Cristian ‘Chico’ Arango scored in the third minute of second-half stoppage time and the Los Angeles Football Club advanced to the Western Conference final in the MLS Cup playoffs on Thursday night with a 3-2 victory over rival LA Galaxy in the latest dramatic edition of the rivalry known as El Tráfico.
Kellyn Acosta directed a corner kick toward the middle of the box. Denis Bouanga, who scored twice, fired a shot that Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond saved, but Arango was there for the rebound and scored in the 93rd minute.
LAFC, which captured the league’s Supporter’s Shield as the top team during the regular season, will host the winner of Austin FC and FC Dallas on 30 October for the right to advance to MLS Cup on 5 November.
Bouanga has three goals in eight games since signing from France Ligue 2 club Saint-Etienne,
Samuel Grandsir and Dejan Joveljic scored for the Galaxy.
Bouanga scored the match’s first goal in the 23rd minute when he got the pass from Carlos Vela, outbodied Galaxy midfielder Diego Costa from six yards out with a strike into the far right corner of the net.
The goal came at the end of a 19-pass sequence. The forward ran near the corner and did a front flip to celebrate the score.
The Galaxy evened it by taking advantage of a turnover. LAFC’s Eddie Segura was unable to clear the ball out of box with a header, before Grandsir grabbed the rebound and fired a right-footed shot from near the back of the box into the bottom left corner of the net.
It was Grandsir’s third goal in six matches against LAFC and second this season.
Bouanga put LAFC ahead in the 80th minute when he tucked it into the near post. Kwadwo Opoku was unable to finish after sliding to get the crossing pass, but Bounanga was there to knock it in after Bond originally tried to stop Opoku.
The Galaxy leveled it at 2-2 five minutes later when Joveljic, who came on as a sub in the 84th minute, fired a rocket past Maxime Crépeau into the top right corner.
LAFC had a 14-11 advantage in shots and 5-4 lead in shots on goal. Bond and Crépeau each made two saves.
Philadelphia Union 1-0 FC Cincinnati
Leon Flach scored his first goal of the season on Thursday night in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, and the top-seeded Philadelphia Union beat fifth-seeded Cincinnati 1-0.
Philadelphia, who are unbeaten at Subaru Park this year (13-0-5), will face the winner of Sunday’s New York City FC-Montreal match in the conference finals.
Flach scored in the 59th minute. Mikael Uhre beat two defenders to a loose ball in front of the net and sent it to the penalty spot for Flach’s one-touch finish.
Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake recorded his 16th clean sheet of the season. Blake made five saves, including a diving stop of Brandon Vazquez’s breakaway shot in the 83rd.
Cincinnati, coming off a win over the New York Red Bulls, were seeking to become the third expansion team in MLS history to advance in its first two postseason rounds.
Regular season finish: 1st in Western Conference (Supporters’ Shield winners)
Strengths: The talent boasted by Los Angeles FC is unparalleled in MLS in 2022. Steve Cherundolo made subtle changes to the squad he inherited from Bob Bradley at the start of the year to point the club in the right direction. Now, LAFC are so strong that Gareth Bale has largely been used only as an impact substitute.
Weaknesses: While LAFC were unstoppable over the summer, the Supporters’ Shield winners somewhat staggered over the line with just three wins in their final nine fixtures. Some teams get hot for the playoffs. LAFC may have gotten cold.
2) Philadelphia Union
Regular season finish: 1st in Eastern Conference
Strengths: In many ways, the Philadelphia Union are the most complete team in MLS: Jim Curtin’s side boasts the best attack and defence in the league. Andre Blake is the best goalkeeper in the playoffs while Daniel Gazdag is a difference-maker in the attacking third – he registered 22 goals and six assists in 2022.
Weaknesses: The Union could come undone against opponents that employ a low defensive block. They are among MLS’s most potent teams when they have space to exploit in quick transition, but sometimes lack the tools to break through when that space is denied.
3) CF Montreal
Regular season finish: 2nd in Eastern Conference
Strengths: CF Montreal have largely flown under the radar this season, but Wilfried Nancy has emerged as one of the best coaches in MLS. Ismael Kone and Victor Wanyama give the Canadians one of the strongest midfield platforms in the league while Nancy’s possession-heavy approach gives them control in most matches they play.
Weaknesses: Djordje Mihailovic and Romell Quioto are the attacking difference-makers for CF Montreal. It is therefore inconvenient that the former has struggled to find his best form since an injury in June while the latter is still sidelined after picking up a knock on international duty for Honduras last month. Without those two, CF Montreal could be predictable in the final third.
4) New York City FC
Regular season finish: 3rd in Eastern Conference
Strengths: Experience. As defending MLS Cup champions, New York City FC know what it takes to go all the way. Nick Cushing’s team finished the regular season with three straight wins and have managed to get many of their best players back on the pitch following a difficult spell of injuries. If Maxi Moralez, Héber, Santi Rodriguez, Talles Magno and Sean Johnson can find form, NYC FC’s individual talents could carry them a long way.
Weaknesses: The sight of NYC FC back at full-strength could be something of an illusion. Alex Callens still isn’t fully fit while Keaton Parks hasn’t completed a full 90 minutes since May, and Magno is a doubt after suffering a shoulder injury on Decision Day. What’s more, this team lost its best player (Taty Castellanos) and head coach (Ronny Deila) midway through the season. They have been missed. Muscle memory may not be enough.
5) Nashville SC
Regular season finish: 5th in Western Conference
Strengths: There is good reason to believe Nashville are built for the playoffs. While they underwhelmed over the regular season, they still finished with one of the best defensive records in the Western Conference. Nashville scored more set-piece goals than any other MLS team in 2022 while Hany Mukhtar won the Golden Boot. Nashville don’t concede many and usually take their chances – that could be a winning formula in the postseason.
Weaknesses: Last year, nobody managed to beat Nashville at home until they fell to Philly in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. This year, though, Geodis Park has been a far easier place to visit – only Houston had a poorer home record in the Western Conference over the regular season. Nashville are also prone to lapses when defending set-pieces, having conceded 11 times from freekicks and corners in 2022.
6) LA Galaxy
Regular season finish: 4th in Western Conference
Strengths: This summer saw both Los Angeles teams make big-name signings, but the Galaxy appear to have made the better deal. Riqui Puig’s arrival changed the landscape for Greg Vanney’s team with the former Barcelona midfielder settling in quickly. Puig has established a connection with Javier Hernandez, who has scored 11 goals in his last 12 games.
Weaknesses: The Galaxy conceded 51 goals in 34 regular-season games. Vanney’s team are susceptible to the counter-press, giving opponents something to target in quick transition. If the Galaxy have to grind out results, as the postseason often demands, they could struggle.
7) Austin FC
Regular season finish: 2nd in Western Conference
Strengths: Austin FC have gone from second-worst in the West to second-best in the space of just 12 months. Only LAFC scored more regular season goals in the Western Conference than Josh Wolff’s team, with Q2 Stadium now renowned for creating one of the loudest (and greenest) atmospheres in MLS. Then there’s Sebastian Driussi, who has registered 22 goals and five assists so far this year.
Weaknesses: Real Salt Lake could be a bad match-up for Austin FC in the first round. Wolff’s team can sometimes be too ponderous in possession and this could play into RSL’s hands with Pablo Mastroeni’s side proven in their ability to spoil matches (see last year’s unexpected postseason run). They will need to make a conscious effort to keep the ball moving as quickly as possible.
8) New York Red Bulls
Regular season finish: 4th in Eastern Conference
Strengths: The New York Red Bulls do as the New York Red Bulls do. Their press is the thing that could give them a chance in the playoffs with RBNY among the best at stopping opponents getting into their passing rhythm. That makes them tough to beat. Few MLS teams are as clear on their style of play as Gerhard Struber’s side which means everyone in the XI knows their roles and responsibilities.
Weaknesses: No team has as much postseason baggage. They have famously never managed to get their hands on MLS Cup despite being a founding member of the league, and Struber’s team may not have the individual talent to end their wait for glory. They also lack the firepower of some of their rivals.
9) FC Dallas
Regular season finish: 3rd in Western Conference
Strengths: FC Dallas have made great strides since finishing 11th in the Western Conference last season. Nico Estevez has given his team a clearer tactical identity, with Jesus Ferreira emerging as one of the best young players in the league (the USMNT striker scored 18 times in 33 regular season appearances).
Weaknesses: While the addition of Arriola and Sebastian Lletget gave FC Dallas some much-needed experience, Estevez’s team is still a young one. If the Texans can keep their core together they could challenge for MLS Cup next year, but this year’s playoffs may have come too early in their development as a group.
10) FC Cincinatti
Regular season finish: 5th in Eastern Conference
Strengths:FC Cincinnati score goals. Lots of them. After three straight ‘Wooden Spoon’ seasons, the appointment of Chris Albright as general manager and Pat Noonan as head coach marked the start of a turnaround, with the attacking trio of Luciano Acosta, Brenner and Brandon Vazquez arguably the most dangerous in MLS this season – between them, they registered 46 goals and 33 assists.
Weaknesses: If FC Cincinnati’s attack makes them a danger in every match they play, their defence makes them vulnerable too. The Decision Day performance against DC United demonstrated the good and the bad of Noonan’s team with the opposition never truly out of the match. Cincy will create chances, but they will also allow plenty of them.
11) Inter Miami
Regular season finish: 6th in Eastern Conference
Strengths: Gonzalo Higuain enters the playoffs as the hottest striker in MLS. The Argentinian will retire after the postseason, but his record of 14 goals in his last 16 games paints the picture of a player who still has plenty left to offer. Higuain’s partnership with Alejandro Pozuelo has given Inter Miami a different dimension in the second half of the season.
Weaknesses: Only two teams conceded more regular season goals in the Eastern Conference than Inter Miami. Higuain and Pozuelo make Phil Neville’s team dangerous in the attacking third, but neither player offer much on the defensive side of the ball. Opponents who break the first line of Inter Miami’s press will find a lot of space to exploit.
12) Minnesota United
Regular season finish: 6th in Eastern Conference
Strengths: MLS has become The Land Of The Number 10 in recent times and Emanuel Reynoso is one of the best in the league. If Reynoso is allowed to play his natural game, the Loons have a good chance of a run.
Weaknesses: Bakaye Dibassy’s season-ending injury has shaken Minnesota United’s defence with Adrian Heath’s team more fragile without the Malian at the back. Dibassy allowed Minnesota to play with a high line and keep things compact in the centre of the pitch. Now, they no longer have that ability and are giving opponents more time on the ball.
13) Orlando City
Regular season finish: 7th in Eastern Conference
Strengths: Orlando City have already demonstrated their usefulness in knockout soccer this year by winning the US Open Cup. They have a knack for producing the goods when it matters most, as shown by their comeback victory over Columbus Crew on Decision Day. Orlando will be underdogs in the playoffs, but that has suited them in the past.
Weaknesses: No team conceded as many goals on the counter attack in the regular season as Orlando City. Oscar Pareja is a proven MLS head coach, but he has so far failed to stamp an identity on this particular group of players. Orlando want to be a possession-heavy team, yet lack the talent and conviction to do so.
14) Real Salt Lake
Regular season finish: 7th in Western Conference
Strengths: Some teams relish the pressure of the postseason and Real Salt Lake were certainly one of those teams last season as they made an unexpected run to the Western Conference finals with shock wins over Seattle and Sporting KC. Pablo Mastroeni’s side enjoy playing the role of spoilers and they will enjoy the chance to be party-poopers once again at a sold-out Q2 Stadium in the first round.
Weaknesses: It goes against logic that a team that concedes as many chances as Real Salt Lake have even made the playoffs. Mastroeni doesn’t have much firepower to make use of in the final third either, so if any opponent can stop RSL from getting runners into the box, they could stop them as an attacking outfit entirely.