Then there were four. The MLS Cup Qualifiers semi-finals saw the Fans’ Shield winners and New England Revolution scorers on their home soil. On the other side of the arc, fellow top-seeded Colorado Rapids were similarly knocked out of postseason in front of their home fans.
The qualifiers started with a stadium of 14 teams. Of the 10 clubs eliminated, the four with the most points in the regular season are now watching from their homes.
Knockout football has been exciting and full of trouble, and there is no reason to believe that this will stop now that we have reached the final stage of the conference. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagora, Caitlin Murray, Dan Hajdaki and Austin Lindbergh review each of this weekend’s two games, and predict which clubs will make the league event on December 11th. (3pm ET, live on ABC) And whose players will be eagerly awaiting the start of the 2022 season, chewing the bitter taste of defeat.
Eastern Conference Final
Sunday’s final wasn’t the most anticipated, but it still featured two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
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The Blues have done well so far, beating fifth-seeded Atlanta and number one New England all the way, but Sunday’s game will be the ultimate test for New York City. New York was already without Anton Tinnerholm (torn Achilles) and Keaton Parks (coagulation surgery), but now it would be without Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos because of the pair of yellow cards he got against the Revs. James Sands is an injury concern, too. Castellanos’ absence is as big as it sounds, as the Argentine has scored in both New York FCFC wins so far.
So who will step in to replace him? In the two games that Castellanos has missed this season, Talise Magno has been delegated, although it appears he has lost popularity recently. Ismail Tajouri-Shradi could also intervene. He was instrumental as a super quick starter in his four seasons with the NYCFC, scoring seven times in 2021, although most of his playing time came as a wide midfielder.
Heber is a more similar option, but the alternate role seems more likely. The Brazilian returned to the field in September after recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, but has scored just 95 minutes in seven substitute matches since. Regardless, the onus will be on Jesus Medina and Maxi Morales to perpetuate an offensive slump for New York City FC.
Philadelphia will be nearing full strength now that defender Olivier Mbazu has filtered the league’s health and safety protocols, and the question for the league is always the same: Where will the goals come from? The most likely source is Kacper Przybylko – the Federation version of the Phantom Menace – having scored 12 times during the regular season. The defenders of the team, led by Jacob Glesnes, are also capable. But Daniel Gazdag continued. Philadelphia’s top scorer against Nashville has made an appearance during the final month of the regular season, and he’ll need to be at his best against the New York City defense. – Carlisle
New York Football Club showed its resilience in the last minute against New England – when they numbered fewer than nine players – and then triumphed on penalties. But the federation always seems to find a way, and with Castellanos left out, the home team must win. – Carlisle
Although it’s tempting to pick New York City after they’re out of New England, it’s hard to go with pigeons without Castellanos in the lineup. This Philadelphia team isn’t as good as the team that won the cheerleader’s shield a year ago, but it’s good enough to win the MLS Cup. – Bunagora
New York City FC is a very good team capable of going to Chester, Pennsylvania and organizing a surprise – but it gets tough without Castellanos. Remember, he’s the one who scored New York City’s second goal in their 2-2 draw against the Revs on Tuesday. Al Ittihad still don’t have players in the big games you can count on to score goals when the stakes are high, but they have Andre Blake, this year’s goalkeeper runner-up, who should keep them there long enough for Philly to find the game winner at home. – Murray
A round of applause for New York City’s howitzer in a game against New England. I said going for anything other than a Revs victory would be a surprise of historic proportions. That’s exactly what we got: one of the funniest MLS games in recent memory. Unfortunately for New York City, they lost the Castellanos to a red card in the process and young Sands and Tayvon Gray broke up. Conversely, hot Philadelphia stopped Nashville in its tracks, and Blake caught it aimlessly in the shootout. This looks like a match for Philly to lose. – Hajdaki
See, being without Castellanos puts New York City on the back foot before the ball gets kicked, but they’ve already lost Tennerholm and Parks for this season. Ronnie Dela’s team is no stranger to the next-man philosophy, and with the likes of Morales and (insanely inconsistent) Medina in place to shoulder the brunt of the attack, I think the Bronx have what it takes to pull off another surprise. – Lindbergh
Western Conference Final
If Real Salt Lake were to extend their magical run in the playoffs and reach the MLS Cup, it would be a huge reversal of fortune from their regular season streak against Portland. The Timbers have swept all three of the club’s head-to-heads, outperforming RSL 12-4 in the process, with them all attending in August or later. On Salt Lake’s recent trip to Portland, the Timbers won 6-1 in one of the most lopsided games in Major League Soccer all year.
This is not a regular season, however, since the playoffs began, the unexpected nature of the knockout competition has been fully revealed. Having held without a shot and going ahead against Seattle on penalties in the first round, RSL did better against Sporting Kansas City. They created better chances and erased an early 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 with an injury-time goal from Bobby Wood. The two wins came without Albert Rusnak, who has tested positive for COVID-19, but the captain will return for the game against Portland.
The Timbers returned to the Conference Final for the fourth time since entering the MLS in 2011, most recently in 2018. After a tough October run, Portland racked up three straight wins to finish the regular season before a 3-1 win over Minnesota. United defeated top-seeded Colorado Rapids 1-0 to open the playoffs. Portland will miss midfielder Sebastian Blanco with an apparent hamstring injury and striker Daeron Asprilla, who received a late red card against Colorado. These two goals combined in 17 goals during the regular season, to finish second and third in the team behind top scorer Felipe Mora. – Bunagora
RSL rode the underdog all the way to the Western Conference final, but are they really the underdog now? They’re getting the players back and it’ll be Portland without Blanco and Asbrella. It’s the playoffs, and Diego Valerie is leading the lead to play a bigger role, so of course the Timbers will win. – Carlisle
With Rusnak expected to return to the RSL and Timbers lineup without Asprilla and Blanco, the scales are once again turning toward visitors. Salt Lake is clinging to the atmosphere of this Team of Destiny and it would be too MLS for a team that snagged the playoffs with an interim coach to play in the MLS Cup. – Bunagora
I bet against RSL twice already, and twice I burned in my expectations for it. This may be me annoying the football gods and messing with their fate, but I’m going with RSL here. Sure enough, their coach quit mid-season to become an assistant at a less dysfunctional club. Sure, two MLS clubs found new owners last year and RSL is still sitting without a buyer after its previous owner pulled out amid allegations of racism and sexism. Certainly, Timbers have been consistently better than RSL all year long. But why can’t RSL go to Portland and pull off the kind of turmoil that MLS is so famous for? If Blanco, the Timbers’ heartbeat, gets hurt all while Asprila – aka “Mr. November,” a title that covers October-December – goes out with a red card, the RSL has a fighting chance. After Washington Spirit won the NBA title last month amid similar chaos, I think RSL could do the same in MLS. – Murray
Remarkably, Real Salt Lake is here. Departing their manager in late August—with his baffling promotion demoted to assistant coach with Seattle—team ownership is in flux, overcoming perennial title contender and first-round opponent Seattle on penalties while not scoring any shots. But they also overtook Sporting KC and overtook him and overtook him in the conference semi-finals. Interim manager Pablo Mastroini has his feisty team that thinks they’re against the world, and maybe Hell, maybe it is. I’m a sucker for a Cinderella story. Karl Schckler moved Ian Real Salt Lake to the final. – Hajdaki
Consider yourselves ginkside, utah. sorry. But without Blanco, Portland lost the buzz with which it mixed its drink for the final three months of the season. RSL has the faith and momentum to take Cinderella all the way to the MLS Cup. – Lindbergh