Julian Gressel

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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.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

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After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Playmaker Gressel, Atlanta at contract impasse

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Scouts ears perked, perhaps on both sides of the Atlantic, at the idea that Julian Gressel and Atlanta United are at a contract impasse.

Neither United nor Gressel, 24, would comment on the news to Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Doug Roberson.

[ MORE: USMNT-Chile preview ]

The Providence product had Regionalliga experience when he arrived in college from Germany, and was selected eighth overall in the MLS SuperDraft after an exceptional career with the Friars.

Gressel collected 14 of his 25 career assists in the last season’s run to the MLS Cup, and is the fourth-fastest player to hit the 25-assist milestone according to the report.

He occupies an international roster spot but that should be temporary as Gressel married his longtime American girlfriend in December. He has a contract option after this season and would be welcome on almost any roster for more than the reported $110,000 he makes now, but Atlanta does have a lot of mouths to feed.

And as Germany sees with Tyler Adams, plenty of good young players are being nurtured here in MLS. It would not be a surprise if 2.Bundesliga or Bundesliga clubs might want to take a swing with a developed German playmaker.

Atlanta comes back to draw 10-man Seattle (video)

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A scrappy if not downright venomous affair between the lowly Seattle Sounders and high-flying Atlanta United ended in a 1-1 draw in Georgia on Sunday.

The Sounders went ahead through a Nicolas Lodeiro penalty kick, awarded via VAR a la this morning’s World Cup Final, but Atlanta leveled the score with a highlight which show every bit of the game story.

[ MORE: FIFA awards Golden Ball, Golden Glove ]

Just check Josef Martinez’s barking at Stefan Frei, who made an uncharacteristic error on the play, after his 19th goal of the season (Nice cross, Julian Gressel).

Martinez needs nine more goals to break the MLS single season record, and he has 13 games to score them.

Jordan McCrary was sent off for Seattle in the 63rd minute for a second yellow, but Seattle navigated the final half hour or so to scoop up an unlikely point.

Atlanta still sits first with its earned point but opens the door for New York City FC to reach the top of the table when it plays its match-in-hand, while Seattle is now 11 points back of the West’s final playoff spot.

Gressel ties it in Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw with Timbers

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ATLANTA (AP) Julian Gressel tied it in the 56th minute and Atlanta United held on for a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers on Sunday.

A loose ball deflection off defender Larrys Mabiala bounced into Gressel’s path and he pounced on it with a right-footed volley. Atlanta (10-3-4) stayed atop the MLS standings and extended its unbeaten streak to five games.

Mabiala opened the scoring in the 32nd minute. Samuel Armenteros was the first to get a touch with a left-footed stab on Diego Valeri’s free kick. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan blocked it out, but Mabiala headed home the rebound and Portland took the early lead.

The Timbers (6-3-5) extended their unbeaten run to nine.