The MLS Cup playoffs have reached their final four, and the form book is still largely intact. Reigning champs NYCFC are the only interlopers as a No. 3 seed, while everyone else is a No. 2 seed or higher.
Just how rare is the lack of upsets? Well, the 2022 season marks just the fourth time in the 20 seasons that both No. 1 seeds have reached the conference final stage. And only once in that time did both top seeds meet in the MLS Cup final, that being 2003 when the San Jose Earthquakes took on the Chicago Fire. That means there is still time for an upset or two, though time is running out.
Here's a recap of how the conference semifinals shook out.
Philadelphia Union 1, FC Cincinnati 0: Blake & Co. do enough to stop FCC
In this case, the master had just enough to beat the apprentice.
Cincinnati is where the Union was about three years ago, an organization that after being well off the pace from the rest of the league for years, is now a team on the rise. And just like Philadelphia, FCC has done it with the help of some astute moves in the transfer market, such as midfielder Obinna Nwobodo and former Union forward Sergio Santos. The fact that Cincy now has a few former Union charges, in GM Chris Albright and manager Pat Noonan, to execute this plan isn't accidental.
That they didn't was down to a Philadelphia side that had just enough experience and precision in front of goal to get the job done. Of course, it helped that a holdover from Philadelphia's down period, goalkeeper Andre Blake, lived up to every ounce of his Goalkeeper of the Year reputation. The Jamaican international made a trio of stellar saves in the second half to keep FCC at bay and make Leon Flach's goal stand up.
It's worth remembering that in 2014, Blake was somewhat of aa surprise No. 1 overall selection by Philadelphia in that year's SuperDraft. The team already had Zac MacMath (a recollection the now-Colorado keeper recalled in a classy tweet), but Blake has proven to be pure gold, with his latest Goalkeeper of the Year award his third. Last Thursday he proved to be the difference.
Amid the activity in MLS's summer transfer window, LAFC made a few eye-catching moves. There was the signing of Juventus legend Giorgio Chiellini and Wales international Gareth Bale, which almost served to make the acquisition of Saint-Etienne winger Denis Bouanga seem like a mere afterthought.
On Thursday in thepulsating 3-2 win over the LA Galaxy, the two aforementioned stars played little to no part in the proceedings. Chiellini was a late game substitute, while Bale wasn't even on the bench due to an injury. Instead, it was Bouanga who made the Galaxy pay with two goals that, when combined with Chicho Arango's late strike, gave LAFC a memorable victory over their city rivals. Bouanga has been a slow burn since arriving, and failed to score in his first five appearances. But with three goals in his last three games, he's become a difference maker for LAFC at precisely the right time.
The game was also a reminder that as contrived as some MLS rivalries are, El Trafico never disappoints. In the early days it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who provided the fireworks. Of late, a variety of players have given LAFC the upper hand, and this was the second time in two playoff matchups that the Black-and-Gold have prevailed.
For the Galaxy, there is so much to like about the team Greg Vanney has constructed. It's style is easy on the eye, especially with Riqui Puig at the controls, but on this night, it was undone by some basic defensive errors, including living Arango unmarked to rifle home a rebound. That will stick in the Galaxy's craw at least until these two teams meet again and write another compelling 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 perceptions on a season. A month ago, NYCFC seemed to be in disarray. One win in nine games seemed to rule the Blues out of the possibility of repeating as MLS Cup champions. Even more worrying, NYCFC didn't seem to be the same outfit after manager Ronny Deila left in midseason, replaced by Nick Cushing. But then the Pigeons began to find themselves down the stretch, winning their last three games, and that form has carried into the postseason, including Sunday's 3-1 win over Montreal.
There were plaudits all around, especially NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson, but spare a thought for striker Heber. He was NYCFC's starting center forward before a torn ACL sidelined him late in 2020. The 2021 season saw Taty Castellanos take over and win the Golden Boot, but even after the Argentine was loaned last summer to Girona, Heber still wasn't the de facto starter. But now he's scored in three straight games, including the second with a sharp finish, and his form will make NYCFC a tough outfit for the Union to get past in the conference final.
As for Montreal, a sparkling season ends not only with disappointment, but with plenty of questions. Djordje Mihailovic, scorer of Montreal's only goal on Sunday, is off to AZ Alkmaar, while Victor Wanyama and Ismael Kone are likely to depart too. Sporting director Olivier Renard has done well to put this side together. Now he'll need to do all he can to rebuild some critical pieces of his roster.
Leave it to Austin FC manager Josh Wolff to spring a tactical surprise on former U.S. men's national team colleague, and current Dallas manager, Nico Estevez. Thanks to an early two-goal lead, Wolff dropped his team into a more conservative formation with two holding midfielders, and it was enough to frustrate their Texas neighbors. Granted, it helps to jump on top by pouncing on a couple of defensive errors, but that's what good teams do, and now Austin finds itself trying to emulate the Atlanta United side of 2018 by winning MLS Cup in just its second season.
The teams are certainly constructed differently. Those Atlanta sides were a little more balanced in terms of defense and attack, but both teams had MVP candidates in Josef Martinez (who won the award that year) and Sebastian Driussi. On Sunday, the latter was once again a difference-maker, scoring the eventual game winner, his league-leading third goal of the playoffs. He may yet fall short in the MVP race -- there's stiff competition from the likes of Philadelphia's Daniel Gazdag, Cincinnati's Lucho Acosta and front-runner Hany Mukhtar of Nashville SC -- but an MLS Cup triumph is still very much a possibility.
As for Dallas, it would appear that it's a team on the up, but it seems like that's been said about just about every other team that has been eliminated from the postseason. It will not be so easy to simply assume that progress will be linear, and FCD needs a few more attacking pieces to take some of the burden off Jesus Ferreira. That might help ensure that Dallas is hosting a conference semifinal next time around instead of playing away in one.