Major League Soccer

Young Guns Highlight First Batch of MLS Playoff Games

Want to catch a glimpse of American soccer's future? Then keep an eye on the first round of the 2017 MLS Playoffs: Tyler Adams, Djorde Mihailovic, and Zack Steffen could become fixtures in the years ahead.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 24, 2017
7:55 PM

FOUR SINGLE-ELIMINATION GAMES will kick off the 2017 Major League Soccer playoffs this week, narrowing the field to eight as of late Thursday night. Most of the league’s star power will enter into the competition in the next round, but this opening group of games should be fun because many of the top young players will be taking part.

Historically speaking, some of the best games of the playoffs occur during this opening round, the single-elimination setup creating desperation and drama. In 2016 there was the highly entertaining Seattle Sounders—Sporting Kansas City tilt that sparked the Sounders' run to the title. In 2015, three of the four play-in games were decided by one goal or less and Portland defeated Sporting Kansas city on penalties in what was one of the best playoff games the league has ever seen.

Here are five things I am looking for in this first set of games.

Tyler Adams vs. Djordje Mihailovic

The two best American teenagers in the league will face each other when the Chicago Fire host the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night. For those looking to see what the next generation of American players might look like, this game offers some intrigue.

The Red Bull’s Tyler Adams is one of the top American teenagers in the game and he has had a great season both at right wingback and central midfield. He was a regular starter this entire season and only missed minutes due to the U-20 World Cup (for which he is also eligible in 2019).

And his best moments have come in the second half of the season, including a tremendous assist on October 7th when he sent Bradley Wright-Phillips in alone on the goalkeeper while making a 70-yard support run in case of a save. 

A national team call-up for Adams seems imminent and he should be the lastest in a long line of young athletes to move from the Red Bulls to the national team and club soccer in Europe (Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Tim Ream, and Matt Miazga).

But American midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, 18, has also come on strong in the second half of the season, establishing himself as a regular in Chicago's starting lineup. Over the past few months he has shown good development in his technique and field vision under head coach Velko Paunovic.

For those who want get a glimpse of who could be part of the rebuilding of American soccer, this game is a good place to start.

Zack Steffen on the rise

On Thursday fans wills get a chance to see one of the most exciting young American goalkeepers in the game.

The timing couldn’t be better from a natonal team perspective, as the goalkeeper position seems ready for a new guard. This position has featured just a handful of players for more than 25 years—Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, and Tim Howard). There are some interesting names in the mix right now as to who will possibly emerge next. Some have said Ethan Horvath at Club Brugge and other have suggested it’s time for Bill Hamid, who just secured a move to Danish leaders FC Midtjylland.

But Zack Steffen, 22, has been in fantastic form as of late and it would hardly be surprising if he became the next No. 1 keeper for the national team. Since inheriting the starting gig at Columbus, Steffen has made steady improvement and is committing far fewer mistakes.

Few young American goalkeepers have the technical and physical ability to make some of the saves Steffen produces. He can literally change a game.

In Sunday’s 2-2 draw in its regular season finale against New York City FC, Steffen put on a show with one of the best saves of the season against perhaps the best player in the league, David Villa.

Then in stoppage time, he denied Villa from the spot.

In a time when American soccer needs a new group of goalkeepers to step up, Steffen is doing his part. He will have his hands full on Thursday against the league’s most potent attack, but don't be surprised if he is the difference-maker.

New Breed vs. Old Guard in ATL

Atlanta is the most exciting expansion team in the history of the league. Yes, Chicago won the title in 1998 but the league’s other teams only had a two-year headstart and it was a much smaller league back then too.

Atlanta averages nearly 50,000 people per game and has the ability to score goals at a stunning pace. It is not a complete team, however: Its defense is shaky, it is vulnerable on the road, and it is limping into the playoffs without a win in its final four contests.}

But when this team is on, it is an amazing sight with Tata Martino’s team having the ability to play beautiful soccer behind its three South American designated players: Josef Martinez, Hector Villaba, and Miguel Almiron. The trio have combined to score 41 goals this season.

MLS fans tune into the playoffs because of bond they have with a team or the league. But many people tune into watch Atlanta because they want to be entertained with beautiful soccer in a stadium environment that makes the game feel important.

Atlanta United represents everything people want in new MLS teams: big crowds, young designated players, respected coaches, beautiful/attacking soccer, and U.S internationals.

But on the other side of the field you have one of the few remaining original MLS teams that exist close to their original form—a team that could be on the move to Austin, Texas. Will the emotions be a benefit or a drag on Crew SC in the playoffs? We will soon find out.

Crew SC has a special place in the history of this league. The construction of Columbus Crew Stadium was one of the most important events in the history of American soccer. The team was the home for some of the most beloved players in the history of American soccer, with Brian McBride, Brad Friedel, and Frankie Hedjuk all calling Columbus home. All that proud history could be coming to a close in 2018. It will be a shame if the team moves away.

Can San Jose continue its ascent?

Love soccer playoffs? Hate them? The San Jose Earthquakes's inclusion in these playoffs will test your preference.

After earning seven points in its final three games, San Jose snuck into the playoffs in dramatic fashion with a stoppage-time goal from Costa Rica’s Marco Urena in the final game of the season to leapfrog FC Dallas.

It was exciting but the reality is that San Jose posted an embarrassing -20 goal differential. Of the 12 teams that have made the playoffs, San Jose is the only team to have scored fewer than 40 goals this season; the team conceded more than 60.

Its opponent, the Vancouver Whitecaps, enters the game with only a single point in its final three games. San Jose might be a likeable team but if it goes on a deep run you will hear plenty of howls about the value of a soccer playoff system.

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