The MLS semifinals are set after Round 1 of the playoffs is all wrapped up. The newly formatted best-of-three series has its critics, but the games provided goals, drama and plenty to look forward to in the next round.
Among the semifinalists, Sporting Kansas City, LAFC, FC Cincinnati, and Columbus Crew are the teams to watch. But before the action kicks off on Nov. 25, ESPN’s writers provide a look back at the memorable moments and players that excelled, as well as what to watch out for next.
Sporting KC hitting stride at the right time
Out of all the results from the first round of the MLS playoffs, no doubt the most eye-popping was Sporting Kansas City’s clean sweep of Interstate 70 rivals St. Louis City SC, which included a 4-1 steamroll in front of a stunned home crowd in St. Louis prior to a 2-1 triumph in Kansas City to close things out.
In early May, the mere idea of Sporting Kansas City even reaching the playoffs would have been unthinkable. Most by now know that SKC was winless in its first 10 games, but this was not one of those draw-heavy winless streaks that is so often seen in this league.
Instead, this one had a whopping seven losses anchored to it, the nadir being a 2-0 home loss to CF Montreal. To put that into proper context, CF Montreal won two away games all season long.
Full credit goes to Kansas City’s coach, Peter Vermes, for righting the ship while navigating through a sea of injuries and then finally having a stable full of horses for the St. Louis City series. The result was a breathtaking two-game performance in which all the stars came out.
Dániel Sallói, who always seems to raise his game in the postseason, did it again with a goal and an assist in each of the two games, including this saucy set-up for Logan Ndenbe‘s opener in the second game. Johnny Russell wreaked havoc in isolation, taking advantage of Sporting KC’s quick ball movement and pinpoint passing.
Gadi Kinda did Gadi Kinda things, which is unbalancing defenses, on his way to a two-goal, two-assist haul in the two games, while Ndenbe dusted off his scoring boots, scoring two goals after not having scored in the previous 48. Unfortunately, an ACL tear will sideline Ndenbe for the rest of the postseason and beyond, but his impact to help kick-start the team in these playoffs is unmistakable.
Alan Pulido‘s tenure in Kansas City has been marred by injuries, but the Mexico international is finally fully healthy and was magnificent against St. Louis with his movement to lure defenders in his wake and free up space for teammates.
Vermes could not have gotten it more right from a tactical standpoint in allowing St. Louis to keep possession, while hitting them in transition. St. Louis were visibly uncomfortable having to hold the ball and Vermes’ men feasted when they were able to break.
It sets up an interesting approach to the next round against a Houston Dynamo team that has no issue with possession in the center of the park with midfield monsters Héctor Herrera and Adalberto Carrasquilla. But no one is going to count out a veteran-laden Sporting Kansas City side that showed in this past round that it is battle-tested in the playoffs.
It has the right players and coach to keep this run going. — Arch Bell
Luciano Acosta: FC Cincy’s invaluable attacking engine
What makes a clutch player, well, clutch?
It’s all about delivering in big moments and delivering regardless of the circumstances, which is exactly what FC Cincinnati captain and MLS MVP finalist Luciano Acosta has been able to do in the start to the playoffs. No matter the fact that he seemed to not be 100% fit in either of his Round One matches against the New York Red Bulls, and genuinely looked questionable with his total of 46 loss of possessions over 180+ minutes of play, the 29-year-old Argentine more than compensated with two assists and a goal in FC Cincinnati’s two victories over RBNY.
“He gets on with it and he was still struggling physically because he’s dealing with a foot [injury],” said head coach Pat Noonan after a penalty shootout in the second leg that secured a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinal round. “I think this three-week break will really benefit him, but it’s just pain tolerance and he’s a tough kid, man. Still found a way to get that assist on Aaron’s [Boupendza] goal. So he continues to find the pass, the goal, the moment that helps our team win a game.”
— S – FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) November 5, 2023
As seen throughout the 2023 season, when needed, the No. 10 has stepped up in decisive situations that have been pivotal for Cincy’s run to a 2023’s Supporters’ Shield. Gifted with speed and excellent vision, the regular season leader in through-balls continued his brilliant 2023 form with several key passes that left RBNY defenders perplexed as they chased opportunities behind them.
More than just a pacey playmaker who finished with two assists in as many playoff games in 2023, Acosta also showcased his ability to pounce on mistakes and find the back of the net. Following some confusion between the Red Bulls backline and goalkeeper Carlos Coronel in the first leg, Acosta found himself with an open net and lofted a ball from distance that led to his goal in Round One.
Lucho buries it from 35 yards out‼️ pic.twitter.com/nSghgliymr
— S – FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) October 30, 2023
What’s scary for teams going forward, such as the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference semifinals, is that Acosta did all this after twisting his ankle in the first leg and playing through pain in the second. Given plenty of time to rest and regain full fitness, the energetic attacking midfielder will likely put on a show once again with his game-changing moments that will make things difficult for any and every MLS opposition.
“He has a look in his eyes and determination right now where he wants to go and win another trophy,” said Noonan. — Cesar Hernandez
Columbus overcome Atlanta in high-scoring battle
Not all things in life are easily imagined. But in the end, that three-match bout between Columbus Crew and Atlanta United matched its high-drama expectation. One of just three match-ups to require the full three games to settle a victor in Major League Soccer’s new playoff format, those three tests featured fourteen goals (by far the most of any series), an elite midfield battle, and a fate ultimately decided by home field advantage. I suppose regular season records mattered after all.
That the goal count climbed so high (and featured a set of 4-2, six-goal thrillers) should come as no surprise. Columbus Crew finished the 2023 regular season with 67 goals as the top-scoring team in MLS. Atlanta United finished just behind them with 66. That pace of attacking prowess carried forward into its matchup.
Atlanta had approached the first match defensively, given it was playing away and missing its star midfielder, Thiago Almada, who’d collected an ill-timed red in the final match of the regular season. The Crew’s sensational striker, Cucho Hernández, settled the match with a brace, and has since earned a call-up to represent Colombia in their upcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
The ensuing pair of tests saw a back and forth of goals on either end, with Atlanta taking a 4-2 victory on home turf, followed by Columbus doing precisely the same to abscond with the series.
Malte Amundsen’s banger helps propel Crew to semifinals
Malte Amundsen scores from long range as Columbus Crew thrash Atlanta United to move on to the semifinals of the MLS playoffs.
The goal-glorious battles were highly entertaining. Though of course, one might observe those score lines and wonder if defensively, there had been unnecessary mistakes. Atlanta United coach Gonzalo Pineda said nearly as much after the final night’s loss: “Leaking goals has been our Achilles heel all season. We have to take a look at how we can do better and solidify that.”
Columbus has lost just once at home this season, and just once since August 2022. That it took the series winning both home matches is also no shock. Ahead of the third match, Pineda commented on the challenge ahead of Atlanta: “I think it’s a tendency in this league. We know it’s probably one of the most in the world, where home advantage matters”.
This season’s Newcomer of the Year winner, Georgios Giakoumakis, delivered for Atlanta throughout the series, as he scored in two of the three matches, and was the engine of success in its home-field victory, having scored once and assisted twice on the evening. Despite the positives and progression evident in Atlanta’s season, and its entertaining contribution to this year’s postseason, there have been clear vulnerabilities in the squad. With Sunday’s loss, it will turn to focus on them.
Giakoumakis said as much in the aftermath: “We have to demand more from ourselves. This was a transitional season. We have to build our base and from there we can expect great things.”
One can justly hope for great things from a team that possesses incredible talent in its ranks, though it may lose some to foreign shores in the offseason. As for Columbus, it will fight on toward the final as it meets Orlando next in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. — Megan Swanick
LAFC puts others on high alert
Was it Lionel Messi‘s arrival to the league? The fact the team fell well short of repeating as Supporters’ Shield champions? Simply headline fatigue after years of persistent articles about the flashy new team in Los Angeles? Whatever it was, LAFC entered the playoffs flying under the radar — at least for a team that won MLS Cup last time around.
Now? Be warned: LAFC is a candidate to repeat. LAFC manager Steve Cherundolo’s side is now unbeaten in five matches, convincing in the Round One series against the Vancouver Whitecaps that saw 5-3 and 1-0 wins to earn the sweep, and boasting a roster stocked with both rising stars and veteran experience.
There are barriers in LAFC’s path, like there are for any remaining team, but it’s clear it can win games in a number of ways. The first leg of its series with Vancouver was a romp that saw Carlos Vela near his best with three chances created and both Denis Bouanga and Ryan Hollingshead scoring a pair of goals. A back issue kept Vela to just a late cameo in the second leg, but LAFC found a way to win in a different way, defending a one-goal lead well to make Bouanga’s 24th-minute penalty enough to go through.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 6, 2023
Cherundolo himself seemed puzzled by the idea that LAFC hasn’t been playing to the level of a team worth some serious hype. “For most of the season, I think we’ve been playing pretty well,” he said after clinching. “We’re obviously happy to, at this stage of the season, (be) defending well and taking care of our chances.”
Even during the season, LAFC largely was able to take care of those chances it created, scoring 54 goals in the regular season with an xG of 55.6, putting it essentially on par with what analytics models would expect.
Nobody is taking better care of chances than Bouanga, who scored 20 goals in the regular season and added three in the two playoff games. Earlier this season, the intense attacker returned from international duty with Gabon to score hours after getting off his flight. They won’t need those heroics from him with a full 20 days between club matches and six days after Gabon’s tilt with Burundi for him and other internationals like Canada‘s Maxime Crépeau and Uruguay‘s Cristian Olivera to recover.
Despite the long break, LAFC will hope to have this Vancouver series fresh in the mind after the long layoff. The lessons from the second game, in particular, are critical for the reigning MLS champion as it once again heads to the Pacific Northwest, once again plays on a turf field and once again attempts to capture attention from all around the league. — Jon Arnold