The soccer gods are good and just (unless your club got knocked out in Round One, in which case condolences and best wishes for the offseason).
The Western Conference bracket set up the pins and the results knocked them all down: double rivalry matches in the Conference Semifinals. Copa Tejas at Q2? Take me to church. El Trafico, Playoffs Part Dos? I am saved. Add in Philly-Cincy – privately I’m calling it the burgeoning rivalry of Brotherly Love – and a “Damn, don’t we play pretty soccer” matchup between CF Montréal and NYCFC, and the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs are poised to be positively rapturous.
But c’mon, we all know which of these primo matchups has the most juice. Even if you’re rolling your eyes or prepping your rebuttal, you know deep down that El Trafico is the headliner for this round. Too much crazy #@$% has happened in those matches. Too many stars will take center stage. Too much – see LAFC’s winning-the-Shield-means-nothing-if-we-don’t-win-MLS Cup ambitions/expectations and citywide bragging rights – is at stake.
Thursday night at the Banc (10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes) can’t come soon enough…
I’m not going to lie … 2022 was not Crépeau’s best year, especially in comparison to his magnificent 2021 season with Vancouver. I’m giving the Canadian international the edge over Jonathan Bond simply because I think his ceiling is higher. I’m more confident Crépeau will change the game single-handedly. That’s no guarantee. This is basically a toss-up. Who will show up on the day?
Palacios made the leap from promising young player to arguably the league’s best left back in 2022. There’s nothing he didn’t do at an above-average level. The 23-year-old is one of the most effective fullbacks in MLS at creating shots (more than two a game). He’s a possession hub, but more importantly a progressive passer that gets LAFC into the final third. Once there, he’s a terror 1v1. Oh, and he’s one of the most active defensive fullbacks in MLS, too.
Yeah, yeah … the sample size is tiny, just seven games and six starts. And yet, the proof is in the results. In games the veteran Uruguay international has started, including last weekend’s shutout against Nashville in Round One, the Galaxy have three wins, two draws and one loss (away to Vancouver).
More importantly, in the past five games with the season on the line, LA are undefeated with four wins and a draw. Greg Vanney has been searching for stability in central defense for two years. He’s found it in Cáceres, who’s gotten far less hype than another summer signing across town.
I’d love to go with Eddie Segura here, but he hasn’t played enough this year to know if he’s truly back to pre-injury levels. I would go with Jesus David Murillo – the Colombian has been the constant at center back for Steve Cherundolo – but there’s a Euro 2020 winner in the squad that was signed for just these moments. Chiellini’s aerial dominance is unquestioned, but Chicharito’s movement and Riqui Puig’s ability to force backpedaling defenders into tough decisions is going to be a challenging combo even for a player with so much experience at the very highest level.
This is unfair to Ryan Hollingshead. Let’s start with that. If this was an actual team taking the field, I might go with the LAFC man here. Not because of anything Araujo does or doesn’t do, but because the fullbacks would be a tad more balanced. In choosing Araujo, I’m opting for younger legs, a more cross-heavy profile and a tad more recovery speed. Hollingshead is much more of a goal-scoring threat, aerially dominant at the position and a possession hub rather than a chance creator. Both are elite.
This is Gaston Brugman erasure, but I did Hollingshead sorta dirty and therefore Ilie got the nod here. He’s not a traditional bulldog defensive midfielder. He’s the metronome that makes everyone around him tick. Get the ball to Ilie, and he’ll put the next guy in a better position. Defensively, he’s not going to overpower anyone, but he’ll always be in the right position to disrupt opposing attackers, intercept the pass that might unbalance the backline, or clear the ball in a dangerous position.
I think he’s been the best central midfielder in the entire league this season. There is nothing Cifuentes cannot do at a league-best level. There’s not much more to say than that.
Has Puig been the best player in MLS since arriving from Barcelona this summer? Maybe? Probably? Yes? No matter your answer, you can’t dismiss it out of hand.
That’s freaking absurd and the perfect profile to play behind Chicharito. More on that in a second.
SPOILER: I am going with both LAFC wingers here. I don’t think that should come as much of a surprise!
But … what about that early sub on Decision Day? Vela came off in the 40th minute and I haven’t heard a peep about his status since. Was it just a precautionary move? Vela jogged off, so no worries? It’s Vela and he couldn’t even wait five minutes until halftime, so panic? Not sure, but even a semi-subpar season (12g, 11a), for his lofty MLS standards, is better than almost anyone else in this league.
Bouanga is one of the best wingers in MLS so far in his young MLS career! He lives in the final third and opposing penalty area. He’s a dribbling wizard. He’s uber-active defensively. He takes almost five shots per 90 minutes. He’s an xG darling. And here comes the catch…
He has done literally everything you’d want from him but put the ball in the back of the net (though he did score the goal at Portland that brought LAFC the Supporters' Shield). That, you could argue, is kinda important. My guess is that aspect of his game is coming soon, and LAFC are betting that time is now en route to MLS Cup.
OK, quiet down for a second, LAFC supporters. Yes, I know. Chicho Arango is a killer. He might be the most well-rounded center forward in MLS. He does the traditional scoring stuff better than almost anyone on a per-90 minutes basis. He somehow creates chances for the players around him, despite being almost non-existent in possession. He’s a special player.
But Arango is not Javier Hernandez playing in front of Puig. Chicharito does a couple of things at a world-class level. He unbalances and confuses defenses with clever, well-timed movement. That movement puts him in position to receive through balls and crosses in scoring positions. His finishing ability allows him to score a boatload of goals without needing to be a volume shooter. He is relentless, and he’s not afraid of failing in a big moment.
I think he’s going to be the star of this game (thanks in large part to Puig’s complementary brilliance). It will be, up to this point, his defining MLS moment.