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MLS Cup Final roundtable: Plenty of talking points for a ‘three-match’

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Don’t call it a three-match. Or do. That’s fine, too.

The MLS Cup Playoffs are down to two very familiar teams, as Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC sprung upsets to set up their third final in four seasons.

[ MORE: Berhalter calls up 20 ]

We asked our writers to lay out the main talking points for the Nov. 10 final in Washington state.


So, Toronto v. Seattle again. MLS won’t tell you they hate it, but the league almost certainly wanted LAFC and Atlanta in this spot, xyeah? What’s your level of interest for the final besides the inherent attraction that comes from it being the last match until Spring?

Joe Prince-WrightI’m like 8/10 intrigued. Toronto and Seattle have provided two very tight and chippy finals in the past. Seems like there’s some bad blood between these teams and add to that an incredible atmosphere at a sold out CenturyLink Field, it should be intense on the pitch and off of it. Also, it’s tough not to focus on Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore for Toronto. With the decline of the USMNT in recent seasons, they’ve taken a lot of stick traveling around MLS from disgruntled U.S. fans. If they deliver a second MLS Cup in three years with Toronto, their moves back to MLS can be deemed a success even if things haven’t been going well on the international stage.

Nick Mendola: There were so many reasons to love the idea of LAFC-Atlanta, with weapons like Carlos Vela, Pity Martinez, Diego Rossi, and a now in-form Ezequiel Barco trying to outdo each other while big names Bob Bradley and Frank De Boer match tactical wits. I also think Atlanta would’ve traveled very well to make a riotous (in a good way) atmosphere even wilder. But… I like this rematch. In terms of tactics, Vanney-Schmetzer should be just as fun for neutrals as Bradley-De Boer, and the USMNT-heavy lineups will make for proper industry and added emotion. Plus, it’s Canada against the U.S. sandwiched between the two nations dueling in high-tension CONCACAF Nations League matches.

I also really like the contrast of the quality dual national goalkeepers, with Quentin Westberg playing his entire career in France before taking Alex Bono’s job in Toronto and Seattle backstop Stefan Frei moving from Switzerland youth player to American college and MLS star.

Kyle Bonn: They definitely wanted LAFC v. Atlanta, which would have been awesome. Now it’ll still be fun, but way more meh.

Joel Soria: I’m moderately interested in this final, mainly because we saw this matchup in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017, respectively. If this were a Champions League Final, then repetition would be much easier to digest. But MLS is supposed to be based around parity, and this has no inklings of that.

What could have been… (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

MLS has shown a home-field advantage that perhaps no other top flight can boast, for lack of a better word. Whose loss was more surprising, LAFC or Atlanta?

Joe Prince-Wright: Hmmm, I want to say LAFC because they were so damn good during the regular season. But they did ease off in the final months and you always sensed they had an early playoff exit in them. For whatever reason, Bob Bradley’s side looked like they were feeling the pressure and the weight of finishing off an incredible season in style was too much. I’d actually vouch for Atlanta being the bigger shock. Frank de Boer’s side finished the season so well and in front of that huge, fired-up crowd they start so well. But fair play to TFC, they dug deep and delivered when it mattered most. ATL’s decision to start an injured Josef Martinez backfired spectacularly and kind of summed up their season. FDB turned it around in the end, but it was far from smooth for the reigning champs.

Nick Mendola: Atlanta, mostly because Toronto was without Jozy Altidore and started Wednesday’s match like the game plan was, “Just play a high line against an electric team and let ’em go back to the final.” Bob Bradley’s LAFC was fantastic, but was bidding to go to their first final. There’s something to be said for going somewhere you haven’t been before, and the three other semifinalists had all won the MLS Cup over the past three seasons. I’m more surprised that Bob Bradley was out-foxed than Frank de Boer’s failure, for what it’s worth.

Kyle Bonn: Atlanta’s was more surprising because they made uncharacteristic mistakes. LAFC always felt like it was on the verge of a disappointment despite all the excitement and positivity surrounding that team. With Atlanta, they really felt like they had figured things out, but suddenly made insane defensive mistakes and misses in front of net uncharacteristic of that team, especially at home.

Joel Soria: LAFC’s without a single doubt. What was destined to be the greatest season put together by any team in the league’s history ended in sheer disappointment at home, inches away from a final. Hard pill to swallow.

Seattle righteously deserved their win while TFC looked very sloppy aside from two impeccable moments from Benezet and DeLeon. How heavy favorites should Seattle be at home?

Joe Prince-Wright: Very heavy. They have so many attacking talents and Toronto have had injury issues to deal with all season long. Seattle should win this by two or three goals, but we all know how crazy and unpredictable MLS can be. I actually think playing away suits TFC. They can sit back, soak up pressure and rely on the talent they have in attack from Pozuelo and Alitdore, if he’s fit to play.

Nick Mendola: Are Omar Gonzalez and Jozy Altidore fit and ready to start? If that’s the case, I think I like the idea of Gonzalez, Laurent Ciman, and the stellar Chris Mavinga combining to make this a much closer match than any are suspecting at the moment and Altidore giving Seattle fits at the back. That said, Altidore’s health is the bane of both TFC and the USMNT over the past two seasons, so Seattle should be considered as comfortable under pressure as David Lee Roth in the bridge of “Panama.”

Kyle Bonn: Quite heavy. In fact I think Toronto is nearly +300 in some places. Anything can happen in this crazy league and Toronto is good enough to win a one-off game like this clearly, but Seattle should win.

Joel Soria: Sure, they’re favorites, but the topic should be approached cautiously. This is MLS, anything can happen.  CenturyLink Field is not immune to the disease.

What’s the top story line, or two, for this final?

Joe Prince-Wright: Redemption for Michael Bradley? He’s quietly been plugging away since Couva and he’s still in the USMNT but as we mentioned, for many he will always be the scapegoat for why the USA didn’t reach the 2018 World Cup. Bradley lifting the MLS Cup trophy with the captains armband on would be oh-so-sweet for his family, especially after LAFC’s failure to reach the final.

Nick Mendola: Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo and Seattle’s Nico Lodeiro are kindred spirits in that they had fits and starts outside of MLS but are megawatt talents in this league. Tell me which one plays better on Nov. 10 and I probably tell you your MLS champion. And I agree with my NBC teammates about Bradley carrying intrigue: The American legend has been fine but just that the past two seasons after spending his first four years with Toronto FC as an absolute game dominator. A title here would be very redemptive.

Kyle Bonn: The top storyline here is a number of U.S. internationals going at it for MLS glory. LAFC v. Atlanta wouldn’t have featured this kind of battle. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley against Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan. I’m excited to see how they do going up against one another.

Joel Soria: Seattle wins an MLS Cup in front of their massive fan base.

Rapid fire. Who would you rather have, assuming full health: Jordan Morris or Jozy Altidore? Nico Lodeiro or Alejandro Pozuelo? Michael Bradley or Cristian Roldan?

Joe Prince-Wright: Altidore, Lodeiro, Bradley

Nick Mendola: Altidore, Pozuelo, Bradley

Kyle Bonn: Altidore, Lodeiro, Bradley

Joel Soria: Altidore, Lodeiro, Roldan

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Either Brian Schmetzer or Greg Vanney will have two MLS Cup titles after Nov. 10. Both, seemingly, don’t get a ton of credit for what they’ve accomplished? If it came down to the better coach, who are you picking to win?

Joe Prince-Wright:  Vanney. I like Schmetzer a lot, and he’s proven to be a very good tactician over the past few years. That said, if it’s a tight, scrappy game, as we expect, then Vanney seems to be able to organize his teams better defensively for these one-off occasions.

Nick Mendola: Schmetzer’s story is wonderful enough that I despite choosing between the two, but what Vanney has done to stabilize an organization (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment) which was a bonafide stranger to success is remarkable. Now TFC has a title and is going for two just a few months after the Toronto Raptors claimed an NBA crown. It might sound nuts, but Vanney’s stewardship started it all (as did the purchase of Sebastian Giovinco, but I digress).

Kyle Bonn: Schmetzer has done an unbelievable job with the Sounders in what can only be described as a less than ideal circumstance to begin his first MLS head coaching job. You never want to be the guy after the guy (just ask David Moyes), yet Schmetzer has excelled despite following Sigi Schmid. I think he’s the guy, even though Vanney might be one of the more underrated coaches in the league.

Joel Soria: This is tough, mostly because neither are known for being overly tactically astute coaches. If I had to choose, I’d go with Schmetzer because of his positive demeanor and penchant to win.

Finally, MLS is still gonna MLS, as Andy might say, but this league has grown so much and the trajectory stills feels upward. What’s your state of the league? What’s the best and worst of it?

Joe Prince-Wright: I think MLS is exactly where it should be. Nothing more. Nothing less. There has been some incredible growth in recent years, with Atlanta, Cincinnati and LAFC arriving, plus new stadiums for Minnesota United and the Chicago Fire moving downtown all positives. But with Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger gone and Zlatan Ibrahimovic likely to follow them, where are the next superstar signings coming from? That may be a good thing, as clubs will focus on recruiting young players smartly from Europe and South America, but there’s still a need to attract the world superstars coming towards the end of their careers. Let’s not kid ourselves otherwise.

From a managerial perspective, the league is very strong with a core of American coaches proving their worth (Bradley, Schmetzer, Vanney and Jim Curtin to name a few) and Matias Almeyda, Frank de Boer, Dome Torrent and Guillermo Barros Schelotto all faring well in their first full seasons in MLS. Teams are more interesting tactically and there is now more of a global feel within MLS. With Nashville, Austin, St. Louis, Miami CF and Sacramento all arriving in the coming years via expansion, these are exciting times. But more must be done to improve the fortunes of some of the MLS originals in the Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, New England Revolution and Chicago Fire (who have set the wheels in motion) plus the likes of the Montreal Impact and Houston Dynamo need some TLC. MLS can now build from a position of strength, but the direction the league is going in with regards to big-name player purchases and making sure the spotlight is evenly spread across every franchise is perhaps more unbalanced than it has ever been.

Nick Mendola: The league has grown in quality, no doubt, but two major issues remain for it to take the next steps toward being a next level league. First, the top-end, well-paid stars are great but you cannot expect people to really rate a league when Liga MX is so much deeper due to better pay for guys 14-18 on the match day roster. Second, our country is gigantic and about to take its closed-door system and slam it shut on no more than 30-32 markets. That is insane, this league is never going pro-rel without a FIFA mandate (Heck, I bet many European leagues wouldn’t institute pro-rel if they started today because, well money). But try telling major league media markets like Phoenix, Detroit, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, even Buffalo that they’re never dancing on the center stage.

Kyle Bonn: The growth is there, it’s impossible to ignore. I’m still concerned about the overall skill level of the league even after all these years – it doesn’t look good when Zlatan and Rooney both look done in Europe, and come over to MLS and completely dominate the league despite clear weaknesses (have you seen Zlatan try to run?).  That to me is a bad sign. The pay structure of the league still lends itself to a few top-tier stars that dominate the otherwise mediocre talent across the landscape. Still, the league is growing in popularity and exposure, and youth development, and that’s always a positive. The next step is growing the base-level talent, not just investing in brand name stars. I think it’ll come…the base of the league is stronger than it’s ever been.

Joel Soria: From Zlatan (let’s see if he returns) to Vela, from LAFC to Atlanta United, there are a lot of positives going for MLS, at least from a marketing and quality standpoint. My doubts are in the league’s strategies and methods  behind their never-ending expansion process. Cincinnati, Nashville, Miami, Sacramento and Saint Louis are great additions, but no one wants a 35-team league. The approach needs to be pragmatic and less reflective of what has already been done by other major sports leagues in the U.S. It’s worth noting, however, that it might be too late to dial in damage control.

1-on-1 with Vito Mannone, 2019 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year

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Vito Mannone is one of the nice guys, so there are only good vibes in announcing that the Minnesota United goalkeeper has been named the 2019 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year after an outstanding season with the Loons.

The 31-year-old Italian was a revelation after arriving on loan from Reading in England’s Football League Championship, the latest stop in a career which has seen him play for Arsenal in the Champions League and spearhead several big seasons for Sunderland in the Premier League.

[ MORE: One-on-one with Chris Wondolowski ]

Mannone’s 73 saves from inside the box and 136 total saves were both third in MLS as was his 11 clean sheets in a season which saw the Loons claim their first MLS playoff spot in three seasons and make a run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final. He’s just the second MLS Goalkeeper of the Year to hail from outside of a CONCACAF nation.

PST had a chance to speak to Mannone for a wide-ranging conversation on not just his incredible season, but his feelings of responsibility to be a contributor to his community and the gratitude he feels to be a professional athlete. From emotionally crediting his parents to a funny story about former Arsenal teammate and current LAFC star Carlos Vela, Mannone is an absolute joy in conversation.

ProSoccerTalk: Vito, congratulations on a wonderful season. First things first, what does the award mean to you?

Vito Mannone: “I didn’t expect it in a way, but it’s an incredible feeling. You always work so hard to achieve something like this and it’s an award that rewards me, the work I put in throughout my career. It’s a special one, special moment.”

ProSoccerTalk: There are a lot of worthy on-field topics, and we’ll get to them, but I want to talk about your focus off the field. I read someone on Twitter call you “the nicest guy in football.” You clearly care about how you treat people and your purpose.

VM: “I grew up with special parents and they ingrained in me great values in general in my life. I learned everything from my dad and my mom. They were special people, not just to me but to everyone. That’s how I was raised. I always cared about other people, them first.

“The football platform gives you the chance to give back to people. Anywhere I go I try to give my best to my fans and people who support you in your job. It’s fantastic, you don’t get that in many other jobs.

We are very very lucky to have thousands of people working hard during the week to come and watch you and support you in good and bad moments. The minimum required is to give something back to them.

“Outside of football it’s something I want to do. It fills my heart but at the same time people will look at you and appreciate what you do for them. It extends in a way to connect to poor people, people with health problems. When I go out to hospitals, I always feel I’m very lucky and in a privileged situation.”

PST: It’s interesting that you mention that because for all of your accomplishments — Champions League with Arsenal, season-saving saves with Sunderland — I remember being particularly touched by something you did off the field, as Jermain Defoe and you spent time with ailing Bradley Lowery while he battled cancer, raising money and awareness.

VM: “We are very lucky and I always see myself like any of these kids, I put myself in their shoes because I was a kid full of dreams and I’m lucky that I made it but these kids or ones with problems or fighting really hard to be alive, I know a kid is full of dreams and loves football like we do. That’s why I really want to connect with them.

“Bradley was a prime example. He did so much in general for people who got to know his story. You could see this guy with a smile who would change your day, and you realize your small problems in life are nothing compared to one of these kids.”

PST: “I want to go a little deeper because I’m someone whose paid a lot of attention to the Northeast of England and, don’t get mad, but I grew up watching Newcastle. When you see something like Bradley’s story and the Sunderland connection, it makes it so much bigger than football. It brings a sense of community that extends beyond the field and our little allegiances. Did you have any role models in football who helped you find your way in the community?

VM: “My role model in life in general and in football was my dad, who unfortunately I lost when I was 16. It was a tough task to become a professional without him. He always dreamt with me and he sacrificed his life to get me where I am today and to have a nice career so far and become a professional. I would say my dad. He was my role model.

“And then there’s many good people in general in football. You always want more of these people in your life in football. You mentioned Jermain, he’s one of them, but anywhere I can go I can find people who see it the same.

“In football there is so much violence, now we see racism, we see people using football in the wrong way but I think as well as you mention these moments, these stories like Bradley or many others behind the scenes, kids who are examples, it brings football together. It makes you realize it’s not hate, it’s not violence, there’s nothing that goes above these stories.”

PST: On the field, this season… Remarkable. When a player comes to MLS and he comes with a resume like yours, you expect the player to have a decent season but I don’t know that we could’ve expected to see a goalie play as well as you did while adjusting to a new culture and country on a pretty new team. What would you say about the season?

VM: “Tremendous journey. Tremendous adventure. In general I loved every minute of it. It’s always tough when you change countries. You bring your family out in a new place. It’s never easy, not an easy job, but I had a feeling from the first chat I had with the club, I felt like it was a good project. As soon as I landed here, they treated me with respect and they showed me I was an important piece of the puzzle.

“Opening a new stadium, meeting news fans everything went really well. We started to climb and we got better and better. We molded as a team, new players, youngsters with veterans, and we had a magnificent cup run. The third year for this club in MLS. We reached the playoffs. We beat big clubs. We had an amazing season in a new stadium with special fans. Everything has been fantastic. If I go back (to Europe), I had a few objectives coming here and I successfully fulfilled all my dreams, also becoming Goalkeeper of the Year. You cannot ask for more.”

(Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PST: Well, you brought it up… have you thought a lot about what’s next for you?

VM: “No, this season has just finished and I put 100 percent into it until the very last minute. We were unfortunate not to go through against Galaxy and it’s a bit of pain. But I can’t take anything away from the great season. I want to relax, sit down, see my options. I just talked to the club and it’s a good situation right now. I want to sit down with my agent, talk with my family, and see where we can go from here.”

PST: Overseas you had a number of American teammates in your career. Matt Miazga for a bit last year at Reading, Jozy Altidore at Sunderland. You’ve had plenty of career to evaluate American soccer. After a year in MLS, what’s your evaluation of soccer in America?

VM: “Until you get here, you can’t get the true feeling of what the American league is building. This league has great potential and in a few years, it will be there. Progressing really well. Incredible fans, stadiums everywhere you go. Facilities, every club I’ve been around this season has been fantastic and it’s far ahead of many many European clubs.

“What they need to get is keep going, keep building up history, and of course what I can tell you the difference is the standard of the football has been very high. I was impressed, good mix of South Americans, international from Europe, the big stars in Rooney, Ibrahimovic, Vela, my home friend Sagna, but these people want to embrace the league more and more.

“I had this impression from Europe of a retirement league, but it’s not, it’s not! It’s young players, talented players, good ones from America. Every team I faced was a challenge for me and now a days the market is changing — Almiron to Newcastle — it’s going both ways. One time it wasn’t like this. People going to England, to Italy, and coming out here too, it’s different. This will build up and get even better and better.”

PST: Who impressed you the most in MLS, both on your team and opposition?

VM: Let me think about that it’s difficult. Teammates… I’ve been really impressed with youngsters like Hassani Dotson, Chase Gasper, Mason Toye, who came into the first team and are going to be big hits for U.S. national team one day. They have got quality and are good professional, surely yes. I had very good teammates in general. Many good players around, LAFC we all know what they did. My old friend Carlos (Vela), ha, he’s been on fire.

PST: How well did you know him at Arsenal?

VM: “We spent two years as a teammates. He was a youngster too and didn’t have his best time but progressed in his career. He had one of the best years, breaking the MLS record. He’s probably going to MVP and deservedly so.”

PST: Did he get break the record against you, or tie it? That’s a real jerk move!

VM: “Actually, the one to level the record (the penultimate game of the season). We texted each other before the game. I told him don’t worry about the record. You’ll score a hat trick in the last game but zero against me. He said, no no no, one against you and three in the last game, and actually he did it! I called it, so he needs to thank me.”

PST: Thanks for being so generous with your time and congratulations again. It seems you’ve always been in the news for good reasons, like wanting to avoid relegation for the behind the scenes people at Sunderland. It feels good to see you get an award.

 

VM: “Thank you, thank you very much.”

 

MLS Goalkeepers of the Year
1996 – Mark Dodd (Dallas Burn)
1997 – Brad Friedel (Columbus Crew)
1998 – Zach Thornton (Chicago Fire)
1999 – Kevin Hartman (LA Galaxy)
2000 – Tony Meloa (Kansas City Wizards)
2001 – Tim Howard (NY-NJ MetroStars)
2002 – Joe Cannon (San Jose Earthquakes)
2003 – Pat Onstad (San Jose Earthquakes)
2004 – Joe Cannon (Colorado Rapids)
2005 – Pat Onstad San Jose Earthquakes)
2006 – Troy Perkins (DC United)
2007 – Brad Guzan (Chivas USA)
2008 – Jon Busch (Chicago Fire)
2009 – Zach Thornton (Chivas USA)
2010 – Donovan Ricketts (LA Galaxy)
2011 – Kasey Keller (Seattle Sounders)
2012 – Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting KC)
2013 – Donovan RIcketts (Portland Timbers)
2014 – Bill Hamid (DC United)
2015 – Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)
2016 – Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)
2017 – Tim Melia (Sporting KC)
2018 – Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew)
2019 – Vito Mannone (Minnesota United)

Toronto score 4 goals in ET to bounce DCU, Rooney (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Toronto FC outplayed D.C. United by a wide margin but needed extra time — and a 13-minute explosion of goals — to book their place in the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they’ll face top-seeded New York City. The Reds led for exactly an hour, thanks to Marco Delgado’s goal just after the half-hour mark, only to throw their advantage away — after failing to convert a number of chances to go 2-0 up — in second-half stoppage time. The 1-1 scoreline lasted for all of about three minutes of game time before Toronto scored not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in the first period of extra time. Now, Greg Vanney’s side will cross its fingers and hope to get Jozy Altidore (quad) and Omar Gonzalez (hamstring), who didn’t play in this one, back for Wednesday’s game against NYCFC.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

What did we learn?

  • Worst time for a goalkeeping error: You might be thinking, “Well, yes, duh, of course it is, there isn’t a good time for that.” The playoffs, however, are really not the right time, however, and United learned that the hard way when Bill Hamid failed to hold onto a simple bouncing ball in front of goal. Stefan Frei was lights out for the Seattle Sounders earlier on Saturday and Jesse Gonzalez recovered from a poor start (and was bailed out by three goals scored by FC Dallas), and Quentin Westberg was stellar for Toronto in this one.

  • Set-piece defending, once again: Earlier in the day, we saw Seattle fail to defend set pieces and let Dallas back into their game on multiple occasions. Toronto weren’t any better in the dying seconds of regular time. With under two minutes remaining, this is how they defended a United corner kick…

That’s comically bad for a regular season game in the middle of April, let alone for a dark-horse candidate in the playoffs, up a goal in stoppage time. Every chance counts tenfold in the playoffs, and set pieces are no different.

  • D.C.’s desire still in doubt: To lose in extra time, away from home, is one thing. To capitulate and concede four goals in 13 minutes — almost as if to say you didn’t want to score the late equalizer in the first place — is shameful. Wayne Rooney‘s time in MLS ends with his team down 5-1 in extra time and him being subbed off after 105 minutes.

 

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jonathan Osorio

Goalscorers: Delgado (32′), Rodriguez (90’+3), Laryea (93′), Osorio (95′, 103′) DeLeon (105’+1)

MLS Cup Playoff Predictions

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There will be upsets.

While Major League Soccer’s playoffs certainly should provide plenty of love for home teams in the one leg format, it will also give underdogs the chance to outfox better seeds over 90 minutes.

[ MORE: Reyna talks NYCFC, youth soccer in U.S. ]

Considering that 92 of 408 MLS matches ended in ties this season, we may also see a few matches hit penalty kicks.

Here’s where we see the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs going…

Round 1

East
(5) DC United defeats (4) Toronto FC
(3) Philadelphia Union defeats (6) New York Red Bulls
(2) Atlanta United defeats (7) New England)

West
(5) LA Galaxy defeats (4) Minnesota United
(6) Portland Timbers defeat (3) Real Salt Lake
(2) Seattle Sounders defeat (7) FC Dallas

Why the upsets? DC’s defense has been very good this season, and there’s something about Wayne Rooney‘s MLS exit that doesn’t seem immediate. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a big game player and Minnesota’s experiencing the playoffs for the first time. Portland is missing Brian Fernandez but has enough savvy and experience to outlast a decent (and very strong at home) RSL.

Conference Semifinals

East
(5) DC United defeats (1) New York City FC
(2) Atlanta United defeats (3) Philadelphia Union

West
(1) LAFC defeats (5) LA Galaxy
(2) Seattle Sounders defeat (6) Portland Timbers

Why the upset? If there’s one team equipped to deal with the NYCFC possession-based attack on a baseball field, it’s DC. The back line and Bill Hamid do enough to stun a No. 1 seed which will not have played in nearly a month.

Conference Finals

East
(2) Atlanta United defeats (5) DC United

West
(1) LAFC defeats (2) Seattle Sounders

MLS Cup Final

(2) Atlanta United defeats (1) LAFC

Why the upset? Just to be different, and so all the people who laid Atlanta’s early struggles at the feet of Frank De Boer and not adapting to the post-Miguel Almiron era can sigh, “Ohhhhh.”

MLS Playoffs: 5 Key Battles in 1st Round

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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.