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1 thing to know about every MLS Cup playoff matchup

Zlatan faces off against the defender of the year, while Toronto FC sweats the fitness of Jozy Altidore.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

MLS has a new playoff format for 2019, and it should be a lot of fun. Two-legged ties are out and single elimination is in.

Even with the away goals tiebreaker in place, teams often tried to play for a clean sheet on the road, thinking they could win at home if they pulled it off. If teams grabbed an away goal, they weren’t too bothered about going down a goal either. The product was, frankly, not very good as a result. MLS is hoping single elimination is going to be a lot more exciting, and it probably will be.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of this weekend’s whopping six games, plus some thoughts on the two teams that got first-round byes.

Minnesota-Galaxy is the must-watch game

Everyone loves to use disrespect as a motivator. Soccer coaches and saying “no one believed in us” — name a more iconic duo. But in the case of Minnesota United and Adrian Heath, the use of this cliche is warranted — seriously, no one thought they’d get a home playoff game. The Loons’ defense was historically bad in its first two seasons, and it was a bit surprising that Heath kept his job for 2019.

The offseason acquisitions of Osvaldo Alonso and Ike Opara were clearly good ones that were sure to help Minnesota’s defense, but both are in their 30s and have extensive injury histories. Minnesota got a lucky roll on the health of both — they played a combined 57 games, and Opara was named defensive player of the year.

Minnesota’s improved defense will be put to the test by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has been talking a lot of smack about how good he is in true Zlatan fashion. He may be obnoxious, but he also scored 30 goals this season.

These two teams last met in a 0-0 draw in April when they were both still finding their footing, so we don’t really have any regular-season games as a reference point for what might happen here. But we get to watch the self-proclaimed best player in MLS vs. the defensive player in the year. The league’s most historically successful team against the league’s best underdog story. If you’re going to watch one game, it should be this one.

Someone has to win RSL-Portland

On the flip side, the game with the least potential to produce any kind of interesting narrative is between Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers.

RSL has just one win over its fellow Western Conference playoff teams and lost both of its matches against Portland. The Timbers will be without striker Brian Fernandez, who scored 11 goals in 19 appearances, after he voluntarily entered the league’s substance abuse program. Club legend Diego Valeri will play, but he’s less than 100 percent after picking up a calf injury two weeks ago. Of all the teams in the playoffs, these are the two it’s hardest to make a case for winning MLS Cup.

But it’s not impossible to make a case for anyone, because MLS is weird. The best team in the league has won MLS Cup the last two seasons in a row, but before that the playoffs felt like a lottery. RSL is the No. 3 seed, after all, and Diego Valeri solo carried Portland to the final last season.

Seattle-Dallas winner will believe they can make a run

Despite finishing with the No. 2 seed, the Seattle Sounders have had a mildly disappointing year. Its goal differential is only plus-3, and star striker Raul Ruidiaz has cooled off big time, finishing with a disappointing 11 goals. FC Dallas will also be disappointed by only finishing seventh in the west, given its strong start and deep roster.

But these teams both have as much talent as anyone else in the league bar Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United, and the winner of this game should be favored over the RSL-Portland winner.

Dallas finally broke its run of bad form on the final day of the season, winning 6-0 over Sporting Kansas City. Youngsters Jesus Ferreira and Brandon Servania, whose form had dipped along with the team, turned in excellent performances in that game. Zdeněk Ondrášek is coming off an international break where he scored a game winner against England. Star midfielder Paxton Pomykal has had a few weeks of much-needed rest. Dallas won’t be entering this game feeling like the No. 7 seed.

Seattle, meanwhile, might have repaired its leaky defense. The Sounders allowed 49 goals this season, but kept clean sheets in its last two regular season games. And it seems unlikely that Ruidiaz, who has scored at a consistently high rate for four years across three different leagues, simply can’t put the ball in the net anymore. Assuming Christian Roldan and Jordan Morris haven’t suffered too much of a morale hit from getting waxed by Canada, the Sounders are going to put one of the best teams in the league on the field.

These teams are both loaded with talent, and a first-round win could inspire one of them to finally start playing like it.

How good is Toronto without Jozy Altidore?

D.C. United probably shouldn’t be able to beat Toronto FC on the road. The Black and Red couldn’t score against 9-man Cincinnati on the final day of the season, and star attacker Luciano Acosta has looked mentally checked out since the team botched a proposed sale to Paris Saint-Germain in September. But they’ll like their chances to pull an upset now that TFC could be without Jozy Altidore on Saturday.

Altidore has been limited to just 18 starts this season due to injury and international duty, and Toronto hasn’t replaced his scoring output when he’s been unavailable. Backup striker Patrick Mullins has two goals in eight appearances, and when Altidore went down in the regular season finale, winger Tsubasa Endoh moved up top.

Toronto has done pretty well to find goals from other sources despite only having an adequate starting striker in half its games. They’ve picked up 39 goals from players besides their center forwards, and given D.C. United’s recent form, might just need one to win the game.

The Reds have remained tight-lipped about Altidore’s injury, but here’s one writer’s guess at his status: He’ll be dressed on the bench in a case that says “break glass in case of emergency.” Coach Greg Vanney will be hoping he can just rest his star striker.

What have the young Union learned?

Last season, the Philadelphia Union turned in a naive playoff performance. The center back duo of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie were exposed for their inexperience by New York City FC.

This year’s Union team is quite a bit better, but the center backs are still very young, and the team still conceded 50 goals this year. This year’s first round opponent, the New York Red Bulls, doesn’t have the same type of firepower, but still beat Philly 2-0 less than a month ago. The Union need better performances from their talented young defenders.

The Union are notable for spending less money than most MLS teams, and are openly pursuing a policy of developing youth to make money. Philly obviously wants to win playoff games, but also sees them as a shop window. Here’s what head coach Jim Curtin told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald about the potential sales of McKenzie and Trusty.

“If the moment comes at the right time, we will be smart but aggressive in that first sale, because it is important for the club ... We want to win first here, but when the moment does come, I’m still confident that those guys will have big value in Europe.”

Trusty has actually been out of the lineup recently, but McKenzie is firmly locked in as a starter for both the Union and USMNT Under-23s. These playoffs are an opportunity for him to show he’s grown from last season and worth a seven-figure fee.

Atlanta really should coast through these first two games

Hey, shoutout to Bruce Arena. He took a hopeless looking New England Revolution team and guided it to a playoff spot, going 9-3-10 since taking over in May. Carles Gil is one of the most exciting players in MLS, and Revs fans can look forward to a promising future with a team built around his talents.

Having said that, Atlanta posted a 3-1 win over the Revs on the final day of the season and will be expected to win even more comfortably this weekend. Josef Martinez appears to be fully fit after an injury scare and the Revs have been torched by less prolific forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Dom Dwyer in recent weeks. Any result but a multiple goal Atlanta win would be surprising.

Atlanta is also a lot better than the aforementioned Red Bulls and Union. The former doesn’t have a decent striker and the latter has been wildly inconsistent all year on account of its youth. Frank de Boer will have some hard questions to answer if Atlanta fails to make the conference finals.

Uh, LAFC kinda dropped off

LAFC was so good during the first half of the season that it didn’t even need to play well over the final two months to clinch the best record in MLS history. Bob Bradley’s team earned a first round bye very comfortably, but only won two of its final eight games, and didn’t keep a clean sheet in any of those matches. It will struggle to keep one in its first playoff game too if star defender Walker Zimmerman doesn’t recover from the concussion he suffered in the final game of the season.

The club is also currently without starting striker Adama Diomande, who has voluntarily entered the league’s substance abuse program. The rotation of makeshift strikers Bradley has tried out in his absence haven’t quite gotten the job done. And there’s no word yet on how long LAFC will be without midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who was injured in Canada’s win over the USMNT this week.

Carlos Vela is the best player in MLS, and could conceivably carry 10 USL teammates to an MLS playoff win. But he’d probably rather have Diomande, Kaye and Zimmerman to play with.

NYCFC has been quietly and consistently good

Between Domenec Torrent’s struggles in his first half-season with NYCFC and the departure of David Villa, this was expected to be a transition season for the Blues. Its failure to win in the first six games of the season was further evidence that would be the case. But instead, NYCFC has been consistently good, losing twice in a row on only one occasion and finishing top of the Eastern Conference easily.

Youngsters James Sands and Keaton Parks have been consistently solid in the center of the pitch, while the attacking trio of Valentín Castellanos, Alexandru Mitriță and Heber has collectively replaced Villa’s output. The team looks very comfortable in its 3-5-2 shape and balances defensive solidity with getting a lot of numbers into the box very well.

NYCFC isn’t particularly flashy, or boring. It doesn’t have superstars, but doesn’t lack for attacking talent either. The defenders and central midfielders look like they know what their jobs are in Torrent’s system. People are talking more about NYCFC’s stadium situation than what it does on the pitch, but this is a rock solid team that should be favored to win MLS Cup.

MLS Cup Playoffs first round (all times ET)

Atlanta United vs. New England Revolution — Saturday, 1 p.m., Univision

Seattle Sounders vs. FC Dallas — Saturday, 3:30 p.m., FS1

Toronto FC vs. D.C. United — Saturday, 6 p.m., TDN

Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 10 p.m., ESPN News

Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls — Sunday, 3 p.m., FS1

Minnesota United vs. LA Galaxy — 8:30 p.m., ESPN