34 regular-season matches are in the rearview and it all comes down to this: the MLS Cup Playoffs officially kick off this weekend at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s a rematch of the final regular season match for the Five Stripes, who host the New England Revolution. But even if that match ended in victory, they’ll have to bring even more to come out winners in knockout play.
It all kicks off Saturday at 1:00 p.m. ET on Fox Sports Southeast and Univision. If you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.
Atlanta United – #2 seed
Eight grueling months have all led up to this, but this is the moment any player lives for: do or die, knockout play in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Atlanta United may be the reigning champions, but they’re hungrier than ever as they look to defend their throne and become legends of the city.
Leading the way will be the reigning MVP, Josef Martinez, who was just named as a finalist for the award again this year for his stellar play up top for Atlanta United. Just weeks after being forced off with a leg injury, he came back for the final regular-season match to get back on the scoresheet again against the Revolution less than two weeks ago. But joining him up top was another return to the starting lineup, Ezequiel Barco, who showed what an impact he could make on this team heading into the postseason after his extended injury absence. Julian Gressel is coming off perhaps his best performance of the season with a goal and two assists last time out, and Darlington Nagbe made his way onto the scoresheet for the second time this season as well. With the attacking side of the field fit and ready for the run, Frank de Boer has plenty of options at his disposal.
The back line took an unfortunate hit this week, with Miles Robinson injured on international duty with the U.S. Men’s National Team. The MLS Defender of the Year finalist is currently listed as “week to week,” so fans will have to wait until matchday for the latest on his availability. Florentin Pogba is returning healthy from international duty with Guinea, so he will be available. And of course Michael Parkhurst has been reliable every time he’s been called on for Atlanta United, so there could be a return to the starting lineup for the captain. Injuries haven’t derailed Atlanta United yet and they don’t plan on using it as an excuse now –– so expect whoever is called up to be ready for the postseason this weekend.
New England Revolution – #7 seed
Despite the loss in their final regular season match, the New England Revolution come into the postseason on a hot run of form over the second half of the season. And with an MLS veteran coach in Bruce Arena coming to town, you can always expect an extra wrinkle in their game plan.
The main men for the Revs are two new additions to the squad this season. First, the MLS Newcomer of the Year Carles Gil is a constant outlet for the team in possession. Expect him to start on the wing but to float inside in a free role to get on the ball as much as possible, looking to get into the spaces between the midfield and back line to find the defense-splitting pass. He’ll be looking to combine with a lethal striker in Gustavo Bou, another new addition to the team this season. The Argentine has scored nine goals in just 14 appearances since his midseason move to the Revs, and is capable of creating a match-changing play out of nothing –– crucial to any team with postseason aspirations. While the Revs have players that can contribute all over the field, these are the two main match-winners. If Atlanta United can shut them down, it will go a long way to securing their passage to the next round.
With four forward-thinking players in the attack, that means the defensive-minded midfielders to balance them out become even more crucial. Wilfried Zahibo and Luis Caicedo bring the bite in the center of the park in front of Andrew Farrell, Antonio Mlinar, Brandon Bye and Jalil Anibaba. The Five Stripes tend to line up more players in midfield, and could use that numerical advantage to their advantage to bypass the first line of defense and get a head of steam running at the back line. If they do, they’ll have to be clinical to find the corners in the New England goal against Matt Turner, who has been as good as any goalkeeper in the league since earning the starting spot midseason.
With the regular season behind us, now is when the pressure turns up in the MLS Cup playoffs –– and with a new single-elimination format, every moment matters more than ever. Click here to reserve your tickets, or if you can’t make the trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.