The MLS Cup playoffs have reached their final four and the form book is still largely intact. The current NYCFC champions are the only ones invading the #3 seed, while everyone else is #2 seed and above.
How rare is the absence of disorders? Well, the 2022 season marks just the fourth time in 20 seasons that both No. 1 seeds have reached the conference finals. And only once during that time did both top seeds meet in the MLS Cup final, and that was in 2003, when the San Jose Earthquakes took on the Chicago Fire. This means that there is still time for one or two upsets, although time is running out.
– Sportzshala+ Viewer’s Guide: La Liga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup and more.
Here is a brief overview of how the conference semi-finals went.
Philadelphia Union 1, FC Cincinnati 0: Blake & Co. do enough to stop the FCC
In this case, the master was just enough to defeat the student.
Cincinnati is where the Union was about three years ago, an organization that, after lagging far behind the rest of the league for years, is now a team on the rise. And just like Philadelphia, the FCC did it with some astute moves in the transfer market, like linebacker Obinna Nwobodo and former Union forward Sergio Santos. The fact that Cinsi now has several former Union players, in the form of CEO Chris Albright and manager Pat Noonan, to carry out this plan is no coincidence.
That they didn’t was down to the Philadelphia team, who had enough experience and accuracy in front of the net to get the job done. It certainly helped that goaltender Andre Blake, a holdover from Philadelphia’s slump, lived up to every ounce of his Goaltender of the Year reputation. The Jamaican international made three stellar saves in the second half to keep the FCC at bay and assist Leon Flach’s goal.
It’s worth remembering that in 2014, Blake was a somewhat unexpected Philadelphia #1 overall pick at that year’s SuperDraft. The team already had Zach McMath (a memory that the current Colorado goaltender brought up in a cool tweet), but Blake turned out to be solid gold, with his last goaltender of the year earning his third award. Last Thursday he proved to be an honor.
LAFC 3, LA Galaxy 2: Buanga’s star shines brighter in impressive win
With the MLS summer transfer window active, LAFC has made some eye-catching moves. It was the signing of Juventus legend Giorgio Chiellini and Wales international Gareth Bale that almost made signing Saint-Étienne winger Denis Bouang an afterthought.
In Thursday’s throbbing 3-2 victory over the LA Galaxy, the two aforementioned stars played little to no role in what was happening. Chiellini came on as a substitute late in the game and Bale wasn’t even on the bench due to injury. Instead, it was Buanga who made Galaxy pay with two goals that, combined with a late shot from Chicho Arango, gave the LAFC a memorable victory over rivals from the city. Since arriving, Buanga has been a slow player and failed to score in his first five matches. But with three goals in his last three games, he was the deciding factor for the LAFC just at the right time.
The game also served as a reminder that as far-fetched as the MLS rivalry is, Traffic never disappoints. In the early days, it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who set off the fireworks. A lot of players have given LAFC the upper hand lately, and this was the second time in two playoff matches that the Black and Gold had won.
As far as Galaxy is concerned, the team that Greg Vanni created may appeal to many. His style is pleasing to the eye, especially with Ricky Puig at the helm, but he was wiped out this night by some major defensive errors, including an unmarked Arango surviving to bounce off a target. This will bother Galaxy, at least until the two teams meet again and write another exciting chapter in their rivalry.
CF Montreal 1, NYCFC 3: Heber answers his critics with another big performance
It’s funny how a few playoff wins can change the way a season looks. A month ago, the NYCFC seemed to be in disarray. One win in nine games seemed to rob the Blues of their chance to become MLS Cup champions again. More worryingly, NYCFC has changed since manager Ronnie Dale left mid-season to be replaced by Nick Cushing. But then the Doves began to lose ground, winning their last three games, and that form continued into the playoffs, including Sunday’s 3-1 win over Montreal.
There was cheering all around, especially NYCFC goaltender Shawn Johnson, but think of forward Heber. He was the starting center for NYCFC before being sidelined in late 2020 with an ACL tear. In the 2021 season, Tati Castellanos took over and won the Golden Boot, but even after the Argentine was loaned out to Girona last summer, Heber was still not in fact starter. But now he’s scored in three straight games, including a sharp second, and his form will make the NYCFC a difficult team for Union to advance to the conference finals.
As for Montreal, the sparkling season ends not only with disappointment, but also with a lot of questions. Djordje Mihajlovic, Montreal’s only goal scorer on Sunday, is leaving for AZ Alkmaar, with Victor Wanyama and Ismael Kone likely to leave as well. Sports director Olivier Renard did a good job of this. Now he will need to do everything possible to restore some important parts of his composition.
Austin FC 2, FC Dallas 1: Driussi becomes MLS MVP
Give Austin coach Josh Wolf the opportunity to deliver a tactical surprise to former US men’s teammate and current Dallas coach Nico Estevez. With an early two-goal lead, Wolf moved his team into a more conservative two defensive linebacker formation, and that was enough to disappoint their Texan neighbors. Sure, it helps to jump to the top by lashing out at a couple of defensive mistakes, but that’s what good teams do, and now Austin is trying to emulate the 2018 Atlanta United team by winning the MLS Cup in just a second season.
Teams, of course, are arranged differently. These Atlanta teams were a little more balanced in terms of defense and offense, but both teams had MVP contenders in Joseph Martinez (who won the award that year) and Sebastian Driussi. On Sunday, the latter again played a decisive role, scoring the eventual winning goal, scoring his third league-best play-off goal. He may still fall short in the MVP race – there is stiff competition from the likes of Philadelphia’s Daniel Gazdag, Cincinnati’s Lucho Acosta and Nashville’s leader Honey Mukhtar – but an MLS Cup triumph is still very likely.
As for Dallas, it might seem like a team on the rise, but that seems to have been said about just about every other team that has been eliminated from the playoffs. It won’t be easy to just assume that progress will be linear and FCD needs a few more attacking pieces to take some of the pressure off Jesus Ferreira. That could help Dallas get the conference semi-finals next time instead of playing away.