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MLS Cup playoffs conference finals preview and predictions

The MLS Cup playoffs are down to their final four. Rather surprisingly for this league, it’s the usual suspects: your Supporters’ Shield winners, LAFC; the Philadelphia Union, who finished the season level on points with the Black and Gold; Austin FC, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference; and New York City FC, your defending MLS Cup champions.

Sure, this postseason has seen some upsets, but this is one of the most regular-season-representative set of conference finals in recent memory. LAFC, Philadelphia and Austin were three of the league’s five best teams from start to finish this season, and apart from some CONCACAF Champions League-related hiccups and an adjustment period following the departures of 2021 Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos and respected manager Ronny Deila, NYCFC could consider themselves part of that group, too.

With the conference finals kicking off on Sunday, ESPN asked Jeff Carlisle and Austin Lindberg to break down both matchups, and had Kyle Bonagura and Dan Hajducky help them predict which two teams will head to the MLS Cup next Saturday.


Eastern Conference

The end of last season’s playoffs must surely have been tough to stomach for Philadelphia. Having fallen in an Eastern Conference final defeat to NYCFC while 11 players were absent because of COVID protocols, the Union then had to watch from home as the Bronx Blues went to Portland and beat the Timbers to MLS Cup.

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That should be motivation enough on Sunday. Philly still have more to prove, though.

The Union won both contests against NYCFC this season, 2-1 at home and 2-0 on the road, bettering their opponents in both expected goals (xG) 4.06-2.78 and chances 22-19 across the two games. Despite Philadelphia’s dominance this season as the Eastern Conference champions, tied for most points in the league in 2022 and its highest-scoring team, they were fairly pedestrian in chance creation (13th) and shots conceded (14th), and trailed NYCFC in both categories as well as xG and shots on target conceded.

From the goal out, though, Philly are without equal in MLS. Their total of 26 goals against is best in the league and Andre Blake’s 11.24 goals prevented is good enough for second.

Even without Castellanos, the depth and variety of attackers that NYCFC can field is impressive. Between their two playoff wins so far and the final three games of the regular season, Santiago Rodriguez, Talles Magno, Gabriel Pereira, Heber and Maxi Moralez have combined for 10 goals and eight assists. That kind of form should frighten any postseason opponent.

Philadelphia aren’t just any postseason opponent, though. Blake is arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS history, Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes are among the premier center-back duos in the league, Kai Wagner’s sustained performances at left-back have garnered considerable interest from European clubs and Jose Martinez offers that back line enough support for them to concede the sixth fewest shots on target in MLS. Oh, and no one in the league scored more than the Union’s 73 goals in 2022. — Lindberg

Predictions:

The Union felt hard done by when 11 players were kept out of last year’s conference final against NYCFC because of COVID protocols. This is a chance to make amends, and their balance should get the job done against the defending champs. — Carlisle

It’s a match of differing philosophies: NYCFC, a tentacle of City Football Group’s global empire; and Philadelphia, a homegrown factory, with an eye for talent. Both philosophies have obviously worked, but the Union played at a level this season that their counterparts have never reached, even on their way to winning MLS Cup last year. Philadelphia is the pick. — Bonagura

NYCFC dispatched Miami and upended Montreal in quick succession, scoring three goals in each of Round One and the conference semifinals, but Philadelphia will continue their historic season and stymie NYCFC’s streaking offense. It’s a long time coming for the Union — along with with the Phillies in the World Series and the Eagles still undefeated — who will underline quite the moment for the City of Brotherly Love by making the franchise’s first MLS Cup final. — Hajducky

This isn’t just Philadelphia’s incredible defense and goalkeeping against NYCFC’s red-hot attack. The form the New Yorkers are in should cause a scare on the eve of Halloween, but on top of a stout foundation at the back, the Union boast the best goal-scoring figures in the league. — Lindberg


Western Conference

For all of the talk about MLS parity, the two best teams in the Western Conference during the regular season have actually reached the conference final. It wasn’t easy, of course. LAFC needed a goal at the death to get past the LA Galaxy. Austin needed penalties to survive a conference semifinal encounter with Real Salt Lake. But here we are, and this has all the makings of a cracking match.

Austin had the upper hand during the regular season, claiming a pair of wins, the second a 4-1 thumping of the Black and Gold at Q2 Stadium. But LAFC have since added an ace to an already stacked hand. It took Denis Bouanga a while to find his feet with LAFC, but he has excelled in the past month and bagged two goals against the Galaxy. He has also provided additional dynamism, in particular off the dribble, to an LAFC attack that already boasts Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango.

The Verde have some high-value cards to play beyond MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi. Diego Fagundez has enjoyed a revival in Austin, with his 21 combined goals and assists a career high. His ability to strike from free kicks is an asset that tends to come in handy during the postseason.

Both teams love to get out in transition. It’s where the likes of Driussi and Vela thrive. The question is: Will either side allow that to happen? Given that Austin are on the road, it won’t be a surprise to see them sit back and counter, even though they were on the front foot during the aforementioned 4-1 win back in August. Alex Ring is perfectly adept at sitting in alongside Daniel Pereira and clogging up the middle. That will put the onus on LAFC’s Ilie Sanchez — and to a lesser extent Kellyn Acosta and Jose Cifuentes — to stay tactically disciplined and not get caught in a vulnerable defensive shape.

One area where Austin seem to have an advantage is in goal. Brad Stuver (4.49 goals prevented, according to ESPN Stats & Information) has been significantly better than LAFC counterpart Max Crepeau (-3.04 goal prevented), and Stuver already has the experience of prevailing in a penalty shootout. But it’s all about who turns up on the day. — Carlisle

Predictions:

Both teams are riding high, but I’m going with LAFC here, as the Black and Gold finally make home-field advantage count in a conference final. — Carlisle

As fun as an underdog story can be, this stage of the playoffs is usually better when the teams that were the best during the regular season are still alive. Such is the case here. LAFC and Austin were the class of the Western Conference all season and have both taken the league forward on and off the field. Despite Austin’s two wins against the Black and Gold this season, look for LAFC to capitalize on their homefield advantage and reach the MLS Cup final for the first time. — Bonagura

Don’t overthink it: Austin have had a wonderful 2022, but marching into Banc of California Stadium with a trip to the Cup final on the line is a Herculean undertaking. LAFC will squeeze it out en route to their first winner-take-all appearance. — Hajducky

LAFC faltered down the stretch, but their conference semifinal win over the Galaxy demonstrated determination in a moment that would’ve seen previous iterations of the team wilt. That gritty experience will come in handy against an Austin team that looks to be back in top form. — Lindberg