoffs thanks to MLS’ generous expansion of the field this year, but no team in this round strikes more fear into the rest of the East — and no Inter player strikes more fear than their biggest superstar. Though the results weren’t great, the chemistry is improving between Higuain, Rodolfo Pizarro, Blaise Matuidi and Julian Carranza.

Zimmerman, this season’s Defender of the Year, will have his hands plenty full. So will a Nashville midfield that includes Union academy product Derrick Jones, who has grown into a regular contributor.

» READ MORE: Union’s Andre Blake wins MLS goalkeeper of the year award