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This was the first year of the new MLS playoff format, and boy did it bring the drama the first weekend. Gone are the days of two-legged series — the entire tournament now is one-off games, hosted by the higher seed. And in the first six games of the playoffs, the team hosting won five times. But these weren't straight forward affairs. Three of the games went to extra time, as the games featured goals galore, a Jordan Morris hat trick, and a first-ever playoff win for the Philadelphia Union.
Only one team didn't score in the first six games, and that was a New England Revolution side that narrowly lost on the road to Atlanta United. It was just about the perfect weekend for MLS, who could not have imagined a more breathtaking set of games to kick off their new playoff format.
Atlanta United 1-0 New England Revolution
There are a couple of players who come alive during the MLS playoffs, and apparently, Atlanta defender Franco Escobar is one of them. Escobar's finish from a fantastic pass from Ezequiel Barco in the 70th minute of the game was his third playoff goal in six appearances for the Five Stripes. That gives him more playoff goals than regular-season goals, in about one-eighth of the number of games.
Frank De Boer apparently didn't have use for Pity Martinez, who was named to the bench but did not appear as the defending champions kept alive their hopes of a rare MLS Cup repeat. But Barco shined when it mattered most, making good on some of the promise that was expected when he joined the club back in January 2018.
Seattle Sounders 4-3 FC Dallas
The Sounders made the most of their home-field advantage early on, boat-racing Luchi Gonzalez's side to the tune of a 2-0 lead within the first 22 minutes. Raul Ruidiaz scored from range, and Jordan Morris slipped a left-footed shot past Jesse Gonzalez, who probably should have made a save. But instead of wilting, Dallas responded to the deficit, and Reggie Cannon pulled one back for the visitors before the break.
Matt Hedges equalized in the 64th minute with a header from a corner, stunning the crowd at CenturyLink Field. But within 10 minutes, Seattle were back ahead, as a flicked-on header on a corner was then somehow redirected by Morris, who was being dragged down in front of goal. A goal-line clearance kept Seattle from going back ahead by two goals in the 78th minute, before Bryan Acosta equalized in the 82nd minute, another header from a corner for Dallas.
Stefan Frei had to make several big saves in extra time to keep Dallas from taking a lead, before Morris completed a rare playoff hat trick in the 113th minute, heading home his third goal after a mad scramble inside the box. That goal was the one that finally settled the contest, setting up a home date against Real Salt Lake for the 2016 MLS Cup winners.
Toronto FC 5-1 D.C. United
Judging by the scoreline, it's safe to assume that this was not one of the three games that went to extra time. But that assumption would be incorrect. It's just that the Reds absolutely blitzed United out of the building in the first extra-time period to the tune of four goals. Lucas Rodriguez scored in the third minute of stoppage time for United to send the game to extra-time, negating Marky Delgado's 32nd-minute goal.
However, that goal appeared to agitate Toronto in the worst way, as they came out like the house was on fire in the first 15 minutes of extra soccer. Richie Laryea scored the winner in the 93rd minute, but two goals from Jonathan Osorio — in the 95th and 103rd minutes — put the game completely out of doubt. And then to put the icing on the cake, former United player Nick DeLeon scored a peach of a goal in the 105th minute.
Wayne Rooney, in his final appearance for the Black-and-Red, was unceremoniously subbed out at the interval, and Paul Arriola picked up a second yellow card in the second period of extra time. The game was a crushing end for United, who had entered the playoffs having not conceded a goal for five consecutive games.
Real Salt Lake 2-1 Portland Timbers
Timbers keeper Steve Clark made an audacious save early in this game, to almost try to make you forget that Gio Savarese had Diego Valeri on the bench in an elimination game. Clark though couldn't prevent his defense from abandoning playing defense in the 28th minute, when Damir Kreilach was allowed to get in alone to head past Clark for the opening goal.
Dairon Asprilla, who struggles mightily in the MLS regular season but lights up come playoff time, popped up once again for the Timbers, scoring an equalizer in the 47th minute to give the visitors a chance at snatching a victory and setting up a Cascadia Cup clash in the Western semifinals.
Instead, Jefferson Savarino smashed home the winner in the 87th minute, a just reward for an RSL side that had been the better team throughout much of the game.
Philadelphia Union 4-3 New York Red Bulls
Did you know that before yesterday, the Union had never won an MLS playoff game, despite entering the league in 2010? Most of the fans were probably painfully aware of that fact at halftime when the hosts trailed 3-1 to the Red Bulls. Josh Sims and Tim Parker put RBNY up by two, before a response by Union captain Alejandro Bedoya in the 30th minute. But in the fourth minute of first-half stoppage time, Tom Barlow restored the two-goal advantage, much to the chagrin of the Chester faithful.
However, Jim Curtin's side didn't count themselves out and responded in the second half with headers from Jack Elliott and Fafa Picault. That meant a third game in the first round of the playoffs was headed to extra time. During the free soccer, Curtin inserted designated player Marco Fabian, who had mostly been a disappointment in 2019 for the Union. However, the Mexican's cross in the 105th minute took a slight deflection off of a defender and somehow snuck into the goal at the far post by the slimmest of margins.
It was all the Union needed to end years of agony and reward their fans with a first-ever playoff win.
Minnesota United 1-2 LA Galaxy
If there was one game that screamed that the visitors had a good chance of winning before the weekend started, this was it, and the last game of the first round did not let down. Minnesota wasted several excellent scoring chances in this game — in both halves — in their first-ever playoff appearance. The Galaxy, who threw away their chance to host this game on Decision Day, weren't creating all that much at Allianz Field before they struck twice in four minutes in the second half.
First, it was Sebastian Lletget cleaning up a mess in the 71st minute, when he pounced on a loose ball in the box from a shot by Zlatan Ibrahimovic that was blocked. Then, Jonathan dos Santos essentially sealed the deal with a long-range effort in the 75th minute. Jan Gregus pulled one back for the Loons in the 87th minute to add a late dash on intrigue, but there just wasn't enough time for an equalizer.
Now, we will get another installment of El Trafico. LAFC blew everyone out of the water this year on their way to setting a new points record in MLS, but have still famously never beaten the Galaxy in five attempts in 2018 and 2019. They will get a sixth crack at it on Thursday night, in what is the marquee matchup of the conference semifinals.