The 2019 MLS playoffs have been just about everything the league could have asked for. In the first season of a new single-elimination format, matches have been taken to a new level. The playoffs have been back-and-forth, high-scoring and, most importantly, downright fun.
Sunday night's clash between Minnesota United and the LA Galaxy was none of that. It was a relatively drab affair compared to the five matches that came before it. But it did set up a matchup that will certainly rank as one of the most anticipated in the league's 23-year history.
Minnesota United was able to keep Zlatan Ibrahimovic relatively quiet, but the Loons were unable to prevent Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos from breaking hearts in a 2-1 Galaxy victory. With that win, the Galaxy became the first road team to win under this new playoff format while setting up the marquee clash of all marquee clashes against rivals Los Angeles FC in the next round.
But to get there, the Galaxy had to take down Minnesota United, who had somehow been cast as the plucky underdog despite finishing two points better than their opponents in the regular season. They'd embraced that mentality all season, especially in this David vs. Goliath matchup where Goliath was depicted as a hulking Swede with a legendary ego.
Still, it wasn't Zlatan who did the damage. The Galaxy survived a tepid first half that featured little action on either end as the home crowd attempted to spur on their side in their first MLS playoff match. And, for a while, it looked like that could be enough, even with the Galaxy's oft-criticized backline bending but not breaking on several occasions.
The Minnesota defense finally broke in the second half, conceding twice in a matter of minutes to all but seal their fate. The first was ugly, with Lletget pouncing on a blocked Ibrahimovic shot to quiet the home crowd. The second was beautiful, with Dos Santos curling a shot past Vito Mannone and into the right-hand corner.
But, in true MLS playoff fashion, the match did feature one more twist with Jan Gregus scoring for the Loons on a perfectly-smashed missile that found the lower corner. Still, it wasn't to be. Galaxy vs. LAFC it is.
Sunday's result capped off a weekend that could only be described as a dream advertisement for MLS. It featured a seven-goal thriller in Seattle with a hat trick from a U.S. national team star in Jordan Morris. It featured Wayne Rooney's send-off, a match that included a stoppage-time equalizer and then a four-goal blitz from Toronto FC in extra time. There were mid-play selfies and a shocking comeback in Philadelphia, a late winner in Salt Lake and a composed performance from defending champions Atlanta United.
If there were concerns over the new playoff format, they're all gone. Home teams won all but one match, with Minnesota the lone loser, showing that the regular season standings actually made an impact on results. The often-drab two-leg affairs were replaced by absolutely chaotic single-elimination battles that sometimes looked more like arcade-style FIFA matches than playoff soccer. A grueling nine-month season boiled down to a series of do-or-die battles where each and every game provided at least one moment that took fans out of their seat.
With LAFC and New York City FC joining the party for the next set of games, there's still plenty of matches to look forward to. But, it's safe to say that Thursday night's derby clash between the Galaxy and LAFC has the potential to be something special.
It's a match those at MLS headquarters will have dreamed of. El Trafico, to date, has been the best thing the league has to offer. It gives us Carlos Vela against Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two absolute superstars who raised each other's levels all season with a war of words. It gives us a battle of nouveau riche versus the old guard as LAFC looks to truly stamp itself as the city's team. And, most importantly, it offers a matchup that will draw both the diehard and the casual following a weekend that fully showcased the best of what MLS had to offer.
The first weekend is done, but let the fun continue.