DC United vs. New England Revolution (7:30et, 4:30pt, UniMás)
Neither team is coming into this game in great form by any means; New England didn't grab a full three points since September 16 before defeating lowly NYCFC on decision day and DC United were demolished by Columbus on Sunday 5-0. But both have proven themselves in the past, so while both of these clubs aren't considered favorites to win the championship, you can never underestimate them.
The Revolution–last year's Eastern Conference champions, as I'm sure you all remember–have veteran talent at each position, something that not many other teams can say they have in this league.
They are incredibly streaky, going unbeaten in nine straight through July, August and September, but losing seven of eight earlier in the summer, with a loss to USL side Charlotte Independence in the U.S. Open Cup added in. It's possible that could get hot and make a deep run this postseason, like they did last year, or they might flame out, with their defense causing them problems and Lee Nguyen going into a bit of a goal drought.
You never know with this team.
On the other side, DC United had all their weaknesses exposed on national television against the short-handed Columbus Crew on the weekend. Taylor Kemp was constantly eaten up by Ethan Finlay and Harrison Afful on the left side, making Ben Olsen question whether to keep Kemp in the starting lineup against the likely pairing of London Woodberry and Teal Bunbury on the right.
United looked all out of sorts against the Crew, with their inability to hold the ball in the middle (they are outnumbered due to their 4-4-2 formation) and lack of a pure playmaker seriously hindering chance-creation. With this, the backline was forced to deal with tons of crosses sent in by Finlay and Afful without help from midfielders.
The score actually could have been much worse if not for goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who remains their biggest strength.
Seattle Sounders vs. Los Angeles Galaxy (10:00et, 7:00pt, UniMás)
This probably wasn't a Western Conference knockout round matchup predicted by very many people at the start of the season, with both clubs expected to gain higher seeds, but this gem of a game is what you will get.
Both have been battling for Western Conference supremacy for years, and the Galaxy have usually gotten the better of their northern rivals, creating a bit of a bone to pick with traditionally star-studded LA for the Sounders. The Rave Green have have also had their share of superstars, to be fair.
Despite this being an early round playoff game, it very well might be the contest consisting of the most well-known players. After all, with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins heading a sensational strike force for Seattle and Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard leading a dominant (on paper) midfield and attack, this is the matchup that provides the most intrigue of the mid-week games, especially with the past animosity between the sides.
The Galaxy are coming off a game against Sporting KC in which they lost 2-1. One of the goals they gave up should never have counted due to an unfortunate no-call by the assistant referee (Kevin Ellis was offside by a mile), and LA got Feilhabered on the second. Granted, there are obviously other solid reasons for the defeat (the offense is lopsided, the defense is breakable, and the midfielders don't play defense), but the Galaxy easily could have gotten a victory.
Does that mean they will win at Century Link Field? Absolutely not.
Sigi Schmid is one of the smartest managers out there, so it's a pretty good bet that he will have the scouting report on how to beat Los Angeles. What I presume he will do is exploit the pace advantage Dempsey and Martins have on Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo by drawing one of the central defenders out and sending one of the strikers through on goal. The way Bruce Arena can combat this is by sticking a purely defensive midfielder in front of the backline to allow the two center-backs to both stay back and track runs.
The problem is, LA's 4-4-2 formation involving Gerrard and Juninho in the middle doesn't have room for a number-six. Gerrard has played a similar role at Liverpool, but he still likes to push forward. Being a box-to-box midfielder at 35 just doesn't work.
Dempsey may be coming back to life, judging from his brace against Real Salt Lake on Sunday–making the Clint-Oba combo up top even scarier for LA.
As a side note, home-field advantage will play a big role. Seattle is the best soccer environment in North America and the Galaxy are 2-9-6 on the road this season.
Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact (7:00et, 4:00pt, UniMás)
You can talk all you want about the superstars in Seattle, but you can't forget about possibly the best one-on-one battle of the first round: Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco vs. Montreal's Didier Drogba.
Yes, Drogba is almost 10 years the elder of the Italian, but the former Chelsea star clearly has TFC's number, scoring twice in a matter of minutes to give the Impact three points against their Canadian rivals on decision day.
Meanwhile Giovinco made 2015 the "Year of Giovinco." The former Juventus forward had the most goals, assists and shots of anybody in MLS while he has led Toronto to huge success in the Eastern Conference. He is leading an attack that includes the likes of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio.
This offensive firepower goes head to head Thursday night at BMO Field, the first ever playoff game that features Toronto FC.
Montreal, compared to last year's Revolution by mlssoccer.com's Matthew Doyle, don't have a perfect defense, but will manage to keep balls out of the net efficiently enough to stay in games. Evan Bush could be their Bobby Shuttleworth; a keeper that plays incredibly late in the season to lead his to a long playoff run.
Ignacio Piatti will start alongside Drogba up front, adding chemistry and speed. The Argentinean had both assists on Drogba's brace.
Toronto haven't found a starting XI that is set in stone, but I can guarantee that you will see their core offensive players. Altidore and Bradley, both USMNT veterans, provide a combination of playmaking and strength.
Whatever the result of this game is, you can assume that goals will be scored.
Portland Timbers vs. Sporting KC (10:00et, 7:00pt, UniMás)
The Timbers are my dark-horse MLS Cup candidates. They are coming off a three game winning streak to end the season in which they outscored opponents 10-3. The final one, a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids, was without their best offensive player, Diego Valeri.
Darlington Nagbe stepped up in that game, scoring twice in the first-half to offset a Rapids goal and then putting the finishing touches on with an assist in the second-half. This impressive performance earned him MLS Player of the Week honors, a week after Portland forward Fanendo Adi won the award.
These three, Valeri, Nagbe and Adi, combine to create goals in abundance. Adi's back-to-goal strength and skill is among the best in the league, while Valeri's playmaking and Nagbe's fireworks provide an outlet for him.
While Nagbe can tend to be inconsistent, when he is at his best he's a top-five player in MLS. He seems to be in-form heading into the playoffs, if his most recent match was any indication, meaning he will not only lead Portland on a possible deep run, but, maybe, the USMNT into World Cup qualifying.
The defense is pretty steady too. Goalkeeper Adam Kwarsey has proven himself to be a capable contributor this season, while the center-back pairing of Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell has been essential for the backline, providing veteran leadership and smart defending to help keep opponents at bay.
They face Sporting KC on Thursday night with the opportunity to prove themselves on national television.
The key for Sporting to beat the dynamic Timbers is Benny Feilhaber. Coach Peter Vermes gave him ample motivation when he benched the US National Team veteran, claiming it was due to fatigue. It was clearly to make him step up his game, and that strategy paid immediate dividends.
Feilhaber entered at the start of the second half and provided the game-winning assist. He threaded a pass through to Dom Dwyer, freeing him in on goal. Dwyer beat Donovan Ricketts to make the score 2-1, where it would stay.
We all saw the best of Feilhaber on the play. His pass was incisive, timed correctly and fell perfectly to the feet of his running teammate. He's the reason they play a 4-3-3: it allows him to advance forward and send those types of balls.
Similar to Nagbe, it's hard to know which Feilhaber you're going to get. That means this game will likely be a statement win for somebody.