Let's get straight to it — here are 14 takeaways on each Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff qualifier's first matchup (check out the bracket), and 10 more on the teams that didn't make it:
Home vs. No. 7 New England Revolution, Oct. 19
Nobody will feel more confident heading into their Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs round one game than the Five Stripes. They have both Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco back, and they play at home against a team they just beat 3-1. The Decision Day presented by AT&T win could have been more important that we gave it credit it for, too, as Atlanta could now get a second game at the Benz with the No. 2 seed.
With that said, there's also some room for caution. When you play someone back-to-back as the winning team, you feel content heading into the second game. The losing team, though, won't enter the second matchup with the same approach. They will watch tape, see what didn't work, and fix those problems. They often enter the same game with the tactical upper hand. Sunday's game wasn't exactly an easy one for the home side, either — New England caused plenty of problems.
Also, just because this needs to be said... isn't it bonkers that Atlanta will likely play a playoff game with the reigning South American Player of the Year not in the first XI?
The Chicago Fire would have made the playoffs if...
Nemanja Nikolic hadn't gotten the yips early in the year. The Fire dropped at least seven points early in the season on Nikolic "did that really just happen?" misses. Those points, plus the momentum from them, wouldn't have just lifted the Fire into the playoffs, but potentially a top-four seed.
FC Cincinnati would have made the playoffs if...
They had dropped their defensive lines earlier in the season. It’s true that FCC misused their resources while building the roster and entered the season at a talent deficit. That still shouldn’t have doomed them to last place. If they had played to their strengths (aerial ability in back and pace up top), they could have been in the playoff race. Since Ron Jans applied a more reactive, compact defensive structure, FCC have three shutouts in five games.
The Colorado Rapids would have made the playoffs if...
They had decided to start playing defense before the middle of May. The Rapids began the year 0-9-2 and gave up 30 goals in those 11 games. The were actually doing some cool, fun things in the attack, but it didn't matter once they made a rudimentary defensive error to lose the game. Once they locked down their own defensive third, they became one of the best teams in the league.
The Columbus Crew would have made the playoffs if...
They hadn’t gotten crushed by injuries and absences. Their two best players entering the year should have been Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela. Valenzuela got hurt in preseason and Afful went out five games into the year (when the Crew were 3-1-1) and missed the next 11. Then Pipa Higuain got hurt for the year. Then Gyasi Zardes and Wil Trapp went to Gold Cup and Zack Steffen went to Germany. When Caleb Porter has had time to prepare his group, they’ve been fine, finishing the season 5-2-5. Who knows how the season might have gone if they hadn’t been decimated for a third of the year.
Away at No. 2 Seattle Sounders, Oct. 19
They are in, and that's a relief in itself. This comes with the territory of a No. 2 vs. No 7 game, but Dallas winning at Seattle would be the biggest upset in Round One. It will probably be a weird game, regardless. It has the feeling of a game in which one team (Dallas) dominate the xG battle, but the other team (Seattle) win the game easily. If you were to give Dallas' attackers six chances and Seattle's attackers four chances, you would take Seattle's to score more goals.
It will be interesting to see what Luchi Gonzalez does with Paxton Pomykal. Pomykal had been excellent through the first two-thirds of the year –maybe one of the top-five center midfielders in the league – but has hit a rough patch recently. He sat out FCD's big 6-0 win on Decision Day. It's always a big decision on whether you get a star player back on the field, or whether you reward players in the best form.
Away at No. 4 Toronto FC, Oct. 19
The first reaction coming out of Decision Day is, "There is no chance a team that couldn't score at home against the worst team in the league while up two players is going to win in the playoffs." But also, D.C. haven't given up a goal in five games, something that would be getting way more credit if it wasn't playoff time, and are at their best when playing on the counter right now. Toronto FC, their Round One foe, are apt to give up chances on the break. This might actually be the exact first round game, Toronto on the road, that D.C. could have hoped for.
Houston Dynamo could have made the playoffs if...
Remember when the Dynamo were near the top of the West? Alberth Elis had four goals and five assists in eight games. Since then... four goals and three assists in 18 games (and of course one of the goals and two of the assists came in the win over the Galaxy on Sunday). Houston put together a system that gave the attackers, especially Elis, freedom to reach their highest potential. If the attackers hit a slump, the team was doomed. Elis hit more than a slump and the season never had a chance after that.
Away at No. 4 Minnesota United, Oct. 20
Has there ever been a more frustrating team than this one? All they had to do to finish second in the West was beat Vancouver and Houston and they laid an egg.
This team has now finished the season 9-14-2, including just 4-5-2 since Cristian Pavon arrived. But I'm also not going to bet against a team with Pavon, Zlatan, Jonathan dos Santos, and Sebastian Lletget.
Don't make me try to guess what will happen next. If they go on to win MLS Cup, I wouldn't bat an eye. If they lose 3-0 at Minnesota in the first round, I wouldn't bat an eye.
Round One bye
Are they the best team ever? I broke down my thought process on ETR on Monday:
It's hard to say the potential best team ever should care about who they play to begin the playoffs, but they absolutely should. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that weird things happen in single-elimination games and it's okay to want an easier path. Who did England beat on their way to the 2018 World Cup semis? Exactly. For LAFC, it seems like the standings fell the last way they would have wanted. They will play either Minnesota or the Galaxy in the Conference Semis. LAFC took a total of two points from those teams this season. It doesn't mean LAFC aren't the favorites in either game, but it makes the road a little tougher.
Home vs. No. 5 LA Galaxy
The Galaxy might be the most favorable matchup Minnesota could have hoped for, especially at Allianz Field (where the Loons have only lost once all season!). Minnesota will sit and coax the Galaxy forward; the Galaxy will take it and leave gaps in back. Ike Opara might also be the player most able and likely to contain Zlatan in the league. The last time Opara and Zlatan went head-to-head, back in April at Allianz Field, the game finished scoreless.
The Montreal Impact would have made the playoffs if...
Nacho Piatti hadn't gotten hurt. Is that oversimplifying for a team that went 3-10-2 down the stretch? Probably. But it's also such a large variable that it's impossible to put anything next to it. Piatti was more the Impact's best player than any other player for his personal team, and very few teams could have sustained a lost like that.
New England Revolution
Away at No. 2 Atlanta United, Oct. 19
Anything at this point is gravy for the Revs. They made the playoffs after starting the season 2-8-2. I doubt they care at all about who they play or where they have to go. It was cool to see the Revs make a statement of intent, trying to press and go toe-to-toe with Atlanta at the Benz. I doubt it wasn't as much a tactical choice as a confidence builder — "See... you don't need to be scared of these guys or this atmosphere."
What are the odds that Bruce Arena pulls something crazy out of the bag for the Revs' return to the Benz for the first round? My guess: 3-5-2 with Cristian Penilla at left wing back.
New York City FC
Round One bye
Like LAFC, New York City might have received the only draw they wouldn't have wanted. They could play Toronto or D.C. in their first game, and those are probably the two teams they didn't want to face. Toronto can match them for talent and outplayed them at Yankee Stadium last month (although Maxi Moralez didn't play), and D.C. won't allow their defensive lines to get stretched apart like NYC have been able to do to everyone else.
New York Red Bulls
Away at No. 3 Philadelphia Union, Oct. 20
Unfortunately, I'm not sure Philly, who have lost two in a row, will be overconfident against anyone right now. But, stylistically, the Union are the best possible matchup for RBNY. The Union have attempted the seventh-most passes per game this season. When RBNY have played anyone else in that top seven (Toronto, LAFC, NYCFC, San Jose, Dallas, Atlanta), they are 6-4-1. The Union, for as good as they've been this season, might still be ripe to get punched in the mouth, especially early in the game.
Orlando City SC would have made the playoffs if...
They hadn’t tried to be more this year. OCSC were in a good place heading into the final third of the season. They had a consistent, solid back four; three rugged, if not creative, center mids; and a front three that fit together. Heading into the final stretch, though, they introduced a true attacking midfielder and reinserted Dom Dwyer into the lineup. They tried to be... better, which I think anyone could understand. But as sometimes happens in life, as they tried to get better, they instead got worse. It turns out, with all of the other teams around them in the East collapsing, the Lions didn’t need to get better. They could have averaged their way into the playoffs.
Home vs. No. 6 New York Red Bulls, Oct. 20
This matchup has the most pressure built into it. The Union have lost all three of their playoff games, not to mention their three U.S. Open Cup final appearances. They also feel like a club that's on the hump of pushing into the next tier — it's their third playoff appearance in four years — but you need a playoff win to knock down the door. RBNY fans, meanwhile, are dying for a Cup, and their bar of expectation is above the first round. It would be a major disappointment for either team to lose.
Away at No. 3 Real Salt Lake, Oct. 19
Is it fair to say that the Timbers have had the most dramatic, anxiety-riddled year? To their credit, though, they won decisively in the biggest game of the season without Diego Valeri or Brian Fernandez.
The Timbers have had some heavy baggage this year. But baggage doesn't matter in the playoffs. Once you get into single-elimination games, you forget about everything that's happened in the past. You're only focused on the one date in front of you and surviving that event. This Timbers group has shown that they can do that.
RSL at Rio Tinto isn't easy, nor would the trip to Seattle for a potential second round game, but I doubt anything will faze the Timbers at this point.
Real Salt Lake
Home vs. No. 6 Portland Timbers, Oct. 19
One of the hardest mental hurdles for a team is balancing contentment with hunger. RSL should absolutely feel good about finishing third in the Western Conference. Beating out LA Galaxy, Portland, and SKC over 34 games is an accomplishment in itself. That accomplishment, though, won't mean as much if they don't win at least one playoff game. They haven't really accomplished anything yet. They can't let their satisfaction with the season so far diminish their hunger to get more.
There are a lot of reasons to pick the Timbers for the upset win. But there were a lot of reasons RSL shouldn't have finished third in the regular season. I'm guessing the Timbers will be the trendy pick in the first round, and RSL will be just fine with that.
The San Jose Earthquakes would made the playoffs if...
They had a lower gear to downshift into during the season. I've heard multiple people within the league recently say that you simply can't go gung-ho in MLS for 34 games. The summer heat, the travel, the different playing surfaces. Even the Red Bulls in 2018 could put the brakes on if they wanted. San Jose had no such ability this year — Matias Almeyda made such a point about competing for everything that relaxing was never an option. The Quakes finished the year 2-9-0.
I'm not sure if it's possible to hedge an extremely intense plan with something less taxing — the thought of switching to Plan B might detract from the belief required to execute Plan A, especially in the first year of a new coaching era — so I understand why Almeyda took the approach he did. But it seems like it caught to up them in the end.
Home vs. No. 7 FC Dallas, Oct. 19
It's funny how it works, isn't it? So much stress and concern about the Sounders throughout the year, then they chug along to second place. It's three years running now and feels like an MLS tradition. Brian Schmetzer and Garth Lagerwey know how to navigate an MLS season.
That experience will be important for their Round One game. It feels, as a neutral, like the Sounders have the easiest matchup. But as Jimmy Conrad said on Matchday Central this weekend, if everyone's saying it and thinking it on the outside, they are probably thinking it on the inside, as well. The Sounders need to make sure they don't get complacent and look ahead to the potential clash with the Timbers three days later.
Sporting Kansas City would have made the playoffs if...
Man, there are so many places to take this. The easiest answer would be to say “if they hadn’t made it so far in CCL,” but I refuse to allow that to be an option. Every team should try to make it as far as possible in every event. The next answer would be “If Roger Espinoza hadn’t gotten hurt,” but the team didn’t exactly hit its stride when he returned. Perhaps “if Krisztian Nemeth hadn’t gone cold” would work. But, truth is, when you drop 24 points from one season to the next, there are a few things that go wrong.
Home vs. No. 5 D.C. United, Oct. 19
Did you notice that Toronto have gone 10 games unbeaten? I hadn't. I also missed that Alejandro Pozuelo has notched three goals and three assists in the seven games since Greg Vanney didn't start him. Somehow TFC have gone from constant drama to a slow and steady team and moving under the radar.
TFC fall into the same category as the Galaxy. They might roll through the playoffs without a scratch or they might get bounced, and neither would be surprising.
The Vancouver Whitecaps would have made the playoffs if...
One of their attacking signings had hit. Fredy Montero, Joaquin Ardaiz, Lucas Venuto, and Lass Bangoura all turned out to be misses. About 10 games into the year, the team was at an inflection point and had a chance to climb — they had developed a solid defensive ethos, they just needed their attackers to start making plays. It didn’t happen, they lost their confidence as a group, and ultimately even their defensive foundation. Can help but think what could have been had any of those four stepped up as a legit first choice option