MLS's first round of the playoffs wrapped up the same way they began: quality entertainment and a fascinating set of matches.
The Philadelphia Union came back from two goals down to oust the New York Red Bulls in extra time, 4-3, and set up an Eastern Conference semifinal vs. Atlanta United, while the LA Galaxy broke through with two goals in a four-minute span and then held on late to beat Minnesota United 2-1 and advance to a mouthwatering Western Conference semifinal vs. city rival LAFC.
The other conference semifinal in the East features NYCFC vs. Toronto FC, while the other half of the West pits the Seattle Sounders against Real Salt Lake. All four matches will take place over Wednesday and Thursday, with the winners advancing to the conference finals the following week.
Here are three thoughts on the end of a raucous first round:
A first for the Union, more of the same for the Red Bulls
The Philadelphia Union have been yearning for any kind of playoff success, and it came in dramatic fashion, with the club battling back from a multi-goal deficit to score three unanswered and win it in extra time vs. a Red Bulls side unfortunately used to playoff disappointment.
It wasn't the first time the Union accomplished that feat against the Red Bulls this season, doing so in their regular-season meeting at Talen Energy Stadium. In that game, Philly trailed 2-0 at halftime, scored three times in 12 second-half minutes and earned the win. You never know what point in a season can influence what happens in the playoffs. Union captain Alejandro Bedoya, in his post-match remarks to FS1, credited that comeback for planting the seeds for what was possible Sunday, and the Union put their past playoff failures aside to get the job done. That the winning goal came on a deflected cross that was surely aimed for one of Marco Fabian's teammates at the back post is of little consequence.
As for the Red Bulls, it's another gut punch in a long list of them for the franchise. The club raced out to a two-goal lead after 24 minutes and even restored its two-goal edge just before halftime through Tom Barlow. That should've been enough to have the club see out the match, but, as many Red Bulls sides before them have done, they wilted. Soul-sucking elimination wouldn't have been complete without a close call at the end, and that's precisely what happened, with Bradley Wright-Phillips's header at the death trickling just wide and preventing the match from going to penalty kicks.
Now you wonder what comes next for the Red Bulls. Kaku wanted out before the season, and Aaron Long was intrigued by the European offers that came his way during it. Manager Chris Armas was under pressure to bring the club on a playoff run, and he couldn't. New York as reined in the spending in recent years and seems more interested in sticking with its more recent approach. Whether that works in today's MLS is up for debate–three Supporters' Shields are nothing to sniff at–but the lack of playoff success continues to weigh on this club and its supporters.
Galaxy set up El Trafico: Playoff Edition
If LAFC is to finish off its historic season with an MLS Cup triumph, it'll have to do something it has yet to do in two years in the league: beat the LA Galaxy.
Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan Dos Santos scored in the 71st and 75th minutes, respectively, to give the Galaxy the only road victory in the round. It was a not a classic Galaxy win by any means. The visitors were oddly docile, unable to put Zlatan Ibrahimovic in dangerous positions and seemingly content to play with a less aggressive approach before scoring against the run of play.
LA probably should've been trailing by at least a goal before Lletget opened the scoring, too. Minnesota–Robin Lod and Angelo Rodriguez, especially–missed opportunity after opportunity to seize control for the hosts, whose stadium hosted a college football game on Saturday and perhaps didn't have the truest of surfaces on the night. By the time Minnesota got on the board, through Jan Gregus's fine 87th-minute finish, it was too little, too late, and a fine season came to an end.
So the Loons couldn't follow the Union's lead by winning a first playoff game in club history, and it's the Galaxy going through to a game they'll have all the confidence they need to go win and truly upend what's been an otherwise chalky playoff bracket.
The new format seems to be taking
MLS is not exactly used to receiving praise, but it's hard to find many negatives with the new playoff format given how everything played out this weekend. The sample size is tiny, of course, and there's yet to be a VAR controversy that dumps out a favorite and calls the fine margins into question.
It's not like MLS hadn't had single-elimination knockout rounds before, either. The previous format used that method for its first round before two-legged conference semifinals and finals slowed things down, and those knockout matches set the template for what to expect in the new edition. Now, there are no cagey first legs, with teams afraid to really go for it for fear of either conceding an away goal or leaving themselves without a chance in the second leg.
It's desperation soccer, which lends itself to an exciting product, if not the most tactically and technically adept. With all but one of the home teams going through–and the one that didn't locked in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup–MLS can point to a true advantage for the higher seeds and assign value and meaning to teams' regular-season finishes. Whether that's how it just played out this time, and in this round, remains to be seen, but the early returns from the neutral viewer's perspective are promising.