The top seeds enter competition this week in the MLS playoffs with each set of opponents intensely familiar with one another.
Pat Noonan’s successful first season as FC Cincinnati coach not only resulted in the club making the playoffs for the first time in its history, but Cincy ended the New York Red Bulls’ season at Red Bull Arena last weekend. Now, Noonan meets his former boss, Jim Curtin, who Noonan spent three years as an assistant under at the Philadelphia Union.
Los Angeles FC and the LA Galaxy renew their exciting rivalry for the second time in a playoff matchup and the first time since 2019. LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield this season, putting together an incredibly consistent year under first-year coach Steve Cherundolo. Experienced Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, on the other hand, has the playoff experience to make another run.
Union vs. FC Cincinnati
Thursday, 8 p.m., FS1, FOX Deportes
Noonan meets Curtin for the third time this season, and despite the Union’s excellent 2022 season, FC Cincinnati goes into this one with the recent upper hand. FC Cincy beat the Union in August and earned one point at Subaru Park in June.
The Union have picked up steam in the final months of the season, finishing the regular season as the league’s top scoring team.
Attacking talent is in form on both sides. The Union’s trio of Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre have supplied 49 goals this season, while FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, Luciano Acosta and Brenner have combined for 46 goals.
The difference may lie with the Union’s back line, which has allowed by far the fewest goals in the league with 26. Cincy attackers such as Vazquez and Brenner had breakout seasons in 2022, but the young stars must come up when it counts to beat the Union’s organization and experience on the back line.
Both sides are mostly healthy, but Union starter Alejandro Bedoya is likely to be on the bench as he recovers from an injury.
LAFC vs. LA Galaxy
Thursday, 10 p.m., FS1, FOX Deportes
LAFC’s array of attacking talent won it the Supporters’ Shield this season, with Cristian Arango, Carlos Vela and Jose Cifuentes leading the way. Facing the Galaxy in the first match of the playoffs is certainly a tough draw. LAFC struggled through the end of August and September, but recovered in time to fend off the Union from the Supporters’ Shield.
The Galaxy beat Nashville SC 1-0 to reach the second round of the playoffs thanks to a goal from Julian Araujo. Greg Vanney’s squad went four games unbeaten to finish the regular season and are benefiting greatly from midseason signing Riqui Puig’s contributions in midfield.
Stopping Puig will be a key to the match for LAFC. Cherundolo will count on Kellyn Acosta to break things up in the midfield and help supply Vela and Arango with chances.
The playoffs will come with added incentive this year, with the World Cup just around the corner. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Araujo will use these games to vie for roster spots from Tata Martino. Gareth Bale’s form for LAFC has dipped since he joined, but Bale could emerge as a factor when it counts, with his speed and need to tune up ahead of Wales’ first World Cup appearance since 1958.
CF Montreal vs. NYCFC
Sunday, 1 p.m., ESPN
Both sides dominated in their playoff openers, with CF Montreal handling Orlando City and New York City FC blowing past Inter Miami with a 3-0 win.
NYCFC is missing a few key contributors, especially central midfielder Alfredo Morales, who missed the first round win. Fullback Tayvon Gray and forward Talles Magno also missed the Inter Miami game, and will be pushing for involvement at Stade Saputo.
CF Montreal is firing on all cylinders after its previous playoff win. The midfield unit of Djordje Mihailovic, Ismael Kone and Victor Wanyama will be tough to stop. Keaton Parks, who has returned to the lineup for NYCFC after missing much of the season injured, could help NYCFC if he’s able to reprise his incredible form to start the season.
Austin FC vs. FC Dallas
Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPN, ESPN Deportes
In-state rivals Austin FC and FC Dallas have been deadlocked in 2022, but only one will move on to the Western Conference Final.
The Texas-based clubs drew twice this season and FC Dallas overall has never lost to Austin. Austin’s explosive attack led the league for much of the regular season, but the team struggled mightily to beat Real Salt Lake in its previous playoff game. Designated Player Emiliano Rigoni has made little impact since joining in the summer, but the playoffs brings an opportunity for him to bring Austin to a tipping point.
FC Dallas owes much of its 2022 success to its strong attack, with Jesus Ferreira scoring 18 goals and Alan Velasco and Paul Arriola bringing width, speed and technical skill on either side of the field. Austin has its work cut out for it in getting past FC Dallas’s back line, which gave up only 37 goals in 2022 led by Matt Hedges and Marco Farfan.