2019 MLS Cup Playoffs preview - bracket, teams, schedule
The 2019 Major League Soccer regular season concluded on October 5th and, after a stop in the schedule due to the FIFA International break, the MLS Cup Playoffs get underway this weekend. The change in the playoff format is one of the bigger talking points about the postseason, one that ends with the MLS Cup Final on November 10.
- Straight-bracket format made up of 13 single-elimination matches
- Higher seed hosts in every encounter through MLS Cup Final
- #1 seed in East and West bypass the first round
- Number of playoff teams increased from 12 to 14
- No interruption due to FIFA International break
1. New York City FC
How does NYCFC part with one of the most prolific goalscorers in MLS history (David Villa) and come back the next season to dominate the competition? They have a more complete team. Brazilian forward Heber has been a solid addition with 15 goals to his name and having the top assist man in the league in Maxi Moralez also helps. Former Pep Guardiola assistant Domènec Torrent has taught consistency to his side, one that never lost two consecutive matches more than once during the regular season.
Because of the MLB Playoffs and the potential of the Yankees playing in the World Series, NYCFC's opening game has been moved from Yankee Stadium to the Mets' Citi Field. Still, the road in the East runs through NYC.
2. Atlanta United FC
The defending champions are back but under a different manager than the one that took them to the promise land (Mexico Manager Gerardo Martino) and their former midfield maestro (Newcastle's Miguel Almiron). The "Five Stripes" have shown to fare fine with goal machine Josef Martinez and Argentine sensations Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco leading the way in attack. The road back to the final has not been easy for Atlanta but Frank de Boer's men have found a formula and have to be regarded among the favorites to win it all.
3. Philadelphia Union
The Union were quietly been one of the better teams during the regular season. Adding Mexican World Cup veteran Marco Fabian certainly raised their game, as did the stellar season from German forward Kacper Przybyłko. The Union also have one of the better goalkeepers in the league in Jamaica's Andre Blake.
Playoffs is a different animal, however. The first hurdle is to win the opening game, something the Union have never done in their three other playoff campaigns. From there, they'll have to eventually translate their good form on the road. If they can get it together, this could be the dark horse in the East.
4. Toronto FC
What a fall from grace Toronto has had. Once the dominant force in the league with the trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, TFC are far from the team that went to back-to-back MLS finals and conquered the 2017 MLS Cup. The departure of Giovinco was the story of the offseason but now the Reds are back after missing the playoffs in 2018. The new star on the block? Spanish midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo.
If Pozuelo can connect with Altidore and Bradley the way Gio used to, maybe TFC can do something.
5. D.C. United
The story of this tale is Wayne Rooney's final shot to win an MLS title before he departs back to England to be a player-coach in the Championship next year. The famed England forward turned D.C. United from pretender to contender with his arrival last season. He alone, however, could not carry the team past the opening round of the playoffs and they were eliminated on penalties at home.
So the whole year has built up to the return. Will Rooney depart on a hero's farewell like Beckham did or will he leave without a title like Thierry Henry? He'll need help from Argentine midfielder Luciano Acosta and it doestn hurt that Bill Hamid had a great year in goal.
6. New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls are one of the leaders among MLS teams when it comes to generating youth talent. They've also been one of the consistent teams through the years, completing a decade of playoff appearances this season. Unfortunately for them, this may be as far as the come in their quest to win the elusive MLS Cup.
Bradley Wright-Phillips is no longer a goal machine and midfielder Kaku has regressed, meaning that top scorer Daniel Royer may have to carry them through the playoffs. Sounds like a tall task. If BWP and Kaku all of a sudden flip the switch then maybe there have a shot. It'll be a hell of a story if they manage to get far.
7. New England Revolution
New England are not the seventh best team in the league, they're better. The incredible part of their journey to the playoffs is how they started with a novice coach in legendary U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel and opened the wallet - a rarity for the Krafts to do with the Revs - to bring in qualified people at important positions. The addition of former U.S. coach Bruce Arena, Argentine striker Gustavo Bou and Spanish midfielder Carles Gil has made all the difference.
In a one-off playoff game, this team can absolutely beat Atlanta. New England can definitely make the playoffs interesting.
1. Los Angeles FC
What else is there to say about the odds on favorite? The road to the title run through LAFC. They have the best manager in the league in Bob Bradley. The have the record-breaking goalscorer in Carlos Vela. They have a young difference maker in Diego Rossi. They outscored their opposition by 48 more goals!
Well, they still have to play the games and a single-elimination format doesn't favor LAFC. Plus there's that monkey on their back from losing their inaugural playoff match in 2018 and struggling in the single-elimination U.S. Open Cup tournament. Lots still to prove for the Black and Gold.
2. Seattle Sounders FC
The Sounders are the model of consistency. Since their MLS debut in 2009, Seattle fans have seen playoff soccer every year. It's been a little while since that 2016 MLS Cup title, however, and Seattle fans will voice their concerns if this team fails to at least the next round - where another playoff series with rival Portland could await them.
International players in Peru's Raul Ruidiaz, Uruguay's Nicolas Lodeiro and USA's Jordan Morris will be key to Seattle's success. With players like that, the expectations have to be high.
3. Real Salt Lake
RSL are another one of these consistent team's that have made their participation in the playoffs almost automatic. They'll have a chance because they open the postseason at home but how far can they really get? The interesting story this season was the dismissal of Manager Mike Petke after an incident with a referee in the Leagues Cup tournament. Interim Freddy Juarez has managed the team to a third place finish.
In the playoffs, RSL's chances will come down to the performances of Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino and Damir Kreilach in the attacking game.
4. Minnesota United FC
The Loons are in the playoffs for the first time ever and will host the LA Galaxy in front of a raucous home crowd at Allianz Field.The key is Colombian midfielder Darwin Quintero, once one of the wrecking forces in Liga MX. They'll be solid in defense thanks to the additions of Osvaldo Alonso and Ike Opara. Can they match the offensive difference makers in the West? They can if they can get four good games out of Quintero.
5. Los Angeles Galaxy
The evil villain, the five-time champs, the team with the stars. There's no secret here. Goal machine Zlatan Ibrahimovic and midfield maestro Cristian Pavon must lead the way and guide the Galaxy to victory. The Achilles heel of the team is its defense so, in this case, the best defense is a great offense. They certainly have the men for that job.
6. Portland Timbers
Many people may not remember this but the Portland Timbers were the runners up in last year's MLS Cup Final, the first season under Manager Giovanni Savarese. This season was challenging because the Timbers had to begin the season with a stretch of 12 straight road games due to stadium renovations. The team also hit a home run with the addition of Liga MX goalscorer Bryan Fernandez. Fernandez, however, is sidelined after checking himself into the league's substance abuse program voluntarily.
Where does that leave the Timbers? Former MLS MVP Diego Valeri, forward Diego Chara and midfielder Sebastian Blanco can lead them to the final again. The question is can they close out the deal? Probably not without Fernandez.
7. FC Dallas
FC Dallas has secured a spot in the playoffs by betting on their young prospects and the promotion of their former Academy Director to the First Team Manager position. They did hit a few lucky breaks near the end and the implosion of the San Jose Earthquakes helped out too.
So what are their chances? By no means are they regarded as "contenders" but they are riding on house money. They do have a veteran presence in attack with Michael Barrios and 2019 newcomer Zdenek Ondrasek, who just scored against England in UEFA Euro 2020 qualyfing. The rest will come down to youngsters Jesus Ferreira and U.S. national team midfielder Paxton Pomykal playing beyond their years.
It will be a big surprise if they defeat Seattle but not unlike any other surprise we've seen in playoff sports.
TV listings (All Times CT):
Saturday, October 19
12:00 p.m. - [First round] Atlanta United vs. New England Revolution (Univision)
2:30 p.m. - [First round] Seattle Sounders FC vs. FC Dallas (FS1)
5:00 p.m. - [First round] Toronto FC vs. D.C. United (TUDN)
9:00 p.m. - [First round] Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers (ESPNews)
Sunday, October 20
2:00 p.m. - [First round] Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls (FS1)
7:30 p.m. - [First round] Minnesota United FC vs. LA Galaxy (ESPN)
Wednesday, October 23
6:00 p.m. - [Conference Semifinals] New York City FC vs. Toronto FC/D.C. United (FS1)
9:00 p.m. - [Conference Semifinals] Philadelphia/NYRB vs. Atlanta/New England (FS1)
Thursday, October 24
7:00 p.m. - [Conference Semifinals] RSL/Portland vs. Sounders/Dallas (ESPN2)
9:30p.m. - [Conference Semifinals] Los Angeles FC vs. Minnesota/LA Galaxy (ESPN)
Tuesday, October 29
TBD - [Conference Finals] TBD vs. TBD (ESPN)
Wednesday, October 30
TBD - [Conference Finals] TBD vs. TBD (FS1)
Sunday, November 10
2:00 p.m. - MLS Cup 2019 (ABC, Univision / TUDN)