MLS Cup playoffs conference finals preview and predictions

The MLS Cup Playoffs are in the last four places. Pretty surprisingly for this league, it’s the usual suspects: your Supporters’ Shield winners, LAFC; the Philadelphia Union, who finished the season tied with Black and Gold; Austin FC, the No. 2 in the Western Conference; and New York City FC, your defending MLS Cup champions.

Sure, there have been some upsets this postseason, but this is one of the most representative conference finals in recent memory for the regular season. LAFC, Philadelphia and Austin were three of the top five teams in the league from start to finish this season, and barring some CONCACAF Champions League-related hiccups and an adjustment period following the departure of 2021 Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos and of respected manager Ronny Deila, NYCFC could also consider themselves part of this group.

With the conference finals beginning 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 be heading to the MLS Cup next Saturday.

east conference


The end of last season’s playoffs must have been hard for Philadelphia to take. After an Eastern Conference Finals loss to NYCFC while 11 players were absent due to COVID protocols, Union was forced to watch from home as the Bronx Blues headed to Portland and beat the Timbers to the MLS Cup.

– ESPN+ Viewer’s Guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more

That should be motivation enough on Sunday. However, Philly has more to prove.

Union won both competitions against NYCFC this season, 2-1 home and 2-0 away, surpassing their opponents in both expected goals (xG) 4.06-2.78 and odds 22-19 in the two games. Despite Philadelphia’s dominance this season as Eastern Conference champions, who had the most points in the league and their highest-scoring team in 2022, they were pretty good at creating chances (13th) and conceding shots (14th). smooth running and were behind NYCFC as well as xG and conceded shots on target in both categories.

From goal, however, Philly is unrivaled in MLS. Their total of 26 goals conceded is the best in the league and Andre Blake’s 11.24 goals prevented is enough for second place.

Even without Castellanos, the depth and variety of attackers NYCFC can field is impressive. Between their previous two playoff wins and their last three regular-season games, Santiago Rodriguez, Talles Magno, Gabriel Pereira, Heber and Maxi Moralez have combined ten goals and eight assists. This type of form should scare any postseason opponent.

Philadelphia isn’t just any postseason opponent, however. Blake is arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS history, Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes are among the best centre-back duos in the league, Kai Wagner’s sustained performances at left-back have attracted significant interest from European clubs and Jose Martinez offers enough support from this backline , that they concede the sixth fewest shots on target in MLS. Oh, and no one in the league has scored more than Union’s 73 goals in 2022. – Lindberg


blank The Union felt hurt when 11 players were ruled out of last year’s conference finals against NYCFC due to COVID protocols. This is a chance to make amends and their balance should do the job against the defending champions. – Carlisle

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

blank NYCFC beat Miami and beat Montreal in quick succession, scoring three goals each in the first round and conference semifinals, but Philadelphia will continue its historic season and put the brakes on NYCFC’s streaking offense. There’s still a long way to go for the Union — along with the Phillies in the World Series and the still-undefeated Eagles — who will mark the moment for the city of brotherly love by reaching the franchise’s first MLS Cup final. – Hajducky

blank This isn’t just Philadelphia’s incredible defense and goalkeeping against NYCFC’s red-hot offense. The form New Yorkers are in should cause some alarm on the eve of Halloween, but in addition to a solid defensive foundation, the Union boast the league’s top scorers. – Lindberg

Western Conference


For all the talk of MLS parity, the top two teams in the Western Conference during the regular season have actually reached the Conference Finals. Of course it wasn’t easy. LAFC needed a goal on death to get past the LA Galaxy. Austin needed penalties to survive a conference semi-final 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 two wins, the second a 4-1 win over Black and Gold at Q2 Stadium. But LAFC has since added an ace to an already stacked hand. Denis Bouanga took a while to find his feet at LAFC but he excelled in the past month, scoring two goals against the Galaxy. He’s also added momentum to an LAFC attack already boasting Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango, particularly off-dribble.

That Green playing some quality cards beyond MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi. Diego Fagundez had a career high in Austin with 21 combined goals and assists. His ability to score from free-kicks is an asset that comes in handy in the postseason.

Both teams love to fold in the transition phase. Big names like Driussi and Vela thrive here. The question is: will both sides allow this? With Austin on the road, it will come as no surprise that they sit back and counterattack despite being up front in the aforementioned 4-1 win in August. Alex Ring is perfect at sitting alongside Daniel Pereira and plugging up the middle. That will put LAFC’s Ilie Sanchez – and to a lesser extent Kellyn Acosta and Jose Cifuentes – on duty to remain tactically disciplined and avoid falling into vulnerable defensive form.

One area where Austin seems to have an advantage is in goal. Brad Stuver (4.49 GAs according to ESPN Stats & Information) was significantly better than fellow LAFC player Max Crepeau (-3.04 GAs), and Stuver already has the experience of going through on penalties. But it’s all about who shows up on the day. – Carlisle


blank Both teams are racing high, but I’m going with LAFC here as Black and Gold are finally making home field advantage count in a conference finals. – Carlisle

blank As funny 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. This is the case here. LAFC and Austin have been the league of the Western Conference all season and have both pushed the league forward on and off the field. Despite Austin’s two victories over Black and Gold this season, LAFC should capitalize on its home field advantage and reach the MLS Cup Finals for the first time. – Bonagura

blank Don’t think about it: Austin had a wonderful 2022, but marching into Banc of California Stadium with a trip to the cup final at stake is a Herculean undertaking. LAFC will squeeze it out en route to their first winner take-all appearance. – Hajducky

blank LAFC faltered on the track, but their Conference Semifinals win over the Galaxy showed determination at a moment when previous iterations of the team would have been weakened. That dismal experience will come in handy against an Austin team that appears to be back in top form. – Lindberg MLS Cup playoffs conference finals preview and predictions

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