And then there were four.
The 2023 Major League Soccer playoffs have whittled us down to the four teams doing battle in the conference finals: Columbus Crew will face "Hell is Real" rivals FC Cincinnati in the East, while LAFC will do battle with the Houston Dynamo in the West to determine who advances to MLS Cup on Dec. 9.
ESPN's Jeff Carlisle and Kyle Bonagura recap the wild moments and main takeaways after a fun weekend of MLS playoff action.
Eastern Conference: FC Cincinnati, Columbus Crew advance to take derby to new heights
"Hell is Real" is the operative phrase in the Eastern Conference half of the MLS Cup playoffs.
This Saturday the two combatants in the "Hell is Real" Derby, FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew, will square off with not just a trip to the MLS Cup final on the line, but hosting honors as well. This after the Crew triumphed 2-0 in extra time at Orlando City, while Yerson Mosquera's stoppage-time strike lifted FCC to a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union.
The rivalry got its name from a billboard on I-71, which links the two cities. Alas for the Union, "Hell is Real" doubles as its postseason epitaph the past three campaigns. In 2021, the soccer gods and positive tests for COVID-19 conspired to render 11 players unavailable for their Eastern Conference final against New York City FC, resulting in a 2-1 defeat. Last year in the MLS Cup final, LAFC's Gareth Bale rose up to nod home a stoppage-time equalizer, setting up a crushing defeat in the resulting penalty shootout.
This year's playoff ouster was less traumatic, but it still cuts deep. FCC defender Ian Murphy looked to be just offside when Álvaro Barreal delivered the ball into the box, which should have wiped out Murphy's header to Mosquera and his subsequent finish. But after a VAR check, the goal was allowed to stand and it is FCC moving on, while the Union is heading home.
Such playoff exits are enough to upset a manager. But Philadelphia manager Jim Curtin took the high road in his postgame news conference, even as everyone on the Philadelphia bench told him that Mosquera's goal would be and should be called back.
"It sounds like it was at least close, so it hurts a lot," Curtin said. He later added about his team's near misses, "I'll sign up to be playing in the big games over being a club in complete disarray that has no chance to ever compete for anything. There's about 25 of those in our league. So I prefer to be where we are, and playing in these games and winning."
One does get the sense that the Union's championship window is closing, however, while Cincinnati -- with plenty of Union alumni, including GM Chris Albright and manager Pat Noonan -- is in the ascendency, filling the Eastern Conference power center as Supporters' Shield winners. The play of its makeshift defense in the absence of MLS Defender of the Year Matt Miazga and holding midfielder Obinna Nwobodo will provide confidence that a Shield/Cup double is in their future.
But perhaps mindful of those Union near-misses -- and even the ones he experienced as a player with the New England Revolution -- Noonan was by no means doing cartwheels after Saturday's match. The Crew delivered a thoroughly professional performance in Orlando, aided by a pair of 22-year-olds in goalkeeper Patrick Schulte and midfielder Aidan Morris, who assisted on Christian Ramirez's 93rd-minute opener. They won't be pushovers by any means.
Columbus Crew SC scores two goals in extra time to beat Orlando City SC in the MLS Eastern Conference Playoff semifinals.
A triumph Saturday will give one group of fans a special kind of bragging rights, the kind that a mere regular-season defeat can't erase. So given the rivalry game to come, with nearly unmatchable stakes, what's the approach? Should the players embrace the rivalry aspect, or tune it out?
"I hope we embrace it," Noonan said. "It's certainly going to have some nice storylines attached to it, but [Columbus is] a very good team and we split the season series, but they're in very good form and we'll be a very top opponent for us. So I hope our guys embrace just another playoff game, another playoff game in front of our home fans."
It will write an indelible chapter in "Hell is Real" lore. -- Jeff Carlisle
Western Conference: LAFC advance in very un-LAFC fashion
SEATTLE -- During LAFC's six years in Major League Soccer, their identity -- under both managers, Bob Bradley and now Steve Cherundolo -- has been one of attacking flair. It has mostly served them well: They've scored more goals than any team in the league since their inception, have won a pair of Supporters' Shields and are the reigning MLS Cup champions.
And this is why it was so jarring to see the Black and Gold almost completely concede possession in Seattle on Sunday night, content with bunkering down to protect an early lead thanks to a brilliant goal against the run of play from Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga. It was an approach the club has rarely -- maybe never? -- employed by design. Certainly not to Sunday's extreme.
Denis Bouanga's 30th minute strike is the difference as LAFC beat Seattle Sounders 1-0 in the MLS Western Conference Playoffs.
But these were unusual circumstances. The LAFC way hasn't worked in Seattle. Not since the club's first-ever match in 2018 has it won in the Emerald City and in the seven trips back since, it managed a grand total of four goals in three draws and four losses. On top of that, the Sounders came into Sunday's Western Conference semifinal unbeaten in 19-straight home playoff matches, with their last loss coming in 2013.
Something had to change. "I'm not sure if it was the plan [to bunker] for the entire 90 minutes, but once you do get a lead, that's what it kind of can turn into," Cherundolo said. "Due also to the opponent's decisions and behaviors to throw numbers forward and to dump balls in the box."
The result was a 1-0 LAFC win that seemed more like survival than a convincing performance.
According to TruMedia/StatsPerform data, LAFC's 31.1% possession in the game was its second lowest in 233 matches, all time. Their 453 touches were also the second fewest. Their 0.39 xG was the fewest in a win since that first-ever match in Seattle in 2018.
But it worked.
"You don't want to be that type of team, but in this sort of environment on the road with a team that's been struggling to score, it's the perfect way to play," right-back Ryan Hollingshead said. "We made it really difficult for them to score. Their best chances were from 25 yards out, and we will take those chances any day."
For all the gripes Seattle might have had with the way the game was officiated, the Sounders' barrage of crosses didn't create many threatening moments. Their best chance came early when Jordan Morris was in on goal, one on one with LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, who stood tall in the pivotal moment.
"As soon as Max got a hand on that and I cleared it up, I was like, 'It's over. We just won this game,'" Hollingshead said. "There's just moments like that in a game where it's hard to come back from, and they really didn't have another good solid chance until 10 minutes left in the game."
And so LAFC returns home for the Western Conference final Saturday against Houston, which was also a 1-0 winner in its conference semifinal match against Sporting Kansas City. Franco Escobar gave the Dynamo the lead in the 39th minute to reach the conference final for the first time since 2017, which is also the last time Houston qualified for the playoffs.
"From [Houston's] perspective, they will probably say they match up very well against us," Cherundolo said. "They beat us twice this year. Once handedly in Houston. A game where we particularly were not good in. We didn't really show up and we got beat pretty bad. And at home we lost as well. A little different story is how the game progressed and went on, but a team we certainly by no means will take lightly and underestimate." -- Kyle Bonagura