Four teams (of 14 entrants) remain in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, and now single-elimination Conference Finals are set for this coming Sunday.
From there, the two clubs contending for MLS Cup silverware on Nov. 5 will be decided.
Beforehand, let’s spotlight three players per club who have embraced the clutch gene that’s required when postseason soccer rolls around.
Driussi had two goals that sparked Austin’s comeback vs. Real Salt Lake in Round One, pushing a 2-2 draw into a penalty-kick shootout where he also beat Zac MacMath from the spot. The Argentine then scored a stunner against FC Dallas in the Conference Semifinals, a solo run and strike that stood as the game-winner in a 2-1 victory (first-ever W) over their Texas rivals.
This all comes on the heels of a 22g/7a ledger during the regular season, which made him a Landon Donovan MLS MVP finalist alongside Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar. We’ll learn in the weeks ahead if Driussi’s won, but head coach Josh Wolff made his opinion well-known.
“He’s the MVP. He’s the best player in the league. He has been from start to finish,” Wolff said Sunday in a postgame interview with ESPN’s Jillian Sakovits at Q2 Stadium. “He demonstrates in the playoffs when games matter the most and we’re very proud and honored to have him. But these fans absolutely love him. He’s the most humble player. As you can see, he just tirelessly works and I’m super proud of him.”
Also, this was very cool:
Driussi drum: Austin vs. Dallas playoffs
In hindsight, it’s pretty wild that Stuver spent 2014-20 as a backup goalkeeper – and as a pool goalkeeper beforehand, getting short-term loans across MLS on an emergency basis. To say he’s taken his chance with Austin FC these past two years and run with it, especially now in the playoffs, might be an understatement.
Stuver was Austin’s shootout hero against RSL in Round One as the visitors missed three attempts, and he made an incredible kick-stop denial of FCD winger Jader Obrian in the Conference Semifinals.
It’s a continuation of Stuver’s impressive form, as his -4.02 G-xG value (goals minus expected goals) was fourth-best in MLS this year, per American Soccer Analysis. Surrounded by some familiar faces at a second-year club, he continually steps up.
“Being in Columbus, having Josh [Wolff] as my assistant coach, going to New York City and having Claudio [Reyna] as my general manager and them just kind of coming together here in Austin in the year that my contract is ending and I become a free agent,” Stuver said on The Call Up, “it was kind of just this perfect storm of things coming together where I knew I needed to take a chance to become a starter.”
One of Austin’s biggest needs this past offseason, after finishing 12th in the Western Conference standings as an expansion club, was solidifying their center-back corps. Step in Ruben Gabrielsen, a 30-year-old Norwegian defender who’d spent his entire career in Europe.
It’s proven to be a shrewd signing by the Verde & Black, as Gabrielsen earned several MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi nods this year and was stellar against Dallas in the postseason’s second stage.
Gabrielsen, who’s formed a partnership with Julio Cascante in the center of the park, is asked to do a fair amount in ATX’s possession-minded, forward-thinking system. He’ll wish he had RSL’s opener back (Sergio Cordova’s near-post header), but mostly has been solid this year.
It took Bouanga a while to get going in LAFC colors, but he’s stepping up at the perfect time.
The Black & Gold’s new DP forward scored the goal at Portland that secured their second Supporters’ Shield title in four years, then bagged a brace in the 3-2 El Trafico victory over the LA Galaxy in the Conference Semifinals. In the latter game, Bouanga’s corner-kick volley also set up Chicho Arango’s doorstep winner in the 93rd minute.
If that’s not the definition of being clutch, we don’t know what is.
“Denis did what he has shown from day one here in LA, but he finished plays,” head coach Steve Cherundolo said last Thursday evening. “He’s a threat 1-v-1, he’s a threat on set pieces, he’s a threat in combination play.
“… He’s physically and mentally a monster. I personally, as a right back, would not like to play against him. I probably would not have looked very good against him either. So I’m glad those days are behind me, but I’m extremely excited and proud to be his coach and of LAFC tonight.”
Bouanga joined LAFC on deadline day from French side AS Saint-Étienne after they got relegated from Ligue 1. He cost a reported $5 million transfer fee.
WATCH: Dénis Bouanga strikes twice for LAFC in El Trafico!
Likely bound for the World Cup with Ecuador next month, Palacios keeps on showing why he’s one of the best fullbacks in MLS. The left back completed 92% of his passes against LA, won 6-of-7 duels, was credited with eight recoveries and also went 2-of-5 in tackles.
That’s the kind of two-way performance LAFC have grown to expect from “Chiqui”, who had 1g/7a in roughly 2,400 regular-season minutes this year. He’s found a new level in 2022, having joined the club four years ago.
The Ghanaian winger was a sparkplug, getting his toe on Bouanga’s second goal and forcing the corner kick that sealed LAFC’s late winner. They weren’t put-your-name-up-in-lights moments from Opoku, but his introduction changed the game’s complexion and put the Galaxy’s backline on its heels.
We’ll also note: Welsh superstar Gareth Bale was out with a leg injury, opening a window for Opoku to receive minutes off the bench. Cherundolo also opted for Opoku instead of former Barcelona forward Cristian Tello, rewarding the 21-year-old “Mahala.”
During the regular season, Opoku had 7g/3a in 34 appearances (20 starts). He also placed ninth on our 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list.
New York City FC
Moralez was crucial during NYCFC’s MLS Cup run last year … is history now repeating itself? The Argentine playmaker has two goals as the Cityzens have knocked off Inter Miami CF in Round One (3-0 win) and CF Montréal in the Conference Semifinals (3-1 win).
The 35-year-old is arguably one of MLS’s most under-appreciated No. 10s in recent memory, though you can bet the Cityzens value all he brings. Just ask interim head coach Nick Cushing, who subbed Moralez off at halftime of the Montréal match.
“He came off the pitch against Miami, and he played today. Of course, he only lasted 45 minutes, but he has been incredible for us,” Cushing said. “I will never write him off. He’ll do everything that he can to be ready against Philadelphia. It’s a final and he is a big player, big players make sure that they are ready.”
Moralez’s regular-season production dipped some (2g/9a in roughly 2,100 minutes) compared to his Best XI-caliber years past, but he still oozes quality in key moments.
WATCH: NYCFC come out swinging! Maxi Moralez puts champs up early
In Round One, Johnson made four saves to blank Inter Miami (and officially call wraps on Gonzalo Higuain’s incredible career). Then in the Conference Semifinals, he produced a seven-save masterclass with several timely interventions when the scoreline was still close.
It should come as no surprise Johnson, the MLS Cup 2021 MVP presented by Audi, is stepping up when the pressure rises. His 14 shutouts were also second-best in the league this year.
Let the superlatives flow, a welcomed development for USA fans with the World Cup now less than one month away. Johnson is likely to earn one of three goalkeeper spots on Gregg Berhalter's 26-man roster.
“When you make world-class saves like that you give yourself a chance to win football games,” Cushing said Sunday in a postgame interview with ESPN. “For me, he’s – listen, I understand there’s really good goalkeepers in our league. But he’s up there as the best goalkeeper in the league for me, for sure.”
Perhaps NYCFC, after Taty Castellanos departed in July on loan to LaLiga sister side Girona, should have given the No. 9 keys to Heber all along. The Brazilian striker has goals in back-to-back playoff matches, and also scored on Decision Day as he’s rounded into form.
Now, the Cityzens’ hand has been somewhat forced by Talles Magno recovering from an upper-body injury. But there’s no denying Heber, who’s in his first full season upon recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in September 2020, is stepping up when called upon.
With eight goals in roughly 1,000 regular-season minutes, Heber’s strike rate is pretty impressive when placed into context.
“I am here because I have quality and a lot to give to the team,” the 31-year-old said over the weekend. “I’ll keep working every day, and I hope to continue scoring goals.”
Against FC Cincinnati, Blake showed exactly why he’s the first player in league history to win three Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year awards during his career. He posted a five-save shutout, including a crucial stop of FCC striker Brandon Vazquez late on.
Rather than offering our own spin on the Jamaican international’s continued brilliance for Philadelphia, let’s give the floor to head coach Jim Curtin.
“The goalkeeping position has been neglected and underappreciated for years,” Curtin told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman. “Our analytics department values it as the singular most important position in terms of an influence on points at the end of the year.
“So he just has been incredible for us. Yes, he is in those discussions now for the best goalkeeper in our league's history and that's no small task because there's a ton of great goalkeepers that have come through here.”
Andre Blake saves vs. FC Cincinnati
Leon Flach the … goalscorer? The German-American midfielder was just as surprised as you, dear reader, when hitting an outside-the-foot winner against Cincy in the Conference Semifinals.
“The feeling [of scoring] is a little bit unusual, maybe,” the 21-year-old said after Thursday's 1-0 win. “I was not thinking much, which helped a lot. I just tried to hit the ball and saw it flying in the right direction.”
Flach had just one goal in 5,400 regular-season minutes during the past two seasons with the Union. He grew far more synonymous with logging the hard miles in central park and providing linking play on the outside of their 4-4-2 diamond formation.
But with veteran mainstay Alejandro Bedoya nursing an injury and Cincy keeping Philly’s top scoring threats under wraps, Flach stepped up when he was needed the most.
WATCH: Flach's first goal of 2022 sends Philadelphia to Eastern Final!
Wagner’s MLS days might be winding down, as he’s heavily linked with an outbound transfer back to Europe. The German left back is sure making the most of this playoff push, though.
Wagner created three chances going forward, was assured in both directions and met the intensity levels a postseason test requires.
He finished second in Defender of the Year voting and seems a strong candidate to earn a Best XI presented by Continental Tire nod as the year wraps up.