Portland Timbers - Diego Valeri 70th goal - celebration
USA Today Sports Images

Wiebe: Five big questions for the opening weekend of the MLS Cup Playoffs

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

And to make the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs even better, this time around we don’t have to suffer through dour, cagey first legs. Get the job done in 90 minutes (or 120 minutes plus penalty kicks) or go spend some quality time with the family/play countless rounds of golf/hit the all-you-can-consume resorts in Mexico or the Caribbean.

Four games Saturday. Two games Sunday. Go out Friday night so you don’t feel guilty about staying in to watch soccer over the weekend. Better yet, find a bar showing the games (or demand they put them on) and spread the playoff gospel far and wide.

Extratime is cued up for your listening pleasure. Let’s get to it.

Which visiting team/lower seed is more likely to spring an upset?

For what it’s worth, my Bracket Challenge picks are straight chalk. Call me a coward. Or call me someone who thinks the format shift is really going to benefit home teams (and therefore regular-season performance). Figured it was better to go with my gut than go out on a limb and have it break, shattering my bracket into a million pieces.

I played the odds, but I’m certain I won’t go six-for-six. Here are my Potential Upset Rankings for this weekend’s 1st Round matches.

  1. Portland over Real Salt LakeTimbers have more talent, more playoff experience and haven’t lost to RSL (1-9-2 against Western Conference playoff teams in 2019) in two meetings this season.
  2. LA Galaxy over Minnesota United: One word: Zlatan. Two words: Cristian Pavon. Three words: Minnesota playoff woes.
  3. Red Bulls over UnionPhilly had me believing this year was different (it still was) after a win and a draw in front of big crowds against Atlanta and LAFC. Then they sorta fell flat in their final five games, including a 2-0 loss to New York, who have zero pressure compared to previous seasons. In Bobby Warshaw parlance, this is 53-47 for me.
  4. D.C. United over Toronto FC: Ben Olsen’s team is embracing their inner ugly. This is not going to be a pretty game, and Jozy Altidore may not be ready to start. Wayne Rooney is rested and has one final chance to make MLS memories. That’s a pretty good upset combo.
  5. Revs over Atlanta United: Don’t get overly confident, Five Stripes faithful. You saw on Decision Day presented by AT&T that this New England team can get at you. We also saw that Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe can put nails in the coffin when called upon. I don’t think Frank de Boer will give the Revs the space they need to be dangerous.
  6. FC Dallas over Seattle Sounders: I feel like the upset equation makes sense here – Dallas sit back and frustrate plodding Seattle, then hit on the counter with Michael Barrios, Jesus Ferreira and Santiago Mosquera – but I just can’t believe it’ll happen. I may be trusting the Sounders’ veterans too much on this one.

Who will win the Ike vs. Zlatan battle royale?

Strap on your helmet, Mr. Opara. Pull that man bun tight, Mr. Zlatan. This is gonna be fun.

Best I can tell, Ibrahimovic has a grand total of zero run-of-play goals (one penalty scored, but not earned) against Opara in three MLS meetings and 208 on-field minutes (two starts for the LA Galaxy striker, one substitute appearance). Only one of those matches came this season – Zlatan didn’t play in the Galaxy’s 3-2 win in March – and it was a scoreless, midweek draw at Allianz Field, where these two will meet on Sunday.

Now, obviously, Opara isn’t the only function in the equation here. Sporting KC were the best team in the West in 2018. The Galaxy sorta looked disinterested when they made that trip back in April. Truth is, they’ve looked sort of disinterested since that game, losing 14 times since the start of May, a total only bested (worsted?) by FC Cincinnati and Houston.

So how might this matchup play out? Well, we already know nobody crosses the ball more than the Galaxy (546 attempts from open play this season, two more than the Timbers). We also know Minnesota is one of the best teams in the league at winning defensive headers. They’re third in headed clearances. Both Opara and Michael Boxall win around two-thirds of their aerial duels.

That bodes well for the Loons. The key to stopping the Galaxy is, predictably, stopping Zlatan. When he starts and doesn’t score, LA are 1-7-1 this year. The only win was against FC Cincinnati. Opara and Boxall will know where Ibrahimovic is at all times. It’s not like the 38-year-old is going to run away from them. From there, it comes down to winning the physical battle, something very few defenders are able to do, but Minnesota seem uniquely positioned to handle.

The more I think about it, the more I think the bigger threat, at least in isolation, to Opara and Minnesota might be Pavon. We know Romain Metanire likes to push forward. We know who will occupy that space if he does: Pavon. We know Zlatan can hold the ball up in transition moments and play killer balls in behind. If that happens, all of a sudden Opara is defending in space against an international-caliber 1-v-1 blender and Zlatan’s got space and defenders on the back foot to work with.

Time to pop some popcorn and see how this one plays out. All I know is it’s gonna get physical.

How much will Miles Robinson’s absence affect Atlanta United?

We already know what Frank de Boer thinks about the way Robinson was handled by the US men’s national team, where he did his hamstring after being called in to replace Walker Zimmerman. De Boer was, rightly, perturbed. Atlanta will be fortunate to get the third-place finisher in Defender of the Year voting back this season, no matter how far they advance.

Tell us how you really feel, Frank!

This is uncharted territory for the Five Stripes this year. Robinson has started all but one regular-season match. He subbed on for the other, a 1-0 win in Vancouver. Woe is Atlanta, right?! I mean, sorta. It’s very bad, but it’s not like they’re hosed here. Guess they’ll just have to take Michael Parkhurst off ice and get that MLS Cup-winning pairing back together.

Atlanta have used a pressing 3-5-2 in recent months to push into the second seed in the East. They could take chances and push numbers forward into the attack, knowing Robinson was there to play “free safety,” as Jeff Larentowicz put it back in August, and clean up any mistakes with his speed and 1-v-1 ability. Parkhurst is not that player. Neither is Florentin Pogba.

That’s probably OK, since it seems they’ll look to move away from that formation/style anyway.

I don’t expect Atlanta to go run-and-gun on Saturday against New England. The Revs nearly punished them for opening up play just two weeks ago on Decision Day presented by AT&T, and the Five Stripes already learned this lesson in 2018. To win MLS Cup, you’ve got to be the team that makes the fewest mistakes. Having Josef Martinez helps a lot, too.

“I think you have to be more pragmatic in general, because of the playoffs,” Larentowicz told reporters this week. “… You only have 90 minutes, and one mistake could lead to a goal and you lose the game.”

See, they know. Unlike last year, a loss is fatal.

Although I think Atlanta’s ceiling is lower without Robinson, they’ve still got the same floor, which makes them more than capable of repeating as MLS Cup champions. Now they just gotta go out and do it, starting against a sneaky good Revs team with zero pressure or expectations.

Which players will I be watching?

Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC) – There are better vibes around Altidore’s balky quad, suffered on Decision Day, than Robinson’s hamstring. Altidore was back training this week, though he won’t be back to 100 percent. He says he would start if it were his decision. That would be good and important for Toronto FC because their goal-per-game average drops by half a goal without Altidore in the starting lineup.

With him, Toronto are MLS Cup contenders. Without him, they’re a tier below the top two, maybe three seeds in the East. Let’s see which Altidore we get during these playoffs: the I-will-not-be-denied Jozy who runs people over or the dammit-another-untimely-injury-held-him-back-in-a-big-moment Jozy. If he’s not ready to go, the Reds may struggle to knock off defensively resolute D.C. United. If they win, they’ll need the big man even more a few days later at Citi Field against NYCFC.

Darwin Quintero (Minnesota United) – Will the real Darwin Quintero please stand up? Is it the guy who lit MLS on fire last year or the one who routinely threw his hands up in frustration and chucked up double boxscore goose eggs this year? Truth is, Quintero is equal parts both, and I have no idea which version of the Colombian we’ll see Sunday against the Galaxy.

I think Ike will get the best of Zlatan (for all the reasons I listed above), but it may not matter if Minnesota can’t put the ball in the back of the net. The Loons have 10 goals in their last 10 games. Some magic from their Designated Player would go a long way.

Jamiro Monteiro (Philadelphia Union) – Doop was really doopin’ when Monteiro seemed like he was everywhere. Breaking up play, combining in midfield, making late runs into the box, dropping dimes. Then came the ankle injury that kept the Cape Verde international out for most of July, and he hasn’t really been the same whirling dervish since.

Same for the Union. They’ve looked just a step off their previous pace for the past month or so. Maybe a two-week break can get both player and team back up to speed. Still looking for that first playoff win…

Which quote got me jacked up for the playoffs?

I searched and searched, thought about just copy-pasting Sam Stejskal’s interview with Bruce Arena. Nothing was tickling my fancy – no, not even Zlatan … make your jokes – until noted #SoccerTwitter sarcasm dealer @Snaves sent the following my way.

And you know what, despite how semi-cringingly earnest that is, there’s something to it. Referees are people, too, a fact some of you need to be reminded of from time to time.

Keep the sentiment close to your heart when you’re at your kid’s game this weekend, playing adult league or just watching the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. It’s a hard job. In the big leagues, Video Review is liable to play an outsized role with the new format. Basically, I’m telling you not to be an #$%&@?^.

Good luck to everyone pulling on a referee kit this weekend! For your sake, I hope #InstantReplay is an absolute breeze.

LATE ADDITION: Turns out there was an obvious winner. Bless you, Josef Martinez.

Series: 
Topics: 

LIVE YOUR COLORS: Download the free MLS app - The official MLS app gets a major update for 2019, making it easier than ever to keep up with your favorite club, check standings, watch videos and much more.