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The First Round Of MLS Playoffs Was Beautiful Chaos

Photo: Vaughn Ridley (Getty Images)

Every single game of MLS’s opening weekend of playoffs was a glorious mess. There were six matchups in the first round, and five of the six ended in one-goal wins; the one exception finished 5–1, but only after one team scored four goals in an extra time that the other team had forced with a stoppage-time goal at the very end of regulation. The wild weekend was exactly the kind of thing that can remind fans that, while the quality isn’t the best in the world, MLS can produce some bonkers results.

MLS courted a different kind of chaos with the implementation of its dumb and regular season–cheapening new playoff format, but fortunately it seems that justice more or less prevailed this weekend. Rather than seeing a rash of upsets in this inherently risky single-elimination playoff structure, all the favorites won out. The home team won five of the six first-round matches; the only away winner—the LA Galaxy, who beat Minnesota United—was the more talented team.

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It is worth noting that none of the favorites won in convincing fashion. The matchup between Toronto and D.C. United was the aforementioned 5–1 game, but it’s impossible to call a game that goes into extra time a “convincing” showing. Even the supposed easy favorites struggled. Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union both had excellent regular seasons, but both struggled mightily this weekend.

Atlanta couldn’t get much going against the New England Revolution. That match was an almost entirely even affair in terms of possession (55–45, advantage Atlanta) and in shots on target (6–5, advantage New England). Ultimately, it took another big moment from playoff hero Franco Escobar to finally break the deadlock in the 70th minute:

Philadelphia had an even more stressful day. The Union went down 2–0 early on in their match against the Red Bulls, made it 2-1, and then went down again, 3–1—all of that action coming before halftime. The second half was less frantic, but the Union were able to grab two goals to equalize, before substitute Marco Fabián got the winner late in the first half of extra time with what definitely looked like a cross:

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In the West, Real Salt Lake knocked out the Portland Timbers with an 87th minute goal by Venezuela’s own Jefferson Savarino, giving them a 2–1 victory on home soil, and the Galaxy held on to a two-goal cushion for a 2–1 win over Minnesota. That means El Tráfico, a.k.a. the Los Angeles Derby between the Galaxy and LAFC, will happen in the conference semifinals on Thursday. If this one is anything like the last regular-season edition, prepare for an even crazier evening in Los Angeles.

The game of the weekend, though, was the one between Seattle and Dallas. Played in a light rain in Washington state, the match featured lots of goals and even more shifts of momentum. Seattle came out of the gates blasting poor Jesse Gonzalez’s goal, eventually getting two goals in four minutes, courtesy of Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris:

Dallas nipped one back before halftime, and then bombarded Seattle for about 20 minutes to start the second half, culminating in a 64th minute equalizer from Matt Hedges. The teams traded missed chances—including one that featured a nutty goal-line clearance from Dallas’s Ryan Hollingshead in the 78th minute—and a goal apiece after that, setting up a memorable extra time.

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Both teams came out decidedly not playing for penalties. Seattle continued to exercise their supremacy in the wide areas, while Dallas looked to counter into the Sounders’s mediocre defense, which allowed the second-most regular season goals of any Western playoff team. It wasn’t until the 113th minute that Morris got his hat trick from a disastrous scramble in the box:

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Even with an absence of actual upsets, the first round of MLS playoffs was March Madness-like in its high stakes and tight finishes. With the league’s two heavyweights, LAFC and NYCFC, set to enter the fray, plus another Tráfico in the offing, there is plenty of reason to expect more intrigue to come. Ultimately, the overall success of this postseason will depend on whether we get the NYCFC-LAFC showdown final that the season has been building toward. But thankfully there has already been, and should continue to be, plenty of entertainment to be found in watching how exactly we get there.

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