A closer look at the MLS Conference semifinals
The first round of the MLS playoffs were filled with goals drama and three different extra-time finishes, setting a very high bar for the next round.
The conference semifinal matchups are set after five of six higher seeds took care of business at home, with the LA Galaxy the only road team able to survive the first round.
The Galaxy’s reward for eliminating Minnesota United is a derby showdown against Los Angeles FC in a playoff match for the ages. LAFC has yet to beat the Galaxy, but will be against a Galaxy side that has had its defensive issues all season.
Here is a rundown of all four MLS conference semifinal matchups
New York City FC vs. Toronto FC
Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, Citi Field
Season Series: Toronto FC won, 4-0, at BMO Field on March 29; the teams tied 1-1 on September 11 at Yankee Stadium.
History: Toronto FC decimated NYCFC in the 2016 MLS playoffs by a combined score of 7-0 on the way to the MLS Cup final.
Match-up to Watch: Maxi Moralez vs. Michael Bradley. Moralez is the key to the NYCFC attack, and his quickness will be a handful for Bradley, who orchestrates TFC’s defensive setup.
Outlook: These are two of the most in-form teams heading into the playoffs, with TFC riding a 10-match unbeaten run into the postseason. NYCFC posted a 10-1-2 record in its final 13 matches of the regular season, with the only blemish coming on the road at New England after NYCFC had already clinched first place in the Eastern Conference.
NYCFC had the second-best home record in MLS this year (11-1-5), but that record is at Yankee Stadium. Citi Field will have similar dimensions and challenges as a baseball stadium, but it remains to be seen if NYCFC will enjoy the same home-field advantage at its temporary home.
TFC is waiting on whether Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez will be available. Both U.S. Men’s National Team veterans missed TFC’s win against D.C. United with injuries.
Atlanta United vs. Philadelphia Union
Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Season Series: The teams tied, 1-1, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on March 17; Philadelphia won, 3-1, at Talen Energy Stadium on August 31.
History: These teams have never met in the playoffs, but Atlanta United holds a 3-1-2 advantage in the all-time series.
Match-up to Watch: Haris Medunjanin versus Ezequiel Barco. Medunjanin anchors the Union midfield, but he’ll have his hands full trying to provide an active link from defense to attack while also keeping taps on the elusive Barco, who is in top form since returning from a lengthy injury layoff.
Outlook: Both teams are banged up heading into Thursday’s match, with Atlanta United expected to be missing both Miles Robinson and Michael Parkhurst, and the Philadelphia Union unlikely to have lead striker Kacper Przybylko.
Frank DeBoer will have some interesting lineup decisions to make, starting with how to deploy his defense, and whether to scrap the 3-5-2 in favor of a 4-4-2. Jeff Larentowicz is likely to slide back into central defense, with Eric Remedi stepping into midfield, though De Boer could give Florentin Pogba a look in central defense as well.
DeBoer will also need to decide what to do with Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, who didn’t play a minute in Atlanta’s win against New England. DeBoer started Emerson Hyndman against the Revolution, and didn’t sound like he planned to make changes to his midfield.
The Union attack received contributions from several attackers in Sunday’s win against the New York Red Bulls, which will leave Jim Curtin with options to consider. Fafa Picault and Marco Fabian are both strong candidates to step into the starting lineup.
Los Angeles FC vs. LA Galaxy
Thursday, 10:30 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Season Series: The Galaxy defeated LAFC, 3-2, at StubHub Center on July 19; the teams tied, 3-3, at Banc of California Stadium on August 25.
History: The Galaxy are undefeated against their LA rivals, holding a 3-0-2 advantage in the series.
Match-up to Watch: Zlatan Ibrahimovic versus Eddie Segura. It’s unclear whether Walker Zimmerman will be available, but even if he is, Segura will have a big part to play in trying to contain Ibrahimovic, who has feasted on LAFC over the past two seasons.
Outlook: LAFC enjoyed a bye in the first round of the playoffs, but needed it to help some key players deal with injuries. Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye is dealing with the hamstring injury he suffered while on international duty, while Zimmerman remains a question mark after the concussion he suffered in LAFC’s regular-season finale against Colorado.
The good news for LAFC is that striker Adame Diomande is back and available after being reinstated by MLS following his stint in the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (SABH) program. His return helps give Bob Bradley some good options after a stretch of playing Vela up top. A return to the long-time setup with Vela on the right wing is possible, but Bradley will also need to figure out of he wants to make a change or stick with a lineup that also includes Brian Rodriguez.
The Galaxy are dealing with some injury concerns as well, with Joe Corona having missed the win against Minnesota United. Perry Kitchen stepped into the vacancy in midfield and turned in a strong outing and could be called on once again on Thursday.
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET, CenturyLink Field
Season Series: Sounders won, 1-0, at CenturyLink Field on April 6; Real Salt Lake won, 3-0, at Rio Tinto Stadium on August 14.
History: Seattle and RSL faced off in the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, splitting their meetings, with the Sounders winning the 2012 edition. RSL holds the all-time series edge during the regular season (12-10-4) but the Sounders have dominated at home in all competitions, with a 10-3-3 advantage at CenturyLink Field.
Match-up to Watch: Raul Ruidiaz versus Nedum Onuoha. There are marquee match-ups galore in midfield, but how Onuoha deals with Ruidiaz is going to be key to RSL’s chances of containing the Sounders attack.
Outlook: The Sounders won a wild one against FC Dallas that showed off both their attacking prowess, but also their defensive frailty. They haven’t replaced the leadership of Chad Marshall in the back, as much as Roman Torres has helped fill the void to some degree.
RSL will look to go at Gustav Svensson, who had a shaky showing against FC Dallas. With Cristian Roldan surging forward more and more, Svensson needs to tighten up defensively, especially with Albert Rusnak roaming the central midfield.
This one will come down to which team’s fullbacks do the better job coping with some in-form wingers. Jordan Morris and Jefferson Savarino where the heroes in the first round of the playoffs, and they will each be needed to deliver another victory on Wednesday.