Major League Soccer’s playoffs will kick off this weekend with six first-round games. Here’s a look at what to watch in each of them.
Games are listed by conference, then in chronological order. Home teams are first in each matchup. Betting odds are SugarHouse’s latest as of Friday night.
2. Atlanta United vs. 7. New England Revolution
Saturday, 1 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta (Univision and TUDN in English and Spanish)
Odds: Atlanta 1/6 (4/9 to win in regulation); New England 13/4 (27/5 in regulation); tie after 90 minutes 18/5.
Season series: Atlanta won both games, 2-0 at New England on April 13 and 3-1 at home on Oct. 6.
Atlanta player to watch: M Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. He had just 5 goals and 9 assists in the regular season, not nearly what Atlanta expected of the reigning South American Player of the Year (and his $14 million transfer fee). But he scored the winning goal in the U.S. Open Cup in late August, and in September recorded 2 goals, 2 assists and 18 chances created. Will we see the best of him in October?
New England player to watch: M Carles Gil. Crowned this week as MLS Newcomer of the Year, the Spaniard delivered 10 goals, 14 assists (No. 5 leaguewide) and 107 chances created (No. 2 leaguewide). And he did so for three coaches: Brad Friedel, who was fired in early May; Mike Lapper, the interim replacement; and new boss Bruce Arena.
Prediction: Atlanta wins. The Revolution won’t mind playing on Atlanta’s artificial turf, since they play on even worse plastic in Foxborough. But they will mind playing the home team’s superior talent. The whole of Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be open Sunday, packing 70,000 fans under the venue’s closed roof.
4. Toronto FC vs. 5. D.C. United
Saturday, 6 p.m. at BMO Field, Toronto (TUDN in English and Spanish)
Odds: Toronto 2/9 (8/15 in regulation); D.C. 11/4 (24/5 in regulation); tie after 90 minutes 33/10.
Season series: Both games were ties, 0-0 in Toronto on May 15 and 1-1 in D.C. on June 29.
Toronto player to watch: M Michael Bradley. Last Tuesday, he was booed in his club’s stadium when he played for the United States against Canada. Now, he’ll be back in the home fans’ good graces as he tries to lead the 2017 champions on another deep playoff run. Bradley will likely want to respond to his (many) critics again, even if he won’t say it out loud.
D.C. player to watch: F Wayne Rooney. He’ll leave MLS after this season to return home to England, which means any playoff game could be his last. He’ll be especially fired up for this one, as he had to miss the regular-season finale because of yellow-card accumulation. D.C. was held to a scoreless tie by last-place FC Cincinnati despite having a two-man advantage for 45 minutes, blowing the team’s shot at a first-round home game.
Pick: Toronto. It’s tempting to pick the upset, in part because D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid is on a run of 5 straight shutouts. But the sense here is that D.C. won’t be able to match the midfield tandem of Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo. And if Jozy Altidore recovers from a nagging thigh injury in time to play, United won’t be able to stop all three of them.
3. Philadelphia Union vs. 6. New York Red Bulls
Sunday, 3 p.m. at Talen Energy Stadium (Fox Sports 1 in English, Fox Deportes in Spanish)
Odds: Philadelphia 13/25 (21/20 in regulation); New York 27/20 (13/5 in regulation); tie after 90 minutes 5/2
Philadelphia player to watch: M Haris Medunjanin. Everyone in the Union’s locker room knows that the Red Bulls will press the daylights out of them. How Medunjanin handles it will be crucial. The midfield anchor has played every minute of every game this year, and has more touches than anyone else on the team — including more than 100 in nine contests. Medunjanin will be crucial to keeping possession if possible and splitting New York’s lines when there are opportunities.
New York player to watch: M Daniel Royer. He leads the team in goals (11), assists (7) and shots per game (2.7), and ranks No. 4 in chances created per game (1.0). This Red Bulls team isn’t as star-led as its predecessors, but Royer has done a lot of work without much spotlight.
Pick: New York. The Union needed a miracle comeback to beat the Red Bulls in Chester, and New York was dominant at Red Bull Arena last month. Both teams play a similar style, and as I wrote after the game at Red Bull Arena, New York plays it better. I won’t be surprised if the Red Bulls do it again Sunday.
2. Seattle Sounders vs. 7. FC Dallas
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. at CenturyLink Field, Seattle (Fox Sports 1 in English, Fox Deportes in Spanish)
Odds: Seattle 2/5 (10/13 in regulation); Dallas 7/4 (33/10 in regulation); tie after 90 minutes 29/10
Season series: A 2-1 Dallas win at home on June 1; a scoreless tie in Seattle on Sept. 18.
Seattle player to watch: F Jordan Morris. He has spent this year making a successful transition from center forward to winger. The nation has seen it in recent days with the U.S. national team, and now it’s time for him to show off with his club team.
Dallas player to watch: M Paxton Pomykal. The 19-year-old academy product is a rising star, and one of the rarest of American soccer breeds: a genuine creative playmaker. Manager Luchi Gonzalez has given Pomykal the proverbial keys to the car, and it has paid off.
Pick: Seattle. The Sounders are easily the better team, and sometimes it’s that simple.
3. Real Salt Lake vs. 6. Portland Timbers
Saturday, 10 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah (ESPNews in English, ESPN Deportes in Spanish)
Odds: Salt Lake 13/25 to advance (11/10 in regulation); Portland 27/20 to advance (9/4 in regulation); tie after 90 minutes 11/4
Season series: Portland won both games, 2-1 on the road on May 4 and 1-0 at home on Aug. 31.
Salt Lake player to watch: GK Nick Rimando. One of the best goalkeepers in American soccer history despite standing just 5-foot-10, he’s bringing a 19-year pro career to a close after this season. After a rough 2018, he bounced back this year with 10 shutouts and a 1.21 goals-against average in 29 league games.
Portland player to watch: F Jeremy Ebobisse. Timbers star forward Brian Fernandez won’t play because he entered himself into MLS’ Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program to deal with some off-field issues. Ebobisse will likely start up top. He’s been pretty good this year, with 12 goals in all competitions. Can he be great in the playoff spotlight?
Pick: Portland. If you’re surprised I spotlighted Ebobisse over Diego Valeri, here’s the Valeri part. The Timbers’ best-ever MLS player will be out of contract after this year, and he has been none too subtle about wanting one last big deal. He’s surely itching to fire in a goal to make the point again.
4. Minnesota United vs. 5. Los Angeles Galaxy
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. at Allianz FIeld, St. Paul, Minn. (ESPN in English, ESPN Deportes in Spanish)
Odds: Minnesota 13/25 to advance (even money in regulation); Los Angeles 27/20 to advance (12/5 in regulation); tie after 90 minutes 29/10
Season series: A 3-2 Los Angeles win at home March 16; a scoreless tie at Minnesota on April 24.
Minnesota player to watch: D Ike Opara. He was named Defender of the Year on Thursday, the second time in three seasons that he’s won the award. The Loons have improved in a lot of ways this year, from Mason Toye’s emergence to the spectacular debut of their new stadium. But it all starts with defense, no matter the sport, and Opara is a superb marshal of the back line.
Los Angeles player to watch: F Zlatan Ibrahimović. Could it be anyone else? Of course not. After a 30-goal, 7-assist regular season, MLS’ greatest showman will be on the weekend’s best stage: a jam-packed Allianz Field under prime-time lights. And this will be his first MLS playoff game, after the Galaxy spectacularly failed to make the postseason last year. You know he’ll be ready for it.
Pick: Minnesota. I’m not quite sure how, because the Galaxy have the better talent: Ibrahimović, wingers Cristian Pavón and Uriel Antuna, and central midfield rock Jonathan dos Santos. And it would be a huge deal if the Galaxy win and set up a second-round clash with crosstown rival LAFC. But I think we’re in for a special night at a special place.