It’s playoff time! With the new MLS postseason format, featuring single-elimination matches, the margins between victory and defeat are razor thin. Winning individual battles, or a battle to control a zone in the field, are more important than ever.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five key battles ahead of the start of the 2019 MLS playoffs.
5. Wayne Rooney v. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC CB’s
At this point of the season, every game could be Wayne Rooney’s last in a D.C. United uniform. Along with Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola, Rooney is clearly the key man to D.C. United’s attack. The ball will flow through him as D.C. gets going, and it will be on TFC to mark him tightly and make sure he has no space to turn and strike the ball, or get on the end of a cross into the box.
Michael Bradley, at 32-years old, is no spring chicken. Especially late in the season, it will be interesting to see how he does marking Rooney when Rooney drops into the space between TFC’s backline, or whether he can pass him off to Omar Gonzalez or Chris Mavinga in the center of defense.
4. Union central midfield v. Red Bulls central midfield
The Philadelphia Union have enjoyed an outstanding season, and a large part of that has been the play in central midfield of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The two veterans are adept on both sides of the ball, can play a pass, intercept passes, and control the tempo of the match. If they’re put off their game, with some pressure as soon as they receive the ball, the New York Red Bulls have a chance to win.
Whether it’s Sean Davis, Christian Caceres, Mark Rzatkowski, or Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra (who is coming off a goal for Paraguay during the international break), their work in the middle of the park will be crucial to determining which team controls the tempo, possession, and ultimately, who creates the most chances. Otherwise, Medunjanin and Bedoya will pick out Brenden Aaronson, Marco Fabian or Kacper Przybyłko and be off to the races.
3. Julian Gressel v. Jalil Anibaba
It’s a direct rematch of the last week of the season, where Atlanta United triumphed over the New England Revolution with a 3-1 win to close out a strong regular season campaign. While there’s plenty of focus on Josef Martinez, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez – who didn’t play in the season finale – and Ezequiel Barco, the real difference-maker in the attack for Atlanta United is Julian Gressel. The German-born wing back has plenty of marauding runs forward, is always available to receive a pass and can deliver quality crosses too. He ended up with two assists in the season finale and Anibaba was eventually substituted, though it may have been more to give the Revs some offensive punch with Juan Aguedlo coming on. It will be up to either Anibaba, or someone on the Revs to shut him down, cutting off one supply line of balls into the box for Josef Martinez to rifle home.
2. Jordan Morris v. Reggie Cannon
It’s a battle of two U.S. Men’s National Team regulars. Jordan Morris has had a resurgent second half of the season and appears to be in the best form of his life. On the other side, Cannon’s parlayed his terrific form for FC Dallas, despite his young age, into a starting role for the USMNT.
Morris in recent weeks has proven he still has his game-changing pace, as well as an improved left-footed touch. It’s going to be up to Cannon to stay with Morris down the wing, or pass him off to a teammate such as Reto Zeigler should Morris cut inside and not leave space open behind Cannon for a runner down the left wing.
1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic v. Ike Opara
One of the league’s best strikers against the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. 6-foot-5 (Zlatan) against 6-foot-2 (Ike Opara). When Ibrahimovic and Opara meet, it will be one of MLS’s duels of the ages. Zlatan has been nearly impossible for defenders to contain in MLS, as he not only uses his incredible size and tactical nous to win headers, but his technical ability on the ball ain’t bad. However, if there’s one player who can push around Zlatan, it might be Opara.
Opara has been a revelation to Minnesota United and could single-handedly be the reason they’re hosting a home game in the playoffs this year, rather than hitting the road or watching from home. He’s also part of the reason Sporting KC has been a complete mess this season.
If history is to be used as a precursor, the only meeting between Opara and Ibrahimovic this season ended in a scoreless draw. We’ll see if Opara can notch another win over Ibrahimovic this weekend as well.