EDITOR'S NOTE: Ex-US national teamer Benny Feilhaber, a midfielder for Sporting Kansas City, joins MLSsoccer.com as a guest columnist throughout the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. Feilhaber has played in a World Cup and Olympics and he has won an MLS Cup, a Gold Cup and two Open Cups. Now he's winning at media, too, as co-host of the popular BS The Podcast.
You can also watch him on Matchday Central during Round One of the MLS playoffs on Oct. 19 & Oct. 20.
The first playoff games are happening this weekend. I dive into the matchups and explain how I think they'll play out:
Atlanta United vs. New England Revolution
Atlanta United: The champs are the superior team and they're playing at home. I would say their only worry is how Frank de Boer adapts to the MLS playoffs. We saw the time it took for him to get the team playing at its best during the regular season and the playoffs are a different ballgame. It even took Tata Martino a year of losing in the playoffs to realize he needed to change the team's approach the second time around.
New England: The Revs have made a remarkable turnaround since Bruce Arena took over. He’s found a true goalscorer in Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil has been one of my favorite players to watch this season. But the biggest reason for the turnaround has been the defense. They will have to be at their absolute best against Josef Martinez and Co. to pull off the upset at The Benz. And they'll need to keep an eye out for Atlanta's Julian Gressel cutting the ball back against the grain on his crosses as well as his early service in behind to Josef.
Prediction:Atlanta wins. Atlanta is, simply put, the better team and they have a massive home-field advantage. New England have improved defensively, but they're going to have a difficult time keeping Josef off the board.
Seattle Sounders vs. FC Dallas
Seattle Sounders: Every postseason the Sounders always seem to be in this exact position. They didn’t have the greatest of regular seasons, but they find themselves with a home playoff game in which they'll have a huge advantage with the crowd and their experience. Their stars should be the difference-makers: Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris, and Cristian Roldan will lead the way. The speed at which they get down the end line with Morris and Brad Smith might be what they lean on during this postseason run.
FC Dallas: They have been a fun team to watch this year with a new coach and plenty of youth, but they will have their hands full against Seattle. For me, Dallas come in as the unlikeliest team to advance to the next round. But if they do, the young kids, specifically Paxton Pomykal and Brandon Servania, will have to play as if they don’t realize the size of the stage they’re on. No matter what happens, the future is bright in Frisco.
Prediction:Seattle wins. Seattle will be more clinical with the chances they create. Dallas just don't have the same quality as Seattle do in front of goal.
Toronto FC vs. D.C. United
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Toronto FC: Toronto have had the same problem for almost two years now: health. They couldn’t overcome the injury challenges last season and this year they’re in the playoffs, but they will need everyone back to make a run in the East. Jozy Altidore remains pivotal in their attack, especially since he connects well with Alejandro Pozuelo. Just as important for them has been the addition of Omar Gonzalez, who has steadied them defensively and he will have to play a big role against D.C.'s inevitable counterattacks.
D.C. United: They haven’t been playing at their best for quite some time. Wayne Rooney is set to leave at the end of the season and things look bleak going up against one of the more talented teams in the East. Their best chance at getting past Toronto is sitting compact defensively and breaking on the counter with the likes of Paul Arriola, Lucas Rodriguez and Lucho Acosta. If they can keep a clean sheet, this trio along with Rooney could just sneak one out.
Prediction:D.C. United wins. My first upset of the weekend comes at BMO Field, where I see D.C. scrapping their way to a 1-0 win. It won’t be pretty, but I think they get one on the counter and park two buses at times to beat Toronto.
Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers
Real Salt Lake: Salt Lake will depend on their front four to create their opportunities. Albert Rusnak has a lot of quality around him with Jefferson Savarino, Damir Kreilach and a mixture of Corey Baird and Sebastian Saucedo. This allows the back six to stay together and avoid venturing too far up field, in turn allowing them to contain Portland's counters in open space. RSL love playing at the RioT and the altitude will play in their favor.
Portland Timbers: Portland are the biggest wild card in this entire playoffs. They have the talent to make a run and win the whole thing, but they also haven’t shown that potential for quite some time. Diego Valeri looks likely to be back and Sebastian Blanco is always capable of making something special happen. The biggest positive for them is that they are on the road. This team is built for the counterattack in games when they’re not pressured to make the game.
Prediction:RSL wins. Portland have defeated Salt Lake twice this year and making it three will be incredibly difficult. I found this out the hard way last year in the first game of the playoffs (with LAFC against RSL). RSL will get the quality they need from their stars and end Portland’s topsy-turvy season.
Philadelphia Union vs. NY Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union: Philly will look to control the game with their midfield of Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya. If they can maintain possession through to their attack, their wingers become very dangerous with Fafa Picault, Ilsinho, or Marco Fabian all capable of creating dangerous 1-on-1 situations. Kacper Przybylko only needs to wait for his chances inside the box.
NY Red Bulls: The Red Bulls will have to rely on their ability to turn their opponents over in dangerous spots. Conversely, they need to limit the breaks they give up with that aggressive pressing system. If center backs Aaron Long and Tim Parker are on their game, they could pose a big threat to the upstart Union.
Prediction:Philadelphia Union wins. Philly are going to be able to avoid the dangers of the Red Bulls' press and create the chances they need to put a couple past goalkeeper Luis Robles.
Minnesota United vs. LA Galaxy
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Minnesota United: They will win this game if they can stop Zlatan and Co. That won’t be easy...Ibra has made the playoffs and he won’t be happy exiting before another #ElTrafico. Ike Opara needs to match Zlatan's athleticism in and around the goal and maybe find some time to invite him on the podcast!
LA Galaxy: They will hope their defense can withstand the pressure the Loons will put on them. If they manage to slow them down, then their attack could give Mike [Boxall] and Ike some fits. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be a handful as always, but it’s Cristian Pavon and Uriel Antuna who need to be on top of their game to create the opportunities for the Galaxians.
Prediction:LA Galaxy wins. The LA Galaxy have the biggest stars and that will make the difference in this one. Somebody will end up making a play and you can expect the MLS hype machine to be in full swing for the L.A. derby.
No. 1 Seeds
LAFC: This is the best team this league has ever seen. They will be the favorites in every game they play at The Banc. Having said that, no team is perfect. Their biggest worry is sending one too many bodies forward and being exposed on the counter. It will be very interesting to see if Bob Bradley is slightly less aggressive with their offensive forays. My guess is no.
NYCFC: They have one of the best No. 10s in the league in Maxi Moralez and he will have to continue to perform at a high level. He is the fulcrum of every creative move by NYC. As good as Moralez is, he’s not comparable to some of the other superstars in the league and NYCFC will need true team performances throughout the playoffs to reach their ultimate goal.