There's nothing quite like the chaos and urgency produced by single-elimination knockout matches. Factor in the time-tested element of MLS playoff lunacy, and the result was Saturday's opening first-round games of the new-look postseason, which featured the edge-of-your-seat action that the league desired when making its format change.
Gone are away goals, cagey first legs and arguable levels of home-field advantage in two-legged series. Arrived are do-or-die stakes and the compulsion to really go for it from the opening whistle. The merits of the new playoff formula–not to mention the number of teams included–can be debated, but there's no denying the entertainment value on display Saturday, when all four home teams and higher seeds advanced–in exhilarating fashion at that.
Both No. 2 seeds, Atlanta in the Eastern Conference and Seattle in the West, held on for one-goal wins over the two No. 7 seeds, knocking the worst regular-season sides that advanced to the playoffs out of the picture. No. 4 Toronto FC exploded in extra time to hold serve at home vs. No. 5 D.C. United, while No. 3 Real Salt Lake edged the No. 6 Portland Timbers in the rain and snow at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here's a closer look at how a compelling first day of the playoffs unfolded:
Atlanta shows its grit
Minus defensive rock Miles Robinson, Atlanta United did what it needed to to grind out a 1-0 win against a New England Revolution side that gave everything it had, but ultimately succumbed to the 2018 champions.
For a team loaded with stars, Atlanta got contributions from an elder statesman and complementary pieces to go through. Michael Parkhurst was an absolute rock in Robinson's place, helping Atlanta stonewall his former team before suffering a dislocated shoulder in the dying moments of the match. Meanwhile, Franco Escobar, who scored in last season's MLS Cup triumph, supplied the only goal necessary.
What really stood out–aside from Pity Martinez's dubious absence–was Atlanta's will, and that starts with its soon-to-be retired captain, Parkhurst. It's a cliché, no doubt, but it still rings true. Knocking a champion out takes a little extra, especially when that tone is set by its leader, and New England just didn't have it despite pushing the Five Stripes to the brink.
With Parkhurst likely to miss a couple of weeks and Robinson's hamstring status still unknown for a midweek conference semifinal, it could be a case of next man up again–Florentin Pogba, anyone?–for Atlanta, whose title defense continues.
Sounders ride Morris and Frei, survive Dallas
Seattle is no stranger to playoff drama, though it has found itself on the wrong side of it plenty of times. There was the 2015 chaos vs. FC Dallas, last season's penalty-kick drama vs. the rival Portland Timbers and away-goal disappointment vs. the LA Galaxy in 2014, to name a few instances. Saturday was the Sounders' day, though.
They needed every bit of Jordan Morris's hat trick–the fifth in MLS playoff history–and every heroic save in Stefan Frei's repertoire to outlast a valiant Dallas side, 4-3 in extra time, at CenturyLink Field.
Seattle has faced defensive questions ever since Chad Marshall's sudden retirement in May, and those questions will persist after it twice let FCD battle back, blowing a 2-0 lead after 22 minutes and then a 3-2 lead in the second half, after Morris scored his second. Set pieces wound up being Seattle's undoing, and the hosts were perhaps a bit fortunate that FCD raced to take a corner kick in the second half of extra time when an apparent handball in the box could have been called with a VAR review that never materialized.
FCD also missed a chance to win in the dying seconds of regulation, when Bryan Acosta, whose goal sent the game to extra time, incredibly elected to shoot instead of pass on a 2-v-1 breakaway.
As this match unfolded, it resembled less of a tactical masterpiece and more of a combination of choreographed chaos and Thunderdome–one befitting of the nuttiness that accompanies single-elimination play in MLS.
The Sounders will have to shake off some tired legs and the potential emotional hangover for Wednesday's quick turnaround, but it's a problem they'll surely welcome, and they'll do so knowing they won't have to travel in between, unlike their opponent.
Extra-time blitz sends Rooney out of MLS
And that's that for Wayne Rooney and his run with D.C. United.
Toronto FC scored four times in the first half of extra time to secure a 5-1 win over D.C. at BMO Field to emphatically end Rooney's time in MLS and advance to an Eastern Conference semifinal vs. NYCFC (at Citi Field).
Playing without the injured Omar Gonzalez and Jozy Altidore, TFC broke through to dominate D.C. in the extra session to continue to entertain thoughts of winning a second MLS Cup in three years.
TFC thought it had the match won in regulation, but it fell asleep defending a stoppage-time corner kick, with Rooney sending the ball into the danger zone before Lucas Rodriguez swept home the equalizer.
D.C., though, was the one that fell asleep in extra time.
Canadian internationals Richie Laryea and Jonathan Osorio continued their landmark week by scoring two minutes apart to open extra time (on the flip side, poor Paul Arriola has probably seen enough of BMO Field for a while). Osorio tacked on another before ex-D.C. standout Nick DeLeon got a stunner of his own–all against a D.C. team that hadn't conceded a single goal in the last five games of the season, no less.
As for Rooney, his MLS run that featured so many memorable moments ends with a whimper. In his season and a half, he played in two playoff games, and D.C. endured two quick exits. Rooney had his chances in the second half, only to be denied by Quentin Westberg, but his time in the league is abruptly up as he heads back to England in a player-coach role with Derby County.
RSL emerges after a tale of two halves
Real Salt Lake dominated the first half vs. Portland, then found the necessary play late in the second to advance with a 2-1 win.
The decisive play was a beauty, with Albert Rusnak's dummy allowing Jefferson Savarino to blast home the winner in the 87th minute.
Over the first 45 minutes, Portland failed to show up in the attacking half of the field and lived dangerously in its own end, with goalkeeper Steve Clark called into action, taking risks and largely emerging unscathed. But a defensive lapse allowed Damir Kreilach to waltz in with the opener in slippery conditions, and it looked like that'd be enough to take RSL through. The Timbers didn't attempt a shot in the first half, never mind a shot on goal, and they looked lost over the first 45 minutes.
Whatever manager Giovanni Savarese said at halftime worked. Mr. Playoffs himself, Dairon Asprilla, scored within two minutes after the restart, and Portland looked like the team that worked its way to MLS Cup last season. Diego Valeri, who was battling a calf injury and has been locked in fruitless contract talks, entered in the 63rd minute and very nearly played the hero, but it was Savarino that prevented a third straight extra-time bout with his match-winner. The result extends retiring goalkeeper Nick Rimando's career by at least a game and takes RSL to the site of its greatest triumph, when it won MLS Cup in Seattle 10 years ago.
The symmetry doesn't stop there. Portland's season started with a thriller in wintry weather, and, as it turns out, it ended that way, too.