1031 MLS Cup Difference Makers

For the first time in 19 years, we have a best-against-best MLS Cup. 

LAFC, who won the Supporters’ Shield, will host the Philadelphia Union, who lost out on that trophy thanks to the most-wins tiebreaker, on Saturday at Banc of California Stadium (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada). And this West No. 1 vs. East No. 1 clash is going to be fun. This final is composed of two excellent teams and a bunch of talented players. 

Speaking of players… today we’re diving into a group of difference-makers who could decide who wins MLS Cup 2022. As always with this column, we’ll be using data to support why each chosen player is important to their team and why they could have a tangible impact on the outcome.

Let’s get to it.

Andre Blake fixes things.

Did you accidentally let an attacker in on goal? No problem. Blake can take care of that. Did you lose your mark inside the box and allow a shot on goal? Don’t sweat it. Blake’s got it. Did you allow a header from just outside the six-yard box? Blake can handle that, too.

By pretty much every goalkeeping metric you can find, Blake was a top-two goalkeeper in MLS this year. He won the league’s Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year award, saved 10 goals more than expected based on FBref’s post-shot xG statistic, and cleans up the (very few) defensive mistakes that players in front of him make.

If we’re starting in the back for the Philadelphia Union, we have to start in the front with LAFC.

Carlos Vela isn’t the same player he was when scoring 34 goals and providing 15 assists en route to 2019 MLS MVP honors, but he’s still a game-changer for LAFC. He scored double-digit goals this year and finished in the 91st percentile among attacking midfielders and wingers in MLS in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, according to FBref.

With his golden left foot, Vela can produce a moment of magic at almost any time.

Look, I just can’t pull these two players apart. It felt wrong to choose one or the other, so I’m looping both of the Union’s starting center backs into this spot. 

Philly ended the regular season with the second-best defensive record in MLS history, only allowing 0.76 goals per game (and a league-low 26 goals against). With their ability to step into midfield, break up plays, and even drive the ball into the attacking half, Elliott and Glesnes are two of the best center backs in all of MLS.

Signed in August by LAFC as a Designated Player, Dénis Bouanga is an incredibly impactful player in the attack.

Among players with at least 500 minutes in MLS this year, Bouanga is second in the entire league in expected goals per 90 minutes (0.51), according to Second Spectrum. What does that mean? Well, it means he gets into good spots and shoots from good spots more often than basically anyone in MLS.

Bouanga’s mix of strength, vision, and technical quality makes him a dangerous presence on the left side of LAFC’s attack.

In so many ways, Alejandro Bedoya is the Philadelphia Union.

“To be honest, they should build a statue for this guy at the club," head coach Jim Curtin told the media back in September after the Union signed the 35-year-old through the 2023 season.

Playing as the right-sided central midfielder in Curtin’s 4-4-2 diamond formation, Bedoya added more value with his passing than any other central midfielder in MLS during the regular season, according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric. He’s not the flashiest of players, but Bedoya moves both himself and the ball into good spots.

Now, the big question is if the Union’s captain can play. He’s been battling a leg injury the last few weeks, and hobbled off at halftime of their Conference Final win over defending champions NYCFC. Bedoya’s a big question mark for Saturday.

If Bedoya is the Union’s heartbeat, Ilie Sánchez has a pretty good case to be cast as LAFC’s heartbeat on the other side of this matchup.

Sanchez has been an extremely useful pickup for Steve Cherundolo’s team, signed in free agency after leaving Sporting Kansas City following the 2021 season. He anchors their midfield, reliably moving the ball both laterally and vertically when LAFC are in possession. Per FBref, Ilie is in the 85th percentile or higher among MLS midfielders in progressive passes and interceptions.

The Spaniard’s comfort in tight spaces makes it difficult for opposing teams to pin down LAFC’s possession play.

Dániel Gazdag isn’t your traditional No. 10. He’s 35th in Second Spectrum’s expected assists rankings, behind pretty much every other notable attacking midfielder that you could think of in MLS.

No, Gazdag doesn’t change games with his passing. He changes them with his non-stop engine. Gazdag is in the 97th percentile in MLS in pressures per game, according to Second Spectrum, and in the 95th percentile in runs per game. He also led the Union in goals this year with 22. 

The Hungarian international probably won’t split LAFC’s backline with a slew of through balls, but expect him to force turnovers and pop up in great spots in the attack.

I know we’re supposed to be talking about MLS Cup here (and not the World Cup), but if you’ll allow me to look ahead to the end of this month, I’d like to say this: José Cifuentes could be one of the biggest winners of the World Cup. After posting 7g/7a this year with LAFC and finishing near the top of basically every metric, Cifuentes is primed to become a household name in Qatar with Ecuador.

He has speed. He has timing. He’s smooth on the ball. He can move possessions forward. He can press. He’s just really, really good. There’s a reason he’s linked to the Premier League, is what I’m saying.

Cifuentes is going to be a handful for Philadelphia to deal with this weekend.

Signing Julián Carranza on loan from Inter Miami CF sure worked out for Philly, didn’t it?

Now on a permanent deal, Carranza has scored 15 goals (regular season and playoffs) for the Union this year, which puts him second in their squad behind Gazdag. Per FBref, Carranza is in the 86th percentile among forwards in MLS in non-penalty xG per 90 (0.48) and is in the 93rd percentile in progressive passes received per 90 (7.3).

Carranza is a threat in and around the box, moves to create space for himself and others, and puts the ball in the back of the net. The Argentine just might be the kind of No. 9 the Union missed during their playoff run in 2021.

Diego Palacios isn’t the first name that jumps off LAFC’s lineup sheet, but he’s somewhat quietly had a fantastic season. According to Second Spectrum, Palacios leads LAFC in total touches and touches per game, and is fifth among MLS defenders this year in expected assists (xA).

With his combination and crossing ability on the left side, Palacios and Bouanga make a formidable pairing. Oh, and the 23-year-old is likely also going to start some for Ecuador at the upcoming World Cup.