If ever there was an advocate for the play-off system, it was in this weekend’s first round of the MLS postseason.
We were treated to 27 goals across six games, with late comebacks, extra-time collapses, shocks and chokes. It really did have it all.
The conference semi-finals are now set. So, without further ado, let’s get into the best of the action and see how it all went down.
1. Rooney’s MLS career goes out with a whimper
Wayne Rooney’s MLS career is officially over and, to be honest, it couldn’t have ended in more disastrous circumstances.
The Manchester United legend was a catalyst for DC United last season, coming in to notch 12 goals and six assists in 20 games, lifting them from the bottom of the Eastern Conference and into the play-offs.
This season, however, has been a completely different story. Yes, Rooney has still contributed and worked for the team, but he’s arguably tried to do too much – something he’s been criticised for throughout his career – meaning he hasn’t been in and around the penalty area anywhere near as much as he’s needed to be.
Five goals from open play – and none of any kind in his last eight games – is simply not a good enough return for a player of Rooney’s quality and in the end, it was DC United’s resolute defence which got them to the play-offs.
That defence finally crumbled at the weekend, though, as although Lucas Rodriguez managed to force extra-time with a 93rd-minute equaliser against Toronto FC at the weekend, the Canadian side then fired four goals in 13 minutes past the hapless Bill Hamid to send DC crashing out.
Rooney will now head to Derby County in January to take up a player-coach role and although he will still be fondly remembered in the States, he will most certainly leave with thoughts of what might have been.
2. Zlatan flops but LA Galaxy make it through
Regardless of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 30 goals and seven assists this season, LA Galaxy really have been poor in 2019, suffering wild swings in form and playing some of the most turgid, one-dimensional football on offer in MLS.
But on Sunday against Minnesota United, Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side seemed to find a winning formula among the murky, grey football, and it didn’t involve too much influence from Ibrahimovic.
Body Count: 1️⃣ pic.twitter.com/PygH9yWSR8
— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) October 21, 2019
Instead, the Galaxy went super-compact, out-tackled Minnesota 31-21, made 30 clearances to their 15 and focused on the basics of defending first and foremost.
While they were doing this, Ibrahimovic struggled and took until the 81st minute to register a shot on target, while he completed just 62 per cent of his passes on the night. But up stepped Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos with the goals, the latter of which was a sublime, curled finish beyond Vito Mannone.
— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) October 21, 2019
The good news for the Galaxy is that Ibrahimovic is always capable of the spectacular, even when having an off-night, and with rivals LAFC coming up next, that big-game mentality of his will become so much more important.
But Schelotto will be pleased to see his side find a way to win a tough away game, even if the formula to do so is even more rudimentary than before – solid teams win knockout matches.
3. Defending champions grind to the next round
No matter how inconsistent they have been under Frank de Boer so far, and regardless of what criticisms you can level at the Dutchman’s style of play, Atlanta United just know how to win big games.
The Five Stripes are defending MLS Cup champions and already have US Open and Campeones Cups in the bag this season, having beaten Minnesota United and Mexican side Club America in those respective finals. Now, they’re into the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
It wasn’t pretty and Atlanta had to rely on some quality goalkeeping from Brad Guzan but that’s exactly the point – if the defence fails, the goalkeeper finds a way. If Josef Martinez has an off-day, Ezequiel Barco, or Julian Gressel, or Pity Martinez, or even ‘Mr Play-offs’ himself – Franco Escobar – will step up. They’re stacked full of big-game players.
Big moment. Big player.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 21, 2019
Next up for the Five Stripes is Philadelphia Union who will be on a high no doubt after winning in the play-offs for the first time, but aren’t really fooling anyone with their shambolic defending and disasterclass in goalkeeping from Andre Blake. If Atlanta’s key men turn up in this one, they will surely progress to the Conference final.
4. New format brings some of the best games of all-time
While Minnesota United 1-2 LA Galaxy may have been a tight, tactical affair, the same cannot be said for most of the other first-round play-off matches.
2019 has seen MLS scrap two-legged ties and go all-in with single elimination matches and, wow, how it’s improved the entertainment levels.
Seattle Sounders’ 4-3 win over a brave, young FC Dallas side and Philadelphia Union’s victory – their first in play-off history – over New York Red Bulls by the same scoreline both went to extra-time after late goals, and both will go down among the best games in MLS history.
Putting on a show for his hometown club. 🍿 pic.twitter.com/1yhx2oJfGf
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) October 21, 2019
Real Salt Lake dumped out last year’s runners-up Portland Timbers 2-1, with an 87th-minute Jefferson Savarino goal enough to send them through on a cold, wet and snowy night at Rio Tinto Stadium that was no-less action-packed than the aforementioned clashes.
Even Atlanta United’s 1-0 win over New England Revolution had its charm, with the defending champions having to grind it out against their unfancied Eastern Conference rivals, who could easily have pulled off a shock win on another day. Oh, then there was the DC United collapse against Toronto FC (sorry to bring that up again, Wayne).
All in all, the powers that be at Major League Soccer can give themselves a pat on the back at what has been a brilliant decision, adding even more chaos and drama to what was already an exhilarating play-off format.
2019 MLS play-offs upcoming fixtures
Eastern Conference semi-finals
Wednesday, 25th October (00:00 AM – UK time)
NYCFC vs Toronto FC
Friday, 25th October (01:00 AM – UK time)
Atlanta United vs Philadelphia Union
Western Conference semi-finals
Thursday, 24th October (03:00 AM – UK time)
Seattle Sounders vs Real Salt Lake
Friday, 25th October (03:30 AM – UK time)
LAFC vs LA Galaxy
All games are available to watch live in the UK on Sky Sports.