MLS playoff predictions: Zlatan Ibrahimovic stands between LAFC and glory

Graham Ruthven and Jakub Frankowicz
<span>Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP</span>
Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

The regular season was defined by…

The dominance of Los Angeles FC. Losing just four league games all year long, they set a new standard in Major League Soccer and head into the playoffs as the firm favorites. In Bob Bradley, LAFC boast the best coach in the league and in Carlos Vela they boast the best player, certainly the best goalscorer. All this in just their second year as an MLS franchise. GR

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

The league’s self-inflicted PR nightmare over Iron Front banners. By banning the symbol, it drew more attention to the league’s ineffectual response to far-right elements in supporters’ groups. With ongoing protests throughout the league, the league rolled back their position and promised to incorporate supporters in discussions about the policy. If they hadn’t policed supporters so strictly, few people would have even recognized the symbol. JF

Your dark horses are…

At the midpoint of the regular season, Toronto FC seemed to have reached some sort of breaking point. A playoff run looked unlikely, but the 2017 MLS Cup winners finished the campaign well. In fact, their end-of-season form was the best in the league, with their last defeat coming all the way back at the start of August. Momentum is such an important thing in the playoffs and TFC have it right now. GR

The Portland Timbers were huge underdogs when they fell short to Atlanta United in last year’s MLS Cup final and they’ll be hoping to relive some of the magic that got them there. A squad that features Diego Chara and Diego Valeri are a perennial danger come playoffs. Their veteran savvy and a solid road-record (given the new playoff format) makes them a dangerous team despite their low seed. JF

Player to watch

The only thing that could stop Josef Martinez’s record-breaking scoring run was injury. The Venezuelan had found the net in 12 consecutive MLS games before suffering a knee and ankle injury in a game against San Jose last month. There were fears that Martinez would be ruled out of the playoffs as a result, but the striker returned to action in the final match of the regular season, scoring his 27th goal of the season. Atlanta United are so reliant on him. If Martinez can pick up where he left off, the Five Stripes will be a force again. GR

Carlos Vela. Just one season after Josef Martinez set the MLS single-season goals record at 31, Vela hit 34, with 15 assists to boot. He’s scored in his last nine games, and closed the regular season with a hat-trick. It’s a remarkable feat, and one LAFC fans will hope he continues in order to lead them to a Cup win. JF

High-seeded team at risk of going out early

LAFC deserve their status as MLS Cup favourites. However, their first playoff tie could see them pitted against the LA Galaxy - their bogey team. For all that Bradley’s team have blown away the rest of MLS in 2019, they have still to get the better of their closest rivals in five meetings. GR

As the third seed in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Union have come off the best campaign in their history. The bad news is that they come into the playoffs having lost three of their last four with their sole win coming against the San Jose Earthquakes, who lost their last six. They start off their playoffs against the New York Red Bulls, to whom recently lost 2-0. JF

Which former Premier League star will make a bigger splash: Zlatan or Wayne?

<span class="element-image__caption">Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a familiar pose this season.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: USA Today Sports</span>
Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a familiar pose this season. Photograph: USA Today Sports

It’s difficult to look past Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede has scored an astonishing 50 goals in 49 appearances for LA Galaxy over 2018 and 2019. Were it not for Vela, this would have been The Year of Zlatan in MLS. It could still work out that way with the LA Galaxy on course to meet LAFC in the Western Conference semi-finals. Ibrahimovic has made a habit of finding his best form against the Supporters’ Shield winners, scoring two hat-tricks and eight goals in five games against LAFC. A playoff meeting could see him deliver the season’s defining moment. GR

Zlatan. The Galaxy have finally given the Swede some help in the form of a midseason acquisition of Argentinian Cristian Pavon, and the rising tide has lifted all ships. Pavon has excelled, tallying eight assists and three goals in 11 games, while Zlatan has become only the third MLS player to score 30 goals, doing so in 29 games. JF

Is the new playoff format an improvement?

It’s certainly true that the playoff format needed trimming down. The postseason in recent years had dragged on, dulling the sense of excitement by the time the conference finals and MLS Cup arrived. However, two-legged ties offer a dynamic of their own. Entire fanbases will now be robbed of the chance to see their team play the most important games of the season. A better option would have been to cut the number of playoff spots on offer. GR

It’s far from perfect. Allowing more teams into the playoffs cheapens the regular season. Teams are punished for having stars make international squads as the postseason starts so soon after the international break. The timing of the format, with some four-day gaps, will lower the quality of play. And the one-game series mean fewer fans will be able to see their team at home, while increasing the impact of luck. At the same time, I don’t have a workable suggestion to fix it. JF

Eastern Conference final

Atlanta United 2-1 Toronto FC. GR

Atlanta United 2-1 NYC FC. JF

Western Conference final

Los Angeles FC 3-2 Seattle Sounders. GR

Los Angeles FC 2-1 Seattle Sounders. JF

MLS Cup final

<span class="element-image__caption">Los Angeles FC fans may well be celebrating at the end of the MLS Cup final.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Ringo HW Chiu/AP</span>
Los Angeles FC fans may well be celebrating at the end of the MLS Cup final. Photograph: Ringo HW Chiu/AP

Los Angeles FC 3-1 Atlanta United. This would be a fitting end to a season that has largely been about one thing: goals. This match-up would pit the top-scorers in the West against the second top-scorers in the East. The Supporters’ Shield winners against the defending MLS Cup champions. Last year’s showpiece game at Mercedes Benz Stadium felt like a real spectacle and the same would be said of MLS Cup at Banc of California Stadium. These two franchises have taken MLS to new places over the past two seasons and there’s still a feeling that on their day they are best pair in the league. GR

Los Angeles FC 4-1 Atlanta United. LAFC have all the components to put together the best single season in MLS history. They’ve broken the record for most points in a season after it was set just last year, and they enter the playoffs having lost just once in their last 13 league matches. Bob Bradley has helped organize a juggernaut on the west coast. The offense has been an absolute buzzsaw, lead by Vela and Diego Rossi, who have sliced through defenses at will in 2019. It would take some inspired play to knock them off course. JF

What to read next