LAFC eliminates Sounders, FC Cincinnati still the favorite

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Just four teams remain standing in the 2023 MLS Cup playoffs after the conference semifinals concluded on Sunday night.

Here are a few quick thoughts on the weekend’s slate of games plus what comes next with the East and West matchups now set.

Defending champ LAFC upsets Seattle

The Sounders were the higher seed. They were playing at home at rainy Lumen Field — always a considerable advantage in a win-or go-home match. And despite missing out on the playoffs last season for the first time since joining MLS in 2009, Seattle had every reason to like its chances as one of the few teams in the domestic league able to stand toe-to-toe with LAFC in terms of ambition, experience and silverware-collecting pedigree.

Brian Schmetzer’s squad outplayed the 2022 champions in Sunday’s nightcap, too, besting the visitors in every statistical category except the one that matters, with Denis Bouanga’s first-half strike for LAFC the difference in their 1-0 win:

With Bouanga (four goals in three playoff games so far) leading the way, the Black and Gold will now be expected to return to the final. At least. But they can’t afford to look ahead or underestimate the Houston Dynamo, which ended Sporting Kansas City’s season earlier Sunday with a 1-0 win on a Franco Escobar goal. 

The Dynamo have been playing with quiet confidence for months. They look like the sort of team capable of riding a wave of momentum all the way to a title if luck breaks just the right way. Dethroning the holders is still probably beyond them, though, with LAFC finding its trophy-toting swagger at precisely the right time.

FC Cincinnati remains the MLS Cup favorite

For the 2023 Supporters’ Shield winners, Saturday’s visit from the battle-tested Philadelphia Union had all the markings of a trap game. As last season’s epic MLS Cup final — in which Philly came back twice before losing to LAFC on penalties — showed, Jim Curtin’s team is always a hard out.

Sure enough, it took a controversial strike from FCC forward Yerson Mosquera in the fourth minute of second half stoppage time for the hosts to break a scoreless deadlock that sets up an Eastern Conference championship match against the rival Columbus Crew.

Whether the goal should’ve counted or been ruled offside doesn’t matter now. Every team that claims a title needs a little good fortune along the way. And while Cincinnati didn’t play great Saturday, they kept the Union off the scoreboard and capitalized when the decisive moment eventually came.

Any questions about FCC’s capacity to win MLS Cups should cease after this game. Against one of the most experienced, best coached teams in MLS, Pat Noonan’s side proved it’s not just a legitimate title contender but maybe even the prohibitive favorite. Cincy is now just a win away from hosting the league’s signature event. That its the hated, in-state, “Hell is Real” Columbus Crew — which upset Orlando City earlier Saturday to advance to the East finale — that stands between FC Cincinnati and its first MLS Cup appearance only sweetens the opportunity.

End of an era in Philadelphia?

The Union couldn’t have come closer to winning its first MLS Cup last season. They were the bookies’ pick to hoist the trophy in 2021 before COVID-19 protocols sidelined much of Curtin’s starting 11 for what turned out to be a narrow loss to eventual MLS champ New York City FC.

Now the club finds itself at a crossroads. Longtime captain Alejandro Bedoya is 36 and not guaranteed to return. Key defender Kai Wagner, who is also out of contract, will likely sign for a club in Europe. Star striker Julián Carranza is also expected to leave after drawing heavy interest from European teams. It’s possible that young American Jack McGlynn is sold this winter, too. And at least one observer would like to see Curtin himself move on:

After coming so close to glory over the last few years, the championship window for Philadelphia might have already slammed shut.

Single-elimination doesn’t disappoint

After a much-criticized switch in format saw Round One of this postseason contested via best-of-three series, the conference finals reverted to one-and-dones hosted by the higher seeds.

The added tension was obvious in every contest. FCC-Philly was decided at the death. Columbus needed extra time to defeat 10-man Orlando 2-0, and it still might not have happened had young goalkeeper Patrick Schulte not stopped several point-blank Lions shots.

Houston eked by SKC 1-0 with the help of another controversial and pivotal officiating decision, that one a non-call on an apparent handball by Dynamo defender Erik Sviatchenko that would’ve sent Sporting to the penalty spot (and Sviatchenko to the dressing room for a red card).

MLS usually sticks with whatever system it settles on for at least a couple of seasons, and more playoff games do mean more money in the owners’ pockets. But there are suggestions that the backlash the league has received this fall could move its competition committee to reconsider things again before the 2024 campaign kicks off next February. If they do, reverting to single elimination throughout the postseason provides drama that is difficult to top.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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