The conference finals are set for the MLS playoffs, and the participants are the runaway favorites, and a "who's who" of recent MLS Cup champions. Los Angeles FC wrapped up the conference semifinals last night in another dramatic edition of El Trafico. A 5-3 win, their first triumph over the LA Galaxy, means that Bob Bradley's side will host the Seattle Sounders next week for a spot in MLS Cup.
In the East, the other two most recent winners of the cup, Atlanta United and Toronto FC, will battle for the other spot, with the Five Stripes hosting the midweek affair. There haven't been many upsets this year in the playoffs despite all the drama, but TFC's 2-1 win over NYCFC on Wednesday night gives the Reds an opportunity to make the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years.
New York City FC 1 - 2 Toronto FC
Playing at Citi Field instead of Yankee Stadium because of a potential conflict with the Yankees playing in the World Series, Alejandro Pozuelo scored twice to help send TFC back to the Eastern Conference final. Earlier this year, Pozuelo announced his arrival to the league by putting on a stunning display against City. Wednesday night wasn't quite at the same level, with a major mistake from Maxime Chanot allowing the midfielder to open the scoring.
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi's 69th-minute goal leveled the scoring, with the game seemingly headed to extra time. That was until Ronald Matarrita tripped up Richie Laryea in the box late in the game, allowing Pozuelo to score the winner from the spot, in a quite similar manner to how he converted a penalty against Sean Johnson earlier in the year.
Seattle Sounders 2 - 0 Real Salt Lake
Joining TFC in the conference finals for the third time in four years are the Sounders, who scored twice in the second half on Wednesday night to secure their spot against a dug-in RSL side. Gustav Svensson had a well-timed run to head home a Nicolas Lodeiro corner in the 64th minute, but Lodeiro wrapped up the proceedings in the 81st minute. Seattle were the better side on the night, and have used their home-field advantage on two occasions to get to the conference finals against LAFC, where they will have to travel to get back to MLS Cup.
The biggest loss of the night, though, is that the defeat for RSL meant that goalkeeper Nick Rimando's career has come to an end. Though the 40-year-old shockingly never won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, he owns just about every record imaginable for a keeper in the USA's top flight. His career spanned an incredible 20 seasons, with the Miami Fusion, D.C. United, and RSL. He won two MLS Cups and will be long remembered as one of the finest to ever play in the league.
“I gave so much to this sport. And to see it go... I’m just so grateful for everything it’s given me." ❤️@NickRimando says goodbye after finishing his career as the all-time @MLS appearance leader with 553 games. pic.twitter.com/e1xeyOH1uA— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) October 24, 2019
Atlanta United 2 - 0 Philadelphia Union
The Union were on a high after beating the New York Red Bulls on Sunday for their first-ever playoff win, but could not find the goals to cause an upset to make it to the Eastern Conference final. Julian Gressel scored with the deftest of finishes in the 10th minute to put the hosts ahead, and then Josef Martinez got mad as usual and scored the insurance goal in 80th minute with a thunderous strike.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over some of Frank De Boer's managing style in his first year with Atlanta, but the Dutch coach is on the verge of leading the club back to the MLS Cup final. TFC will prove to be a tough out given their wealth of experience, but United will be favorites at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Despite plenty of criticism, De Boer has gotten a lot of things right as the season has progressed, and he's seemingly been able to unlock Ezequiel Barco's ability, as the Argentine provided the assist for Gressel's winning goal.
LAFC 5 - 3 LA Galaxy
Sometimes events that are hyped up fall well short of providing the excitement they are expected to bring. Apparently, El Trafico doesn't suffer from stage fright, though, as the latest installment of the rivalry produced another enthralling encounter, one that saw LAFC beat the Galaxy for the first time. Of course, in true LAFC fashion, it wasn't done easily, as they wasted a two-goal lead, as it looked like Carlos Vela's second goal should have been called back for offside.
But Cristian Pavon pulled a goal back a minute later in the 41st minute when LAFC left the Argentine wide open, a byproduct of putting five defenders around Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A series of calamitous errors from Bob Bradley's team allowed Zlatan to equalize in the 55th minute, setting the stage for a wild back and forth over the rest of the second half.
But Diego Rossi and Adama Diomande scored twice in two minutes to put LAFC on the verge of winning their first-ever playoff game. Rolf Feltscher headed home a goal in the 77th minute to again put fear into the hearts of the LAFC supporters, until Dio decided the game with this individual effort.
The drama didn't quite end at the final whistle either. While many of the other players were still on the field exchanging pleasantries, Zlatan, in what could have been his final appearance for the Galaxy, left quickly, grabbing a certain body part and gesturing to a rival fan as he made his way into the locker room. And then Bradley, answering questions from ESPN's Sebi Salazar, stormed away from the interview, telling Salazar to get after a question about Carlos Vela answering questions about his performances in big-time games.
I generally like Bob Bradley as a professional (and a human), but it's a little rich to tell @SebiSalazarFUT to "get lost" & storm off when he asks an informed — almost obvious — question about Carlos Vela, who has long been criticized for his performances in big matches. Woof. pic.twitter.com/phvfEnOlZc— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) October 25, 2019