Takeaways off Round One of the MLS playoffs

Published Oct. 18, 2022 2:18 a.m. EDT

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

The conference finals are set and the MLS Cup playoffs are now down to eight teams after FC Dallas and defending champion New York City FC both advanced on Monday night.

Here are five thoughts on Round One, and a look ahead at what’s on tap when postseason action resumes with a pair of games on Thursday.

Dallas tops Minnesota to set up Texas derby

It took 120 drama-filled minutes plus penalties, but FC Dallas finally beat plucky Minnesota United in Monday’s nightcap.

It was a deserved victory for the West’s No. 3 seed, who outshot the Loons 19-7 (9-3 on target) and controlled 60 percent of possession. FCD still had to dig deep after Emanuel Reynoso gave the visitors a 1-0 lead in the second half that was canceled out by Facundo Quignón nine minutes later:

In the shootout, they had to be perfect. Minnesota keeper Dayne St. Clair made eight saves during open play but none from 12 yards, as Dallas buried all five of their spot kicks. Alan Velasco converted the winner, setting up a delicious in-state matchup between an original MLS club and second-year, second seed Austin FC, which beat Real Salt Lake in the tiebreaker a day earlier. That game, in Texas’ capital, is set for Sunday night.

Defending champs outlast Miami, visit Montreal next


It seems silly to consider NYCFC — the 2021 MLS Cup titlist — a dark horse to repeat as champs. Yet it’s a fair assessment: just three teams have won back-to-back in 27 MLS seasons, and the Pigeons have a different look after losing coach Ronny Deila and then-MLS goals leader Taty Castellanos to European suitors over the summer.

City finally found their feet under interim boss Nick Cushing late in the campaign, and on Monday they dispatched Inter Miami with relative ease, winning 3-0 on goals by Gabriel Pereira, Maxi Morales and Heber. All three came on sloppy giveaways by the visitors, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t also well deserved; the hosts ran all over Miami from start to finish. The 35-year-old Morales’ strike might have been the prettiest of the three:

Cushing & Co.’s reward? A stern test on Sunday when they travel to Montreal to take on a team with legitimate MLS Cup aspirations of its own. The Canadian side finished third overall in the regular season (behind LAFC and Philadelphia) and are the obvious favorites to advance to the East final against either regular season conference champ Philly or upstart Cincinnati.

Still, NYCFC has the hard-earned swagger of a champion. They know exactly what it takes to win. And they’ve repeatedly shown the ability to overcome the sort of adversity – with their home venue Yankee Stadium unavailable, Monday’s match was played elsewhere (this time Citi Field in Queens) for the umpteenth time in 2022 – that would have torpedoed most rivals months ago. Underdogs or not, these Pigeons won’t go quietly.

El Tráfico highlights quarterfinals  

The matchup everybody – except fans living in Tennessee – wanted to see is a reality after the LA Galaxy beat Nashville SC to set up the second postseason El Trafico between the Galaxy and LAFC on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, FS1/ FOX Deportes/FOX Sports app).

On the surface, it’s a mismatch. LAFC — which eliminated the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Galaxy in 2019 — just won the Supporters Shield for the second time in four years, while Greg Vanney’s side is back in the playoffs for only the second time since 2016.

But LAFC showed some clear defensive vulnerabilities late in the regular season, going 3W-5L-1 in their final nine games. The Galaxy enter Thursday’s contest having lost just one of their last 10.

Steve Cherundolo’s side remains the clear favorite, to be sure; FOXBet gives the Galaxy just a 20-percent chance of beating their Los Angeles rival and moving on to the Western Conference final against either Austin or Dallas.

Then again, there’s a reason why only one Shield winner has also claimed MLS Cup over the last decade-plus. Momentum is everything in the MLS playoffs, and anything can happen in a one-off, do-or-die game. When that game is also arguably the best derby match in the league, it’s an absolute must-see.

Union products looking to upset their former team

FC Cincinnati was a laughingstock for the first three years of its existence, a case study on how not to run an MLS team. FCC burned through five coaches (including two temporary hires) and a general manager between 2019-21. They didn’t so much as sniff the postseason.

Things finally changed when the club raided the Union’s front office and backroom staff, appointing former Philly assistant technical director Chris Albright as GM and Union boss Jim Curtin’s longtime deputy Pat Noonan as head coach late last year. The two MLS lifers took the lessons they learned helping Philadelphia establish themselves as one of league’s best-run clubs and turned Cincy into Philly-lite.

They got Brazilian starlet Brenner back on track this year after a poor debut season and turned journeyman striker Brandon Vazquez into an 18-goal scorer and U.S World Cup roster candidate. Playmaker Luciano Acosta, the third member of FCC’s three-headed attacking monster, also scored double-digit goals and led MLS in assists. FC Cincinnati pulled off the lone upset of Round One in beating the New York Red Bulls on the road.

The students will try to out-do the master on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, FS1/ FOX Deportes/FOX Sports app). It won’t be easy; this Union team is on a mission to win the MLS Cup they think it deserved last year before a COVID outbreak on the eve of the East final decimated their roster. Whatever happens this week, nobody is laughing at FCC anymore.

Home-field advantage remains huge

When MLS changed to the current, single-elimination playoff format in 2019, the idea was to give the teams that had earned the higher seed over the 34-game regular season a bigger edge in the postseason than in the home-and-home, total goals setup that preceded it. 

So far, so good. While the switch remains the subject of much debate – some team execs still grumble privately that the margin for error is slimmer – it’s hard to dispute the results. Through 26 Round One series over the last four postseasons, the underdog has pulled off the upset just six times. Half of those came during pandemic-shortened 2020, when the playoff field was expanded by four slots. In 2019, 2021 and this year, the favorites went 5-1 in the opening round.

So long live the one-and-dones. Not only are the MLS Cup playoffs now fairer and more streamlined because of them, the revamp has made the regular season more important, too.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


Get more from MLS Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more