When the 2023 Major League Soccer season kicked off in February, 29 teams had dreams of lifting MLS Cup. It's now November, many of us are just waking up from turkey-induced slumbers and preparing to turn our calendars to December, and just eight teams have yet to have their hopes dashed.
That's right: the MLS Cup playoff conference semifinals begin on Saturday, and they offer some intriguing storylines. Both the East and the West feature tasty 2-seed-vs.-3-seed matchups, the Supporters' Shield winners welcome their mentors to town in Cincinnati, and Houston and Kansas City reflect on a postseason history that defies geography and conference alignment.
So make yourself a plate and join us as we detail the conference semifinal matchups that are far fresher than the leftovers in the fridge.
2. Orlando City SC vs. 3. Columbus Crew (Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET)
We probably (and unfortunately) won't see the same fireworks that we got from the last matchup between Orlando City and the Columbus Crew in September that finished with seven goals -- six of which were scored in the second half -- but Saturday's game promises to be a fascinating battle between a resolute defense and a surging attack.
In one corner, there's Columbus, led by the highly motivated duo of Cucho Hernández and Diego Rossi in recent days. With a combined total of four goals and three assists against Atlanta United in Round 1, few players in MLS have looked as assured and confident in the postseason.
As seen in the 4-2 win over Atlanta on Nov. 12, Columbus showcased that there's plenty of support throughout the squad, too. Along with Rossi, the Crew were also able to count on goals from Darlington Nagbe, Malte Amundsen and Alexandru Matan. It's worth noting, too, that Hernández was inches away from scoring his fourth goal of the three-match series vs. Atlanta after hitting the woodwork.
Coming off a regular season in which Columbus led the league in goals scored (67), there's clearly a solid foundation being built by manager Wilfried Nancy in just his first year with the club. That said, will he be able to break down an Orlando side that has just one loss in league play since August?
Guided by the pragmatic Oscar Pareja on the sideline, Orlando has earned five shutouts in its past six matches. In net, goalkeeper Pedro Gallese has been a reliable presence with only two goals allowed in his past five appearances. After an inconsistent start to the season, Orlando has also turned its home ground into a fortress with an ongoing 12-game unbeaten run at Exploria Stadium.
There's a gutsy vibe to Pareja's roster that feels far greater than the sum of its parts, and in its own Round 1 series, Orlando highlighted that through two narrow 1-0 wins over Nashville SC. The Lions' second game against Nashville, away from home, was an especially difficult test that featured a total of 26 crosses from their opposition.
"We defended all those crosses, and when they were throwing bodies in front, we still controlled the game," Pareja said after the second 1-0 win earlier this month. "We are happy because we looked more mature today. We continue with our journey." -- Cesar Hernandez
Pareja will make things challenging at home, but Columbus's firepower should find a way to get a close win. Cucho will be especially hungry for a goal after hitting the woodwork in his last game. -- Hernandez
Home-field advantage made the difference for Columbus against Atlanta, but it won't have it for this single-leg visit to Florida. That said, I think the league's top scorers (with eight goals already this postseason) will bring that brilliance to Orlando, leaving with a victory after multiple goals on both ends. -- Megan Swanick
The last Lions loss came way back in late September, and this has every hallmark of the classic "got hot at the right time and made a run" MLS playoff team. Defensive discipline combined with the work Mauricio Pereyra and Facundo Torres put in up top can make the difference in what should be a fascinating tactical battle between Pareja and Nancy. -- Jon Arnold
1. FC Cincinnati vs. 4. Philadelphia Union (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
On Saturday in Cincinnati, MLS' 2023 Supporters' Shield-winning side will host a familiar friend for a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference semifinal. But to call this matchup a rivalry would be imprecise. Rather than a testy bout between foes, this rematch offers instead a fresh evaluation of formidable teams with mutual respect, a shared staff history and much in common.
Before the Orange and Blue absconded with former Philadelphia technical director Chris Albright, whom they named general manager in October 2021 -- who then poached the managerial services of key former Union assistant Pat Noonan -- Cincinnati was a struggling side. Introduced into the league in 2019, it had finished each of its first three seasons in last place, breaking records for goals allowed and losses accrued.
With the introduction of Albright and Noonan, who reshaped a roster and rebuilt a program, the formerly abysmal became ascendant. Cincinnati qualified for its first playoffs in 2022 and in 2023, it clinched the Supporters' Shield, becoming the second-fastest expansion side to do so -- only LAFC have done it in a shorter span of time.
FCC's success has been applauded by their former colleagues in Philadelphia, with Albright and Noonan's longtime friend Jim Curtin offering ready praise for their work. That warmth is returned. Noonan has commended Curtin for their "similar vision in how we see the game and what kind of environment and culture we want to create." But with years of experience by Curtin's side, that warmth comes equipped with a consequence: Cincinnati might have Philadelphia's number.
Noonan delivered Philadelphia its first-ever loss to the Orange and Blue with a 3-1 victory at TQL Stadium in his first season in charge -- one of just five losses for Curtin's team that season. Cincinnati then dealt Philly another loss when the Union visited in April, the goal coming from MVP finalist Luciano Acosta.
With home-field advantage in September, Philadelphia fought to a 2-2 draw after fumbling the early lead. Curtin commented beforehand: "It's always a very tight game when we play Cincinnati, a lot of familiar faces on the field and off."
In the Eastern Conference semifinal last year, Philadelphia had just polished off an award-laden (Goalkeeper of the Year, Defender of the Year, Coach of the Year) and record-breaking season. It hosted Cincinnati in Chester, Pennsylvania, as the top-ranked team in the East. Despite that momentum, Philly snuck by 1-0, reliant on its ever-ebullient home crowd and a goal from Leon Flach.
This year, the advantage has shifted. The team once floundering at the bottom of Major League Soccer has now taken 2023's trophy for best record in the regular season. As a result, it will be the Cincinnati crowd on Saturday that hounds a beleaguered Philadelphia side, which ended a long season with injuries, fatigue, contractual controversies and a three-match suspension to Kai Wagner for violating the league's on-field anti-discrimination rules in Philadelphia's first playoff match.
FC Cincinnati beats New York Red Bulls 8-7 on penalties to win their Eastern Conference Playoffs series 2-0.
Wagner won't be the only one missing, though, as both teams swept their Round 1 matchups amid unfortunate drama behind the scenes.
For Cincinnati, that drama pertains to Defender of the Year Matt Miazga. After collecting three yellows in a two-leg test against his former academy team, the New York Red Bulls, Miazga will be a notable absence from Saturday's match. His most recent cautions came for dissent and after taunting fans amid a 10-round penalty victory for FCC. After the match, investigations were launched into Miazga's behavior as sources told ESPN's Jeff Carlisle that he also entered the officials' locker room. -- Swanick
Despite the absence of Cincinnati's Defender of the Year, it seems likely that the result of this closely contested battle between friends will swing the hosts' way. Acosta's hot foot seems ready to cut through a visiting team missing multiple members of its back line, including Wagner and maybe former Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes, who has been out since a surgery in October but who Union manager Jim Curtain said will be available. -- Swanick
Cincy will have a big defensive absence with Miazga unavailable, but its front line should still be able to get the job done. Acosta is in great form. -- Hernandez
Both teams were able to avoid a third game in Round 1, not a surprise after their convincing regular seasons. Cincy has the Argentine connection of Acosta and Álvaro Barreal clicking, and they'll be able to ride that and the home crowd to the conference final. -- Arnold
The Supporters' Shield winners will leave no doubt with Acosta waving his magic wand in the final third. Even without Miazga, Cincy has the goods in the back. -- Bell
4. Houston Dynamo FC vs. 8. Sporting Kansas City (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET)
The Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Cup playoffs ... ah, yes ... it evokes great memories of Eastern Conference postseasons of yore.
Wait, what? Alas, for three straight years from 2011 to 2013, these two teams met in the playoffs when both competed in the Eastern Conference. There was also a first-round date in 2017 when they were back in the West, and now, they will renew acquaintances in the Western Conference semifinals.
In that three-year span more than a decade ago, Sporting had finished with the better regular-season record only to see Houston knock them out in the 2011 and 2012 series. SKC got their revenge in 2013 on their way to winning MLS Cup.
The shoe is on the other foot this time around -- Houston boasts the superior regular-season record -- but arguably no one has been playing better soccer than Sporting KC in the last several months of the season, as seen in their 6-2 aggregate demolishing of top seed St. Louis City in the previous round. Much has been said about the exploits of Johnny Russell, Dániel Sallói and Gadi Kinda in the postseason thus far, and all of it is deserving, but the unsung hero has been striker Alan Pulido.
In this playoff matchup with the Dynamo, Pulido's importance will grow even more. The 32-year-old former Chivas man is one who requires attention from several defenders. Artur has been a fantastic addition for the Dynamo this season in the defensive midfield, as has center-back Erik Sviatchenko, but neither will be able to monitor Pulido alone; it will take both of them, if not more.
Sporting head coach Peter Vermes described Pulido's impact wonderfully last week in an interview on "Soccer Matters" on Houston's ESPN 97.5, saying that Pulido's intelligence and movement harks back to the days of Jaime Moreno at D.C. United. Old heads will remember how Moreno could adapt to any game situation as it unfolded and then give what his team needed in the attacking third. Pulido is the same: whether playing out wide or underneath, serving as creator or target man, he's going to do it to push his team across the finish line.
In Houston, SKC will face a team that, unlike St. Louis City, prefers to have the ball and control things through Héctor Herrera in midfield. The more ball, the better. That gets bolstered when Griffin Dorsey makes his lung-busting runs up the right wing to provide more width, giving Herrera more room in which to operate. During those times when Sporting KC have the ball, Pulido's influence on whether Houston can keep him under wraps will dictate who emerges victorious from this one.
Vermes was the man in charge at Sporting in all three of those postseasons between 2011 and 2013 and no doubt still remembers the disappointment of 2011 and 2012. With Pulido in place, though, he has a player who can help return the favor and continue Sporting KC's dream run. -- Bell
The two Mexican superstars will be the standout players in this one, but it will be goalkeeper Tim Melia who ultimately makes the difference for Sporting KC. -- Bell
Does anyone want to play either of these teams with the results they've put together lately and the hunger they play with? It's doubtful. Houston continues to get superstar-level performances from Herrera and Adalberto Carrasquilla; if that continues, the Dynamo will get through. -- Arnold
The giant killing can go only so far for SKC, and up against Houston, they'll struggle against the likes of Herrera and Carrasquilla. Herrera is also in a good run of form with three assists and a goal in his past five appearances. -- Hernandez
SKC snuck into the playoffs via the wild-card round, then sent St. Louis sailing in a striking sweep of their newfound (and top-ranked) Midwest rival. That type of momentum is hard to stop, although Houston is a team ascendant in its own right, despite a Round 1 series that required all three games and penalties to decide two of three. With home-field advantage, Amine Bassi will continue his postseason form and Herrera will drop a master class to give Houston the edge. -- Swanick
2. Seattle Sounders FC vs. 3. LAFC (Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET)
A disappointing end to a historic career could be on tap in the Western Conference semifinals, but for whom?
The Sounders have home-field advantage and are nearly impossible to beat on the Lumen Field turf. They are unbeaten in their past 19 home playoff contests and have won 17 of those games.
The Sounders beat FC Dallas in Game 3 of their MLS playoff series to advance to the Western Conference semifinals where they will face LAFC.
Another home success could prolong a bit of a last dance-esque campaign for Sounders midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro, who says he plans to exit the club this offseason. Some of the rest of Seattle's veteran core are expected to stay in Cascadia for longer. Forward Raúl Ruidíaz's deal keeps him in Seattle through 2024, while the club has an option to keep João Paulo with the team next season as well.
After the Brazilian midfielder's sensational showings in the first round of the playoffs, dominating the middle in both the Sounders' wins in a 2-1 series victory over FC Dallas, the team should believe he has lots left in his legs. Forward Jordan Morris and midfielder Cristian Roldan also signed long-term extensions before the year.
So, the Sounders certainly aren't blowing up the group that got them to the Concacaf Champions League crown last season and to multiple MLS Cups before that. Even so, the organization showed with their off-field rebrand that they're not the type of team to wait too long and let something go stale. On the field, a remake already is on the way with many academy graduates pushing the familiar faces on the bench.
Another MLS Cup would be a fitting send-off for an MLS legend who will line up on the other side.
Already absent for one of the team's two playoff matches this year because of a back issue, LAFC attacker Carlos Vela is out of contract at the end of the season and has hinted at retirement. The club's first-ever signing became the 2019 MLS MVP and helped stock LAFC's trophy case with multiple Supporters' Shields in addition to last year's MLS Cup win.
He still can contribute, with nine goals and a dozen assists in 34 regular-season appearances, but it's not clear if he wants to keep pushing on as someone who puts a priority on life away from soccer.
While changes still feel uncertain, it would be no surprise to see an MLS season in 2024 without either Lodeiro or Vela. One of them could reach the end of the road on Sunday. It will be worth watching to see if these magicians who have delighted fans for so many years still have a few more tricks up their sleeves. -- Arnold
It has been nearly a decade since the Sounders lost a playoff game at home, and they've had a fair amount of them. The team has the right balance of playoff experience and hungry young players to give it the slight edge against the reigning champions. -- Arnold
It's almost crazy to pick against Seattle in November. The Sounders' back line will do the job against the vaunted LAFC attack, while Albert Rusnák and the Roldan brothers will get it done at the other end. -- Bell
The reigning champions tore through Round 1 seemingly without breaking a sweat. While finishing lower in the table than last year's Supporters' Shield-winning side, LAFC have shown early signs of a squad still capable of lifting the Cup again this year. A brace apiece from Morris and Rusnák was enough to overcome Dallas in three matches, but the Sounders might be outmatched by Steve Cherundolo's side. -- Swanick
The champions have the experience and know-how to get the job done. They're also undefeated in their past five away games. -- Hernandez