Whatever thought you have in your mind about big, win-or-go-home knockout games — you know the cliches — throw them out. Throw them all out.
The first day of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs was none of them. There were no buses parked. There were no time-wasting antics. Nobody played for a draw or penalties or hoping that people would forget the game was being played so they could slip out the back door without losing.
Saturday's four games had everything you could ask for. End-to-end games; attacking soccer; big moments; late drama. I understand why someone might not like the playoffs. There are certainly reasons to be skeptical. But it was impossible to watch Saturday's action and not be entertained.
From start to finish, the action was breathless. Here's a recap of what went down and what we learned.
RSL overwhelm Portland to make a statement to West
The best performance of Saturday's games? It came from Real Salt Lake.
Not enough talent? Not an issue.
First-year head coach? All good.
Snow pummeling to the ground? Hakuna matata.
RSL started in their now-typical duel striker plus attacking midfielder shape, with Kreilach and Albert Rusnak sharing the center striker and attacking midfield duties. With the extra few days of training this week around the international date, too, manager Fredy Juarez added a layer. It turned into a rotating box in the middle of the field, with Rusnak and Kreilach joining defensive midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Everton Luiz; all four popped up in new and weird places.
Portland couldn't cope; their defenders were getting dragged everywhere. RSL's two wingers, Corey Baird and Jefferson Savarino, were the main beneficiaries. Baird and Savarino consistently found the newly formed openings and wreaked havoc. By the 45th minute, RSL were balling so hard that they deservedly earned a new name:
Portland discovered a few answers during halftime. Namely, they started pressing in the second half and stopped RSL from building any rhythm. The away side started to work back into the game, culminating in playoff master Dairon Asprilla heading home an equalizer. When Diego Valeri, who started the game on the bench, entered in the 63rd minute, it looked like Portland might have stolen the momentum.
In previous years, it felt like this is where RSL would have wilted. A team of ballers looking to have fun, not a group of winners willing to suffer and weather harsh winds.
This is a different RSL. They can match the flair with the guts, the flowing soccer with the defensive discipline. Offseason signing and midfielder enforcer Luiz has brought a new sense of resilience. He and Beckerman make the most "I dare you" defensive partnership in the league. Where RSL were once frail down the middle, they are now one of the toughest teams to play through.
RSL took what Portland could throw at them, using a couple big saves from Nick Rimando, and eventually took back the game. When they introduced Joao Plata and Sam Johnson in the 77th, Portland were hanging on. Savarino's 87th minute winner sealed a just result. RSL were the better team.
On a day of end-to-end games, thrilling back and forths, and wild finishes, Real Salt Lake put together the best 90 minutes.
RSL might have entered the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs as a minnow. Nobody will feel that way after Saturday night.
Vanney's plan helps Toronto overcome Jozy's absence
Just when you thought a game was a stinker…
A 93rd-minute shinball finish is exactly what you need.
Toronto FC and D.C. United plodded through most of the evening — especially in comparison to the two prior games — but the game went bland to bonkers quickly. Lucas Rodriguez scored the equalizer with essentially the last kick of regulation to send the game to extratime.
Three minutes into extratime, Richie Laryea gave TFC the lead back. Two minutes later, Jonathan Osorio doubled the lead. Seven minutes after that, Osorio added another. Nick DeLeon finished the four goals-in-15-minutes barrage in the 105th minute with a pretty curler to the far post.
It was an impressive win for the home team, who may have gone from favorites to underdogs within minutes before kickoff. When the lineups came out, both Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez were omitted due to injury.
In response, TFC manager Greg Vanney started attacking midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo at center striker — it looked like Toronto would face a defense that hadn’t given up a goal in more than five games without a natural center striker. Vanney’s plan worked, though; he instructed Tsubasa Endoh and Marky Delgado to attack the depth behind the defenders when Pozuelo moved back into midfield; the first goal came when Pozuelo’s shot was saved by Bill Hamid and Delgado finished the rebound. One can imagine that’s the exact pattern Vanney had drawn on the whiteboard.
For D.C., it’s the end of the Wayne Rooney era. The Englishman is headed back to Derby County. His D.C. tenure mirrored the team’s 2019 season — promising, exhilarating, then ultimately flat. Lucho Acosta will probably depart, too (although, it’s unclear what his value in the market will be, so maybe it’s been such a bad year that he ends up back with D.C. after all.) No playoff team may look as different heading into 2020 as the Black and Red.
Toronto have at least four more days before they have to worry about that. Their win made it three for three on home teams winning, to be followed by RSL making it the clean sweep. Looking ahead, Toronto will certainly be the underdog as they go on the road to Citi Field for Wednesday night's Eastern Conference semi against NYCFC (7 pm ET | FS1; TSN, TVAS). They should be quick to remind themselves, though, that Saturday night also saw three winners who had been-there-done-that. Toronto, while potentially undermanned against NYCFC, are still the only team in that matchup that have won a Conference Semi before.
Seattle get out of jail in all-time classic
It’s not often you have to wait for your heart rate to come down before you write a game recap.
Watch these highlights and tell me how long it takes you to catch your breath:
After going up 2-0 inside 25 minutes, with Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris each snagging nicely constructed goals, it looked like it would be an easy, low-key day for the home side. The Sounders decided to put their feet up for the next 40 minutes.
FC Dallas took full advantage. It was one of those games you could feel through the screen. As Dallas started to control the game, it seemed impossible that they wouldn't score at least one. Then, after Reggie Cannon scored the first, it felt inevitable they would get the second. Seattle were hanging by a thread. Sure enough, 2-2 with 20 minutes to go.
As soon as Matt Hedges scored the equalizer, though, the sense of certainty swayed the other way. The Sounders don’t lose playoff games at CenturyLink Field — they have nine straight wins at home — and Dallas don’t win in Seattle, with the only time coming in 2011. The veteran knowhow of Seattle vs. the inexperience of FCD. Too many tea leaves to look the other way.
As sense would have, Brian Schmetzer’s group took the lead again. 3-2. Morris again. A fun afternoon, but the natural outcome. Thanks for keeping it exciting, guys.
Except Dallas weren’t having it. They didn’t stop pushing; Bryan Acosta hammered home a header to bring Dallas level again. None of 37,722 people in attendance could have said Dallas didn’t deserve it. 3-3.
Dallas were the better team for the final 100 minutes of the game. They passed out of the back, pressed high and created chances. If any of Luchi Gonzalez’s not-old-enough-to-drink players were scared, it was impossible to tell.
But... we shall not forget that the Sounders don’t lose playoff games at home. After getting two shots cleared off the line, Jordan Morris bumbled a header home 23 minutes into extratime to finish his hat trick and save Seattle’s season.
Put simply, Seattle escaped. They were excellent for 20 minutes and then poor for 100 minutes. They lost their defensive focus, got pulled apart by Dallas’s possession, and looked sluggish in transition. Their attacking quality found four goals — Morris is in fantastic form right now — but their deficiencies can’t go unnoticed in training this week.
It’s not uncommon for championship teams to need a little luck on their run to a title. Seattle might have used theirs up on Saturday.
Atlanta test nerves but continue to get job done
Atlanta United versus New England got the day off to an entertaining start, failing to meet any of the criteria of what you would expect from a playoff game. It was neither cagey nor cautious. Quite the opposite.
The Revolution set the tone early, pressing Atlanta as high as possible on every opportunity. It created a ton of space in midfield, a gap that neither team seemed too concerned over. Rather, both teams seemed perfectly fine with it, and even happy to take their odds in an open game.
Both teams found openings but were let down by poor finishing or lack of precision on the final pass. The best description of the game, an open match that ended just 1-0 for Atlanta, is that each team’s best player was a center back who had to deal with the leaks.
What did we learn about Atlanta? Not a thing. This is Atlanta United 2019. Open, stretched and willing to go mano-a-mano, their attackers vs. your defenders and their defenders vs. your attackers. You’ll get your looks, we’ll get our looks, and we’ll trust our individual talent.
On Saturday afternoon, it worked, albeit from strange main characters – strange in a circular way. Michael Parkhurst was Atlanta’s standout performer in the back. The soon-to-be-retired MLS legend had only started once in the last three months and was called back into the lineup to replace the injured Miles Robinson, and he was spectacular. He looked like the guy who was a Defender of the Year finalist just 12 months ago.
The only down note of his night was leaving injured, and even a neutral can hope one of the most elegant defenders in MLS history can get back on the field before the season finishes.
On the other end, it was defender Franco Escobar flying forward to get the goal. The Argentine defender only has two goals in the regular season in his MLS career, but now has three goals in six MLS playoff games. “It’s Mr. Playoffs himself,” Atlanta play-by-play announcer Kevin Egan shouted as Escobar’s shot arrowed over the near-post shoulder of Revs goalkeeper Matt Turner.
Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer deserves some credit for Escobar’s goal as well. Atlanta started in a 3-4-2-1, before making two subs in the 65th minute and switching to a 4-3-3. Escobar started at right center back and moved to right back after the switch, allowing him to range all the way forward.
The goal started on an interception from substitute Florentin Pogba, that led to a cross from the other substitute Tito Villalba, and ultimately finished a few touches later with Escobar at the opposite post. (It should be noted that Pity Martinez, the second-most expensive incoming transfer in league history and reigning South American Player of the Year, was not in the starting lineup and did not make it off the bench. Crazy world, huh?)
Atlanta advance to host a Conference Semifinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the winner of Sunday’s Round One match between the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls (3 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN4, TVAS2 in Canada). Regardless of the opponent, you’ll see a similar game. We know who Atlanta are right now. It’s going to be open and fast.
It’s much more nerve-wracking for Atlanta fans than their 2018 MLS Cup run, but it could be enough to get them to the Cup again.