Josef Martinez is back just in time to help Atlanta United try to defend its MLS Cup title.
Martinez twisted his knee in a Sept. 21 game against the San Jose Earthquakes. The reigning league MVP was expected to miss several weeks but then he teased his return with a Rocky-inspired Instagram post.
He started in United’s final regular-season match against New England and scored a goal in a 3-1 victory. Atlanta sealed up the second seed in the East for a first-round matchup against the Revolution. That win in the first of back-to-back meetings with New England bodes well for Atlanta in the postseason opener at home Saturday.
Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan noted that in the final regular-season game last season, Atlanta lost the Supporters Shield to the Red Bulls with a loss.
”In the playoffs, anything can happen. It means nothing where you finish,” Guzan said. ”It’s one and done. You’ve got to fight for your lives and fight for every inch that you get come playoff time.”
Indeed, this postseason, fighting for every inch is important. Major League Soccer went to a single-elimination playoff format, replacing the two-legged format for the conference semifinals and finals that the league started using in 2003. The MLS Cup final is on Nov. 10 – its earliest finish since 2002.
And because the league expanded to 24 teams, MLS also expanded the playoffs to include 14 teams, seven from each conference.
NYCFC and LAFC finished atop their conferences to earn an opening-round bye. Four of the first-round matches are set for Saturday, with the remaining two on Sunday.
Here are some things to know about the first-round matchups:
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION AT ATLANTA UNITED: The Revolution got into the playoffs as the seventh seed for their first postseason appearance since 2015. New England started the season 2-8-2 before firing coach Brad Friedel and replacing him with veteran Bruce Arena. The Revs went 1-1-3 over their last five games, capped by the loss to Atlanta. United is playing its first year under Frank de Boer, who replaced Tata Martino. Atlanta went 3-1-1 in its last five matches and Martinez finished third overall in the league with 27 goals.
FC DALLAS AT SEATTLE SOUNDERS: The Sounders clinched the second seed in the West with a victory over Minnesota on Decision Day. Seattle won its last two regular-season matches and went 3-1-1 over its last five. Raul Ruidiaz leads Seattle with 11 goals this season. Dallas secured the seventh seed in the West with a decisive 6-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City in the last game, but the team had lost the previous four matches. Jesus Ferreira leads Dallas with seven goals. The two teams have split their last four meetings.
D.C. UNITED AT TORONTO FC: The Reds are back in the playoffs after winning the MLS Cup in 2017, boosted by a 10-game unbeaten streak to end the season. Forward Jozy Altidore, who has 11 goals in 22 matches, is a game-time decision with a thigh strain. Alejandro Pozuelo leads Toronto with 12 goals and 12 assists. D.C. United is undefeated in its last five. Striker Wayne Rooney, who leads the team with 11 goals, is finishing up his stint with the team before heading home to England to be a player-coach for Derby County.
PORTLAND TIMBERS AT REAL SALT LAKE: The Timbers struggled down the stretch with a five-game winless streak before a 3-1 victory over the Earthquakes on Decision Day. Portland, which finished sixth in the West, heads into the playoffs without Brian Fernandez, who voluntarily entered the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. But the Timbers should have captain Diego Valeri back from a calf injury that kept him out of the finale. Real Salt Lake has gone 3-2-1 in its final six games, capped by back-to-back wins against the Whitecaps and Dynamo. RSL fired coach Mike Petke in August and installed Freddy Juarez to lead the team in the interim. RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando is wrapping up a 20-year career in MLS.
NEW YORK RED BULLS AT PHILADELPHIA UNION: The Red Bulls fell to sixth in the Eastern Conference after a loss to the Montreal Impact on Decision Day. The team has not scored a goal in the last two games. The Red Bulls are led by Daniel Royer with 11 goals. Behind him with nine is Brian White, who returned to start in the finale after sustaining an ankle injury on Aug. 17. Philadelphia has never won a playoff match. The Union dropped to third in the East with back-to-back losses to finish the season. Leading scorer Kacper Przybylko, who has 15 goals, hurt his ankle in pregame warmups on Decision Day but coach Jim Curtin said he’ll start Sunday against the Red Bulls.
LA GALAXY AT MINNESOTA UNITED: Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes his MLS playoffs debut Sunday. The enigmatic Swede finished second in the league with 30 goals this season, behind LAFC’s Carlos Vela, who had a league-record 34. The Galaxy lost their final two games of the season to finish fifth in the West. The Loons dropped their final regular-season game to the Sounders, but they were undefeated in their previous four matches. United’s Ike Opara was named the league’s Defender of the Year. He also received the honor in 2017.