MLS Cup playoffs: Philly and LAFC advance to league game as top seeds win

The participants in the 2022 MLS Cup Final are determined and, for the first time since 2003, the top seed from each conference — the Philadelphia Union to the east and LAFC in the West – will clash.

It will take work to reach the drama of this 2003 final, won by the San Jose Earthquakes over the Chicago Fire by a score of 4-2 with some wild changes in momentum. But both of these teams have the talent, tenacity and cohesion to deliver something memorable, and the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles is the perfect venue for a final.

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Here’s how the two teams got there.

Philadelphia Union 3, New York FC 1: Philly has finally defeated its greatest enemy

Every championship team has their dragon, that side they just can’t seem to get past, or inflict a deep wound that stifles championship dreams.

For the Philadelphia Union, it is – or was – New York City FC. Last year, in the Eastern Conference Finals between these same teams, Prevented COVID-19 Protocols 11 Union players were even considered for the starting line-up. Philadelphia’s Collective Hands couldn’t hold a 1-0 lead, and NYCFC won the MLS Cup that year. This time around Philly slew the dragon, with the Union coming from behind to claim a 3-1 victory over the Blues, scoring three times in 11 second-half minutes in front of a boisterous home crowd.

Report: Philly come back to beat NYCFC to claim Eastern Conference title

And it wasn’t just the scorers… Julian Carranza, Daniel Gazdag and Cory Burk — brandishing the vorpal swords. Andre Blake’s save on Alex Callens’ header in the 60th minute – with NYCFC leading 1-0 – caused injury itself. If Callens’ efforts had found the net, a 2-0 lead would certainly have been too high a mountain to climb. Instead, he breathed new life into the Union.

It helped that the NYCFC defense experienced a collective brain fade that was downright baffling. The Blues fell asleep on Carranza’s equalizer, which came immediately after their own substitution, allowing him to collect Jacob Glennes‘ quickly took a free kick and shot past Johnson. Then NYCFC were caught eyeing the ball over Gazdag’s eventual game-winner, with Carranza nodding on a cross for an easy finish.

Burke’s stopper came after his labyrinthine run appeared to end with a clearance attempt that ricocheted off him, allowing him to fire home. Credit the Union for their punishing errors, but it was a fate not normally associated with the defending MLS Cup champions.

And so, the Union now finds itself in its first MLS Cup. It’s not quite the island of Misfit Toys, but it seems like each of their players had an unconventional path that led them to the City of Brotherly Love. Carranza was acquired via Inter Miami’s fire sale after the Herons were found guilty of violating MLS roster rules. Gazdag arrived from Hungarian side Budapest Honved and has scored 22 goals this season. Jakob Glesnes was acquired from little-known Norwegian side Stromsgodset IF.

Thanks to the team’s academy, which produced Jack McGlynn, the list continues. Thank general manager Ernst Tanner for scouting talent who would work in MLS, as well as the manager Jim Curtin which has made them a team that has consistently been among the best in MLS over the past three seasons. The union’s approach is a reminder that spending is not enough; an organization must also spend wisely.

Now there’s only one obstacle – and it’s a real doozy – to overcome.

LAFC 3, Austin F.C.: Arango responds (again) to its detractors

Remember when Chico Arango was on the trading block? It doesn’t matter how many goals he scored: he didn’t help LAFC defend enough from the front, or so he thought, and so he was surplus to requirements . But as the old saying goes, sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make, and that proved true for LAFC in their 3-0 Western Conference win over Austin FC.

It was Arango who rewarded LAFC’s dominance in the first half, slotting in Carlos Vela’s corner in the 29th minute. Given the margin of eventual victory combined with the Black-and-Gold’s control of the midfield, it’s tempting to think there was an air of inevitability to victory. But there were plenty of times when a dominant side failed to take advantage of their opportunities and were then punished – ultimately, Arango’s tally provided some calm and confidence.

The goal also highlighted Arango’s underrated ability in the air. At 5-foot-10, it would be an overstatement to say Arango is undersized, but he’s no giant either. The tally was the fourth with his header this season, a mark surpassed only by FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez (6), Atlanta United Juan Jose Purata (6) and the Portland WoodsBill Tuiloma (5). The fact that Arango has scored 32 goals in 53 games – including two in the playoffs – makes his contribution invaluable.

Report: LAFC reaches first MLS Cup after beating Austin

The same could be said of a far less flashy element of LAFC’s roster: the starting midfielder. Ilie Sanchez. The Spaniard was a free agent at the end of 2021, and the prevailing idea was that he no longer had the legs to be a mainstay in a team’s line-up. But he’s been just that for LAFC, been a Best XI selection this year and part of a defensive effort on Sunday that limited Austin. Sebastien Drussi at 33 touches, the fewest in a game all season in which the Argentine lasted 90 minutes. And he has long been the metronome of LAFC’s offense.

Now it’s up to LAFC to close the deal and deliver on the promise they’ve made since their inaugural season in 2018. With a home game in front of their raucous fans, the odds of the Black-and-Gold getting the job done are excellent indeed.