What you need to know

Happy Conference Semifinals to all

We’re back. And it’s win or go home now. The Eastern Conference Semifinals start with Orlando City hosting Columbus at 5:30 pm ET followed by FC Cincinnati hosting Philadelphia at 8 pm ET. The Western Conference joins the party tomorrow. Each game is available on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

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Orlando City are going to try and destroy something beautiful

I want to be very clear. I mean this as a compliment. Orlando City are going to try and ruin everyone’s good time tonight. They’ve spent the last two weeks hearing all about how Columbus play beautiful soccer. “Beauty” and “art” are subjective though, right?

The majority of neutrals are going to tune in to watch the Crew attempt to be on the front foot, pinging the ball around and sending their front three of Cucho Hernández, Diego Rossi and Alexandru Matan into space. I get it. Totally fair. But there’s something equally intoxicating in Orlando City’s quest to bully Columbus into abandoning a pursuit of art.

Orlando have their moments in attack. They do. I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to portray them as anti-soccer. It’s more that they’re anti-anything they didn’t explicitly decide to do and they’re going to be very angry if you disagree with how they’ve determined this match can and should be played. To simplify it a bit: They’re freaking mean.

That starts in midfield. A lot has been made of the Lions’ offseason, but don’t overlook a roster move that came in August last season. The Lions got Wilder Cartagena on loan, paired him next to U22 signing César Araújo and started to take control of games.

Tonight (and really the rest of the way if they advance), they’ll face one of the few midfield pairings that can go blow for blow with them. Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris go about their business in a different, but equally effective way that should present a war of contrasting styles in midfield. The Crew skew towards impressionism while Orlando lean towards brutalism. That contrast paints a picture of a match that will likely be decided by whichever pairing has a more noticeable impact.

If it’s Orlando’s midfield leading the way as the Lions win 50-50 balls and find ways to punish the Crew for daring to try and get numbers forward, then Orlando will have as good a chance as anyone to make the Crew’s attack look plain. That may not be quite as fun for neutrals, but there’s still plenty to appreciate in a collective effort to dictate your own terms.

FC Cincinnati versus Philadelphia will be defined by what's missing

There’s a lot of negative space to consider when FC Cincinnati host the Philadelphia Union tonight. Both back lines will be missing key figures. That’s plural. Cincy will be missing starting defenders Matt Miazga and Nick Hagglund. Philly will (likely) be missing starting defenders Jakob Glesnes (though he's listed as questionable) and Kai Wagner. That’s about 4,500 total minutes of playing time missing for Cincinnati and 5,200 minutes for Philadelphia.

This always had the makings of a rock fight. Both teams are physical and direct and demand control of the terms of the engagement. But how effectively will they be able to execute without two of their biggest battlers at the back?

Frankly, it seems like the scales are tipped slightly in Philadelphia’s favor here. Cincinnati are going to be rolling with a makeshift back three against a team that constantly asks questions of the opponent’s back line. It seems like Cincinnati may have to go with a back three that features 23-year-old Ian Murphy and 33-year-old full back Ray Gaddis next to Yerson Mosquera in the middle. Murphy has been steady when called upon and Gaddis has been an effective MLS player for years now, but there’s a clear drop-off from Miazga, the 2023 Defender of the Year, and Hagglund.

To be fair, there’s a clear drop-off for Philly too, but Nathan Harriel has been asked plenty of times to step in at fullback and Damion Lowe is a solid third option at center back. Like I said, I think it’s only a slight advantage to Philly, but still an advantage. Of course, that marginal edge only matters so much when Lucho Acosta is there to tilt things back toward Cincy at any moment.

All considered, we’re looking at a match that never had a chance of being something “pretty” and “easy on the eye.” These teams mirror each other too much and that mirror is intentionally scratched and blurry. But the absences present opportunities for both sides to find holes in the armor that weren’t there before. It might mean a few more clear chances than we would have otherwise expected. Whoever’s absences are less notable today will likely find themselves one game away from MLS Cup.

Other Things

Chicago Fire clear space for 2024: Chicago Fire FC have declined transfer options for defender Alonso Aceves and midfielder Ousmane Doumbia after they were on loan. Aceves, who arrived from Liga MX’s Pachuca, held a U22 Initiative slot. Doumbia, a midseason signing from Swiss sister side FC Lugano, was a DP. Additionally, Chicago have exercised their purchase option on winger Maren Haile-Selassie. He joined in preseason from FC Lugano and finished as the Fire’s leading scorer with 6g/4a. Check out the full breakdown of the moves here.

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Good luck out there. If you can find a big sword that will probably help. It will at least look cool.