MLS playoff preview: LAFC-Galaxy, Union-FC Cincinnati kick off second round

The top seeds compete this week in the MLS playoffs with each group of opponents intensely familiar with each other.

Pat Noonan’s successful first season as FC Cincinnati manager not only got the club into the playoffs for the first time in club history, but Cincy also ended the New York Red Bulls’ season at the Red Bull Arena last weekend. Now Noonan meets his former boss, Jim Curtin, with whom Noonan spent three years as an assistant in the Philadelphia Union.

Los Angeles FC and LA Galaxy renew their exciting rivalry for the second time in a playoff game and the first time since 2019. LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield this season, achieving an incredibly consistent year under the coach of freshman Steve Cherundolo. Experienced Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, on the other hand, has the playoff experience to make another run.

Union vs. FC Cincinnati

Thursday, 8 p.m., FS1, FOX Deportes

Noonan meets Curtin for the third time this season, and despite the Union’s excellent 2022 season, FC Cincinnati enters this one with the recent advantage. FC Cincy beat Union in August and got a point at Subaru Park in June.

The Union gained momentum in the final months of the season, finishing the regular season as the league’s best team.

The attacking talent is in good shape on both sides. The Union trio of Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre have scored 49 goals this season, while FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, Luciano Acosta and Brenner have totaled 46 goals.

The difference may lie in the Union backline, which has by far allowed the fewest goals in the league with 26. Cincy forwards such as Vazquez and Brenner have had breakout seasons in 2022, but youngsters stars need to show up when it counts to beat the union organization and experience on the backline.

Both sides are mostly healthy but Union starter Alejandro Bedoya will likely be on the bench as he recovers from injury.

LAFC vs. LA Galaxy

Kirby Lee – USA TODAY Sports

Thursday, 10 p.m., FS1, FOX Deportes

LAFC’s range of attacking talent has earned them the supporters’ shield this season, with Cristian Arango, Carlos Vela and Jose Cifuentes leading the way. Facing the Galaxy in the first game of the playoffs is certainly a difficult draw. LAFC struggled in late August and September, but recovered in time to fend off the Supporters’ Shield Union.

The Galaxy beat Nashville SC 1-0 to reach the second round of the playoffs thanks to a goal from Julian Araujo. Greg Vanney’s side went four games unbeaten to finish the regular season and are benefiting greatly from the mid-season signing of Riqui Puig’s midfield contributions.

Stopping Puig will be the key to the game for LAFC. Cherundolo will rely on Kellyn Acosta to break things up in midfield and help provide Vela and Arango with chances.

The playoffs will come with added motivation this year, with the World Cup just around the corner. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Araujo will use these games to compete for spots on Tata Martino’s roster. Gareth Bale’s form for LAFC has plummeted since his arrival, but Bale could emerge as a factor when it counts, with his speed and need to get in shape ahead of Wales’ first World Cup appearance since 1958.

CF Montreal vs. NYCFC

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday, 1 p.m., ESPN

Both teams dominated their opening playoff games, with CF Montreal managing Orlando City and New York City FC beating Inter Miami with a 3-0 victory.

NYCFC is missing a few key contributors, especially central midfielder Alfredo Morales, who missed out on the first-round win. Fullback Tayvon Gray and forward Talles Magno also missed the Inter Miami game and will push to get involved at Stade Saputo.

CF Montreal is firing on all cylinders after their previous playoff victory. The midfield unit of Djordje Mihailovic, Ismael Kone and Victor Wanyama will be hard to stop. Keaton Parks, who returned to the NYCFC roster after missing much of the season through injury, could help NYCFC if he’s able to get back to his incredible form to start the season.

Austin FC vs FC Dallas

Tim Heitman – USA TODAY Sports

Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPN, ESPN Deportes

State rivals Austin FC and FC Dallas are tied in 2022, but only one will advance to the Western Conference Finals.

Texas-based clubs have drawn twice this season and FC Dallas have never lost to Austin. Austin’s explosive offense led the league for much of the regular season, but the team struggled to beat Real Salt Lake in their previous playoff game. Designated player Emiliano Rigoni has had little impact since arriving in the summer, but the playoffs offer him the opportunity to bring Austin to a tipping point.

FC Dallas owes much of their success in 2022 to their strong attack, with Jesus Ferreira scoring 18 goals and Alan Velasco and Paul Arriola bringing width, speed and technical skill to either side of the pitch. Austin has his work cut out to get past the FC Dallas backline, which allowed just 37 goals in 2022, led by Matt Hedges and Marco Farfan.