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MLS Cup playoffs conference semifinals preview: Who's primed for an upset, and who will be kings of LA?

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New York Red Bulls vs. FC Cincinnati - Game Highlights (1:54)

Watch the Game Highlights from New York Red Bulls vs. FC Cincinnati, 10/15/2022 (1:54)

The opening round of the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs lacked some of the drama we've come to expect from the postseason; after all, there was only one upset. Nevertheless, we were still treated to two penalty shootouts, some raucous crowds in Austin and Montreal and a table set for an appetizing final four.

So, with the conference semifinals kicking off on Thursday, ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Dan Hajducky and Austin Lindberg preview the matchups, predicting which clubs will be moving on to the final four and which players will join the league's other 20 clubs already watching the playoff drama unfold from the comfort of their living rooms.

Jump to: Philadelphia-Cincinnati | Montreal-NYCFC | LAFC-Galaxy | Austin-Dallas


Eastern Conference

1. Philadelphia Union vs. 5. FC Cincinnati (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET)

FC Cincinnati weren't just bad during their first three years of existence in Major League Soccer. They almost redefined how spectacular a team can get everything wrong, from an on-field perspective, as it entered the league. It came at a time when first-year success had become common and several, replicable blueprints for success had been established around the league. So when things spiraled out of control, the club took a step back, looked around and finally decided to ask itself: What has worked?

And there it was, one state over: the Philadelphia Union. Cincinnati appointed longtime Union executive Chris Albright as their general manager, he hired Union assistant coach Pat Noonan as head coach and ... voila, here are Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference semifinals (after beating the New York Red Bulls in the first round), ready to play spoiler to the Union after their historically dominant 2022 season.

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That's an oversimplification, of course, but the speed in which Cincinnati turned things around speaks to the importance of a front office and coaching staff that has experience in the league. Only the wins tiebreaker prevented Philadelphia from winning the Supporters' Shield during a season in which they were the best team by almost every way to measure it. With the league's best defense, the Union should be considered heavy favorites Thursday night at home, where they didn't lose during the regular season. However, there is something to be said about familiarity as an equalizer, so it will be interesting to see what tactical wrinkles Noonan rolls out. -- Bonagura

Predictions:

FCC have done well to change the trajectory of the organization, but the Union seem to be a bridge too far, and should prevail over their former apprentices in Cincinnati GM Chris Albright and manager Pat Noonan. -- Carlisle

The Union were the best team in the league during the regular season (certainly during the second half), have a historically dominant defense and were undefeated at home. There is no logic in picking against them. -- Bonagura

Sure, I've said I was a sucker for an underdog, but that Pollyanna notion has an expiration date when Philadelphia is on the opposing half. The Union allowed only 26 goals all season. Twenty-six! Their plus-46 goal differential was the second-best tally in a decade. Andre Blake, who'll win his record third MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award, is an MVP finalist. The Union and Blake's storybook season doesn't end with the Orange and Blue. -- Hajducky

The most prolific attack in MLS, the stingiest defense in the league, an MLS-best goal differential nearly twice as good as their nearest rivals, Philadelphia just have too many ways in which they can beat opponents. -- Lindberg


2. CF Montreal vs. 3. New York City FC (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN)

NYCFC are the defending champions, they've won five in a row, and they looked back to their best in their Round One win over Inter Miami CF at Citi Field on Monday night. And yet, they still look like a long shot to beat Montreal at Stade Saputo on Sunday.

CFM have lost just once in their past 16 games, dating to the middle of July. In that stretch, they've earned 36 points (plus a playoff win) from 45 available. For context, Supporters' Shield winners LAFC and level-on-points Philadelphia took 27 and 34 points, respectively, over the same stretch.

In the two meetings between the Bronx Blues and Montreal this season, it's the former who took four points but the latter who outplayed their opponents in each game. The Quebecois won the xG battle, 3.2 to 1.99 -- despite the aggregate scoreline reading 4-1 in favor of NYCFC -- they outshot their rivals 26-15 and outchanced them 16-13.

This is a Montreal team that, if not for the glitz and glamor of LAFC or the model-franchise designation of Philadelphia, would be the talk of MLS in these playoffs. -- Lindberg

Predictions:

The Blues seemed to regain some of their championship swagger in eliminating Inter Miami, but Montreal's consistency means they rarely get flustered, and with Ismael Kone, Djordje Mihailovic and the ageless Kei Kamara clicking, CFM should get the win. -- Carlisle

Neither team has lost in more than a month and both looked the part in decisive first-round wins, but Montreal get the edge playing at home. -- Bonagura

It's a testament to how good NYCFC are, top to bottom, that they lost 2021 Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos to Girona and still made the conference semis. But New York stumbled to the playoffs, winning only four MLS matches from Aug. 6 to season's end. The offensive trio of Montreal's Romell Quioto, Kamara and Mihailovic -- each with at least nine goals and six assists -- will be too much for the Bronx Blues. -- Hajducky

Since the middle of July, Montreal have lost just once, demonstrating consistently impressive play, contrasted against NYCFC's stretch of one win in ten that preceded their current five-game winning streak. CFM may lack the pedigree and glamor signings, but it's been one of the best teams -- in the truest sense of the word -- in MLS all season. -- Lindberg


Western Conference

1. LAFC vs. 4. LA Galaxy (Thursday, 10 p.m. ET)

Plenty has changed since LAFC defeated the LA Galaxy 3-2 on July 8. The Galaxy's midfield has been completely revamped with the additions of Ricard Puig and Gaston Brugman, and Martin Caceres has been brought in to stabilize the back. LAFC haven't been idle either, bringing in six new players, including Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini and Denis Bouanga.

The new arrivals didn't quite have the desired effect for LAFC, who endured a 1-4-1 stretch before righting themselves late in the campaign. But while the Black and Gold are largely playing the same, the Galaxy look a different outfit, with the additions of Puig and Brugman having a ripple effect on the rest of the lineup. Douglas Costa can stick to the wing instead of shouldering the creative burden that now belongs to Puig. As a result, the Galaxy's possession and passing have improved, as has their finishing.

So what does this all mean for Thursday's Western Conference semifinal? It means a battle royale in the center of the park, with LAFC's Ilie Sanchez, along with Jose Cifuentes and Kellyn Acosta, tasked with stopping Puig, Brugman and Marky Delgado. Whichever team prevails in that area will then be able to feed their potent frontline, that being Bouanga, Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango for LAFC with Costa, Samuel Grandsir and Javier Hernandez for the Galaxy. -- Carlisle

Predictions:

The Galaxy seem to be jelling at the right time, especially with Puig and Brugman operating in midfield. That makes for another Supporters' Shield winner to fall short of an MLS Cup double. -- Carlisle

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Who will come out on top in El Trafico?

Sebastian Salazar and Herculez Gomez predict the winner of LAFC vs. LA Galaxy in the MLS Cup playoffs.

The Black and Gold fixed something that wasn't broken by adding Bale, Chiellini and DPs Bouanga and Cristian Tello during the regular season. The moves all made sense on paper, but it hasn't worked out according to plan. Meanwhile, the Galaxy turned things around in the second half and appear to be peaking at the right time. LAFC are on notice, but talent should still win the day. -- Bonagura

Another conference semifinals El Trafico, the first since 2019. Does the Supporters' Shield curse -- only seven winners have also won an MLS Cup -- rear its ugly head? Or do LAFC finally hoist the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy? It's LAFC's -- and Carlos Vela's -- year. -- Hajducky

In the 11 games since Puig's arrival, the Galaxy have been playing at a 1.81 points-per-game pace, a level of play that extrapolated across a full season would've made them a No. 2 seed in the West. Meanwhile, LAFC have lost five of their past nine. -- Lindberg


2. Austin FC vs. 3. FC Dallas (Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN)

Only two teams in MLS scored more goals than Austin in 2022. Only one conceded fewer than Dallas. This is a classic power-vs.-power matchup, and it's going to be interesting to see how Nico Estevez organizes his FCD side to try to contain the Texas capital club.

In the Round One shootout win over RSL, Austin got little in the way of chance creation from attackers Maximiliano Urruti, Ethan Finlay, Diego Fagundez, Moussa Djitte and Emiliano Rigoni, which suggests that Dallas could match up favorably. However, that would ignore MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi, who scored both the Verde's goals in that win, on top of the 22 he netted in the regular season, and has a knack for running into pockets of space and conjuring opportunities from deeper starting positions.

No one in MLS has figured out Driussi. Whoever lines up at the base of midfield for Dallas, be it Facundo Quignon or Edwin Cerrillo, they're going to have their hands full shadowing the 26-year-old River Plate academy graduate.

To sweeten an already appetizing pot is the atmosphere in Q2 Stadium. It was loud and rowdy in the city's first-ever professional playoff game, now add the tension that will arise from Dallas supporters driving 200 miles to the south for a postseason Texan derby. And with Formula One in town for the U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ABC), fan excitement won't be higher anywhere in the world than it will be in Austin. -- Lindberg

Predictions:

There isn't much separating the two teams in this all-Texas matchup, but in Driussi, the Verde have just a smidgen more quality, and that should prove to be enough to get Austin the victory. -- Carlisle

This should be an incredible atmosphere at Q2. In fact, maybe one of the best MLS has ever had in the state for this Texas derby. Austin is the pick based on their explosive offense, despite FC Dallas owning the best defensive goal-scoring record in Western Conference this season. -- Bonagura

Last time, I said the MLS Cup playoffs might be a fitting farewell to Jesus Ferreira before he gets poached by a European club. Well, Ferreira won the Young Player of the Year award on Tuesday, and everything seems to be bouncing right just weeks from Qatar. Austin beat LAFC 4-1 in late August and then won only once the rest of the season, allowing twice as many as they scored in that span. The ingredients are there for something spectacular for Dallas. -- Hajducky

As hypnotic as Driussi's play is, Dallas' organization and their deep and variable attack will present Austin with problems that Josh Wolff will struggle to solve. -- Lindberg