Early Returns on New MLS Playoffs and a Look Ahead to Conference Semifinals

After a drama-filled weekend, MLS is down to its final eight teams, with El Trafico headlining the four mid-week matchups.
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The Philadelphia Union, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC all won MLS playoff games

Well that was exhilarating.

Six single-elimination MLS playoff games yielded 27 goals and three sets of extra time, yet only one upset based on seeding as the league turns its focus to the conference semifinal round. There's little rest for the teams who played in those high-stress environments over the weekend, with NYCFC-Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders-Real Salt Lake taking place on Wednesday night, prior to Thursday's double headliner of Atlanta United-Philadelphia Union and LAFC-LA Galaxy.

Here are five thoughts on the start to the MLS playoffs and what's to come:

The flip side to all of the format optimism

There's been no denying that single elimination has done wonders for the entertainment value of the MLS playoffs. There were hints of that in recent seasons, when the first rounds that preceded the two-legged conference semifinals and finals offered the same kind of gripping, do-or-die stakes. Now, that's been extended from start to finish. But just because something is entertaining, does that make it the right way to go? Does the winner of a three-or or four-game cup competition deserve to be crowned league champion? Should seven teams in each conference-over half the league this season!–be deemed worthy enough to contend for the title?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was characteristically blunt when asked about the format this summer. "I think the system is s***, but that's the way it is," he said. "You talk about mentality. Mentality for me is every day. The way you train is the way you play the game. The results in every game is important. Here you come seventh place, you make the playoffs, you win. So how do you create that mentality to be on your toes 24 hours? It's very difficult."

It's a fair question, and one you'd expect from someone who has played his whole career in high-intensity situations, where the regular season is the run to the title and cup competitions are largely secondary. 

As the league continues to grow, the playoff field isn't going to shrink. And with the early returns on Season 1 of the new format, you can be sure that the league has had its thinking reinforced. Regular-season finish resulting in home-field advantage paid off for five of the six winners, and the first-round bye properly incentivizes the top seeds with extra rest. We'll see if the optimism remains after the quick turnarounds for the conference semifinals and after another year or two of building a sample size, but it'd be surprising if any kind of change happened anytime soon based on what we've just seen.

LAFC faces LA Galaxy in the MLS playoffs

Has El Trafico been as one-sided as it seems?

Everyone is well aware that LAFC hasn't beaten the LA Galaxy in their two years together in MLS. But it's not as if the five matches between the two have been completely lopsided.

The Galaxy are 2-0-3 against LAFC, but if you want to flip the narrative around, you could point out that the Galaxy have never won at Banc of California Stadium, going 0-0-2 in two meetings there.

Make no mistake, all of the pressure is on LAFC to advance after the regular season that it had and considering its winless record in the abbreviated history between the two sides. But there's urgency on the Galaxy's side, too. This isn't a team playing with house money. It's a team that's still desperate to own its city after seeing LAFC come in, build a genius-level roster with a main attraction of a stadium and largely steamroll competition for two years running. With Ibrahimovic's future in the league uncertain, the Galaxy don't have the luxury of sitting back and letting an opportunity to keep the foot on LAFC's throat slip away.

LAFC has yet to find an answer for Ibrahimovic (who looked surprisingly subpar Sunday night), and with star center back Walker Zimmerman coming off a concussion, it remains to be seen if he'll be ready to go full throttle against the league's biggest handful on Thursday night. The Galaxy will have reason to feel confident Thursday night, but LAFC will be rested (too rested, perhaps? They'll have gone 18 days in between games) and hell-bent on taking over its city's bragging rights. One playoff win could go a long way in negating five regular season non-wins. 

The Pity Problem

Pity Martinez was hailed as one of the best signings the league has ever had, with Atlanta United plucking the in-his-prime, reigning South American player of the year from River Plate for $15 million, fresh off a triumph in the Copa Libertadores final. His shaky transition to MLS has been well-documented, but you'd still expect him to be called upon come playoff time, when stars are built to shine and big-money players are turned to for production.

Instead, manager Frank de Boer evidently chooses the balance of his Emerson Hyndman-Darlington Nagbe-Jeff Larentowicz midfield, which leaves room for only one creative force. That force is another highly hailed signing, Ezequiel Barco, and it's hard to argue with his inclusion given his recent form. But can Atlanta United really go the distance again if Martinez is a spectator or a high-impact substitute? And is the club inadvertently sabotaging his sell-on value by making him a bit player? There are a lot of moving pieces in play, but as long as Atlanta is continuing to win, the only one taking pity for Pity will be Pity himself.

Bright lights, big Citi

With the Yankees crashing out of baseball's playoffs in the American League Championship Series, NYCFC knows that its move to Citi Field will only last one game. Either the Eastern Conference's top seed beats Toronto FC there and moves on to host the conference final, or its season ends there altogether with a loss to the 2017 champions.

The whole situation is a tad ridiculous and looks even more foolish given that the Yankees were eliminated Saturday night. Given the proper heads up needed for grounds crew, fans, teams, sponsors, etc., the decision needed to be made when it was, but NYCFC had better hope the Mets' fall fortunes don't rub off on them in a game that could prove challenging on multiple fronts and limit the home-field advantage NYCFC worked all season to earn.

Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez are injured for Toronto FC

Injuries that really matter

There's a who's who list of talent whose statuses for the midweek matches remain up in the air.

For Toronto FC, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez both missed the extra-time win over D.C. United, and it's unclear what their availability will be Wednesday vs. NYCFC. Both U.S. veterans are difference-makers for the club, and their statuses could well determine the Reds' fate.

For LAFC, Mark-Anthony Kaye and the aforementioned Zimmerman make up a good chunk of the spine of that team. Remove one–or both–from the equation, and the Galaxy could wind up with a much easier time in their matchup.

For Atlanta United, Michael Parkhurst dislocated his shoulder while playing in place of Miles Robinson, who tweaked his hamstring while on international duty with the USA. That could put Florentin Pogba in a massive spot for Thursday night's clash vs. the Philadelphia Union.

As for the Union, Alejandro Bedoya limped out of their win over the Red Bulls, though manager Jim Curtin indicated it was just cramps and not something more serious. If that's indeed the case, that'll be a sigh of relief for a Philly team that needs its leader. Another of the team's stars and its leading scorer, Kacper Przybylko, wound up missing the Red Bulls game despite indications he may return. Another absence would surely be welcomed by an Atlanta team thinned out in defense.