Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Best XI: LAFC vs. Philadelphia Union MLS Cup 2022

1104 Cup Best XI

I was scrolling soccer Twitter on Thursday, as I tend to do, and saw this:

First of all, that’s my territory. Second, I think we can do better, even if just slightly. With MLS Cup just a day away (Saturday, 4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TSA Sports in Canada), let’s take a crack at it.

Given LAFC are the Supporters’ Shield winners, we’re going with their customary 4-3-3 formation. It goes without saying, that’s a disadvantage for the Philadelphia Union attackers. I suspect their back six will make up for it in spades.

No disrespect to Maxime Crépeau. He’s a wonderful goalkeeper, absolutely a potential game-changer in MLS Cup, but Blake is arguably the best goalkeeper in league history.

I tend to lean on the underlying numbers with goalkeepers. Anecdotal evidence can introduce bias – it’s hard not to rate a goalkeeper you just so happened to see make a couple of spectacular saves live – and the G-xG (how many goals given up relative to what the model expects, negative good and positive not so good) gap this season between the two was massive.

  • Blake: -8.58 (second in MLS)
  • Crépeau: +3.73

Blake also has the historical edge in penalties, should it come to that.

He’s the perfect complement to Carlos Vela, and no defender in MLS is more of a goal threat. Olivier Mbaizo is a very good player, but this was an easy choice for me.

My respected compadres at MLS social went with Giorgio Chiellini, which I understand, but don’t agree with. We don’t even know if the Italian legend is fit enough to start! Meanwhile, how could you not go with the pairing that set the foundation for what might just be the best defense in the history of the league? THE. HISTORY. OF. THE. LEAGUE. Easy decision here.

I rate Diego Palacios highly. The man is going to make the Ecuadorian World Cup team. And yet, for me, he’s the second-best left back in the league this year. Wagner has been a chance creation machine, setting a record for defender assists with 15, and contributes plenty to Philly’s defensive success as well. He was my pick for Defender of the Year.

This is the most difficult pick I had to make. I truly ADORE José "El Brujo" Martínez. His physicality. His aggression. His IDGAF swagger. His vibe is everything a destroyer defensive midfielder should be … and Ilie is NOT that. Sánchez is more of an artist. He’s a possession hub, one of the league’s best progressive passers. He’s a predictor of patterns of play, much more likely to quietly intercept a ball than put in a crunching tackle. He’s my pick, by a hair.

I decided I was going to choose from every non-defensive midfielder not named Dániel Gazdag here. Everyone was eligible. Even though the boxscore numbers dried up for Cifuentes of late, I can’t leave him out of this XI. He chews up real estate, both by turning other teams over with his pressing and by progressing the ball both with the pass and on the dribble. In short, his play on both sides of the ball puts LAFC in positions to be goal dangerous.

I can’t punish Gazdag here just because LAFC don’t play a diamond midfield. The man had one of the best attacking seasons out of the midfield (22g/10a) in MLS history.

I mean, what do you expect? The Union don’t play with wingers, and even if they did… it’s Carlitos!

We got so caught up talking Gareth Bale, who I don’t expect to play, that Bouanga went under the radar until the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. Part of that was on him – people want to see goals from big-money DPs – and part of that was on us for being so Bale-focused, perhaps understandably so. I think Bouanga could be the best winger in MLS over the next three years. He’s an absolute menace on both sides of the ball.

All due respect to Julián Carranza, who is as snug a fit for the Union as there can be, but Arango is the forward in this game that you just EXPECT to score a big goal. He’s the guy I’d trust the most with the game on the line and a big chance in front of him. That earns him the nod and makes the final tally 6-5 LAFC.