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MLS playoffs 2019: First-round matchups and top storylines to know

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney will be among the stars in Major League Soccer's postseason spotlight.

Zlatan Ibrahimović (above) of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Wayne Rooney of D.C. United will be among the stars in Major League Soccer's postseason spotlight.
Zlatan Ibrahimović (above) of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Wayne Rooney of D.C. United will be among the stars in Major League Soccer's postseason spotlight.Read moreMarcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Here’s a look at each of the first-round matchups in the MLS playoffs.

Games are listed by conference and in chronological order of kickoff. The higher-seeded team hosts each game.

Eastern Conference

2. Atlanta United vs. 7. New England Revolution

Oct. 19, 1 p.m. (Univision and TUDN, in English and Spanish)

These two teams also met on the last day of the regular season, with Atlanta prevailing, 3-1. Atlanta has clearly superior talent in star striker Josef Martínez (35 goals in all competitions this year) and playmaker Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. But New England has its own star in Gustavo Bou, who scored nine goals in 13 games after arriving in mid-July.

The coaches will also get a lot of attention: Atlanta’s Frank de Boer has led Ajax, Inter Milan and Crystal Palace; New England’s Bruce Arena is the best American manager of modern times and came out of retirement to turn around the Revs. If Arena outcoaches de Boer, the upset will put a pile of kindling into American soccer’s winter hot stove.

4. Toronto FC vs. 5. D.C. United

Oct. 19, 6 p.m. (TUDN in English and Spanish)

This is the most star-studded matchup of the East’s first round: Toronto’s Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo against D.C. United’s Wayne Rooney.

Pozuelo lifted Toronto over D.C. in the standings on the last day of the regular season with a game-winning free kick against Columbus. Rooney missed D.C.'s regular-season finale due to accumulation of yellow cards, and United mustered only a scoreless tie against last-place (by a lot) FC Cincinnati. The drama around Rooney will only increase now, because he’s leaving D.C. after the season to return home to England. His next loss in black and red will be his last.

First-place New York City FC will await the winner Oct. 23, with the game likely to be at the Mets’ Citi Field instead of Yankee Stadium because of the Yankees’ playoff schedule.

3. Union vs. 6. New York Red Bulls

Oct. 20, 3 p.m. (Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes)

Of the three matchups the Union could have realistically faced in the first round — New York, D.C. or Toronto — this was probably the most ideal. Yes, it’s a rivalry game (which even Red Bulls fans might admit if the Union win); and New York knows the Union’s playbook well, because its own is much the same.

But the other choices were Toronto’s loaded attack, or Wayne Rooney coming north with a point to prove. And if the Union are able to send the Red Bulls to their 24th straight season without an MLS Cup, Philadelphia’s first playoff win will be even sweeter.

Western Conference

2. Seattle Sounders vs. 7. FC Dallas

Oct. 19, 3:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes)

At the start of this season, The Inquirer asked five questions about the coming campaign. One of them was: Will Jordan Morris return to stardom? The hunch here was he would, and it was proved correct. Back at full health after missing almost all of 2018 due to a torn ACL, Morris delivered 10 goals and seven assists in 26 appearances this season. He also adapted to playing as a winger instead of as a striker.

Dallas’ roster features a trio of U.S. youth national team players with great potential: forward Jesus Ferreira, midfield playmaker Paxton Pomykal and right back Reggie Cannon.

3. Real Salt Lake vs. 6. Portland Timbers

Oct. 19, 10 p.m. (ESPNews, ESPN Deportes)

This game will get the least attention of any first-round contest, simply because it’s between small-market teams (and the bad TV slot doesn’t help either). But it has a major storyline. If RSL loses, it will be the end of legendary goalkeeper Nick Rimando’s career. If Portland loses, it might be star playmaker Diego Valeri’s last game with the Timbers, as he and the team are at odds over a new contract.

By the way, RSL is 7-4-2 since former coach Mike Petke’s last game, in the Leagues Cup on July 25. That night, he went on an expletive-laced postgame rant toward a referee that included a homophobic slur. The team initially suspended him, then fired him on Aug. 11.

4. Minnesota United vs. 5. Los Angeles Galaxy

Oct. 20, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)

The crown-jewel game of the first round rightly gets the highest-profile TV slot. Minnesota’s Allianz Field is a spectacular venue, and it will be jammed to the rafters for its first MLS playoff contest.

Darwin Quintero is always capable of putting on a show for the Loons, though he has only 10 goals and five assists this year. And of course, the star of stars will be across the field: L.A.'s Zlatan Ibrahimović. He scored his 30th goal of the season Sunday, and he always plays best when the lights are brightest.

The winner gets Supporters Shield winner Los Angeles FC on Oct. 24, and you know how many people are salivating at the prospect of an El Trafico showdown in the playoffs.