MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

10 big questions ahead of MLS Cup 2022

1102 10 Questions Cup

MLS Cup!!! Time for questions!!!

Here are 10 big ones, in no particular order, that could define LAFC vs. Philadelphia Union on Saturday afternoon at Banc of California Stadium (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).

How much of a tilt will homefield advantage be?

Of the last five MLS Cups, just one road team had a trophy celebration. That was NYCFC (2021), who won after penalties. The previous road team that won MLS Cup was also after penalties (2016 Seattle).

Since MLS switched to hosting priorities going to the higher seed in 2011, just one road team has won without penalties (2015 Portland). Three of 11 visitors have won at all (penalties count, you know).

Home field (and the Supporters’ Shield) in this matchup was decided on a tiebreaker. The regular season matters.

The year of Andre Blake?

Speaking of penalties… well, the longer the game stays close, the more it suits Philly. Home teams have the impetus to push in these scenarios anyway, but particularly so when Andre Blake is between the posts on the other end.

Blake has been awesome this year and spectacular in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. He made a handful of great saves against FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, then a stunning reaction save against NYCFC right after Philly went 1-0 down in the Eastern Conference Final.

We often talk about match-winners in the attack. Blake is a match-winner in goal and can completely change a game.

Big-game Vela?

Carlos Vela has gotten some criticism for disappearing in big games, but that’s always been a little odd to me, for his time with LAFC at least.

In 2019, he had 2g/1a in two playoff games. This year he has 0g/2a in two games (155 minutes). He was awesome in their 2020 CCL run.

Maybe he hasn’t gone supernova in the playoffs yet, sure. There’s another chance Saturday.

Who will win transition moments?

For the first 60 minutes against NYCFC, Philly were uncharacteristically pensive and wasteful in moments of attacking transition. That changed dramatically over the final 30 minutes, and it tends to get better as they wear teams down. But LAFC absolutely suffocated Austin FC’s transition opportunities over the first 60 minutes of the Western Conference Final and put the game out of reach en route to a 3-0 win.

This, for me, is the biggest tactical question/X-factor.

Who will win on set pieces?

In knockout competitions, the variance of set pieces plays an outsized role. It’s so key for good tournament teams to be excellent on set pieces. Both of the teams are on the attacking side, Philly more so on the defensive side.

Matt Doyle wrote about this and instead of just stealing his stats, I’m going to let him take it from here:

Both of these teams are elite on restarts. LAFC’s 17 goals scored across the regular season and playoffs is third behind Nashville and Austin, while Philly led the league in xG off of dead-ball situations this year (and scored 13).

Philly conceded just five off of restarts all year, while LAFC were a little looser with eight goals allowed in those situations.

What role can Bedoya or Bale play?

These two players are not equal in their importance to their team; I want to point that out on the front end.

Alejandro Bedoya has played at a Best XI-ish clip for half a decade with Philly and was elite once again this year at age 35. He’s their captain, culture-setter and emotional leader. Gareth Bale has played around 350 minutes in four months since signing for LAFC, after he left Real Madrid.

Their impacts are not equal, that’s not why they’re grouped together. But they are two injury question marks, that’s why they’re grouped together.

Bedoya started his first game in more than a month in the ECF and was clearly hampered. He lasted 45 minutes, at least 15 of which came as a very muted version of his normal self. Will he be able to give any minutes?

Bale, meanwhile, made the bench against Austin but was an unused sub, in large part due to an injury. Will he actually be available off the bench on Saturday?

What to expect from Jose Martinez?

This dude is an absolute showman. Watching him off the ball is an experience in and of itself. He’s one of the best defensive mids in the league, a crucial part of any title-contending team (like Ilie Sánchez for LAFC), but he can be chaotic.

Whether that’s discipline or otherwise, what kind of performance will Philly get from their midfield dynamo?

For all the talk about him being a walking yellow card (fair), Martinez has just one straight red card in his Philly career, and only one other time has he been sent off for two yellows. It’s not as much as you think.

The best version of Martinez is (semi-) controlled chaos.

Will Giorgio Chiellini start? How would that impact the game?

LAFC’s legendary central defender was on the bench for their first playoff game and then started against Austin, but was subbed out at halftime.

ESPN’s Taylor Twellman said that change was tactical, not injury-related. It’s a curious decision... What was the tactical change? More pace?

Austin sought out to try and not let Chiellini’s passing open them up. His passing would be very useful against Philly’s compact structure, but is Steve Cherundolo concerned about Philly’s ability to get out in transition against a 38-year-old center back?

High-scoring affair?

The last three games between these two teams have ended in draws with high scoring. One was a hugely memorable 3-3 draw, the last game before the league shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league was introduced to Jakob Glesnes and Jose Martinez that day, and Brenden Aaronson took another step forward. Vela was at the peak of his powers, and LAFC were coming off their historic 2019 season.

This year, it was a thrilling 2-2 draw in May. Both teams have changed since May even, but the vibes seem the same when they play.

One of the last nine MLS Cup finals has had more than three goals. This feels as good a bet as any to break that threshold.

Who gets the Hollywood sendoff?

There are numerous players (and staff) at both clubs who seem very likely to depart this winter. Philly left back Kai Wagner and LAFC midfielder Jose Cifuentes are the two most likely who come to mind, both expected to depart in big-money transfers abroad.

To win MLS Cup would be a Hollywood ending to their stories.

Additionally: If Jim Curtin accomplishes his goal of winning an MLS Cup at Philly, will he stay or consider options? His contract is up after 2023. What other players could be playing their final club games?