It’s finally here! The Union will play in an MLS Cup Final for the first time in club history.
And, for the first time since 2003, the top seed in the East will meet the top seed in the West when the Philadelphia Union face LAFC at Banc of California Stadium Saturday, November 5th at 4 p.m. EDT.
While the Philadelphia Union seek to cap off one of the best-ever seasons by an MLS team, record-setting goals against (26), second-best-ever goal differential (+46), LAFC shares a similar position as a first time MLS Cup finalist. Playing in only its fifth season, LAFC won the club’s second Supporters’ Shield in 2022, edging the Union on the wins tiebreaker. Both teams finished on 67 points while LAFC’s 21 wins proved better than the Union’s 19, which was a club record. The Union finished with the most goals for (72), while LAFC scored the second-most goals (66) and conceded the third-fewest goals against (66).
Led by former MLS MVP Carlos Vela, whose 34 goals and 15 assists in 2019 set the single-season mark, LAFC will bring an explosive attack and veteran midfield leadership against the Union’s stout defense, led by three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake and MLS Best XI’s Jakob Glesnes and Kai Wagner.
The Union have the second-lowest salary in MLS, with a combined $10.3 million. Mikael Uhre ($1.4 million), Alejandro Bedoya ($900k), and Julian Carranza ($900k) are the top Union earners. LAFC, on the hand, rank sixth in the league at a little over $19 million. Carlos Vela ($2.4 million), Denis Bouanga ($2.08 million), and Gareth Bale ($1.6 million) lead LAFC in base salary. Seven LAFC players earn a base salary of over $1 million. Over the course of a regular season, salaries meant nothing as both teams finished level on points, how that compares on the big stage will be a question waiting to be answered.
The last three meetings between the two teams ended in draws. The Union and LAFC met May 7th at Banc of California Stadium during the Union’s run of ties against quality opponents. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, with the Union leading twice. Daniel Gazdag and Julian Carranza scored for the Union while Kwadko Opoku and Franco Escobar scored for LAFC. Aside from spending power, little separates the two number one seeds. Here’s how the matchups on the field play out.
Andre Blake has already cemented his place in the Union Ring of Honor. If the Jamaica captain wins an MLS Cup, he’ll likely cement himself as the best goalkeeper in the history of MLS. Not to disrespect the greats of the MLS past, but Blake is the single-most important player to his team over the past five seasons. With a .76 goals against average, Blake set the mark for all keepers in MLS, and his 15 clean sheets were the second-best all-time in a single season. Time and again this season, Blake’s key saves have propelled the Union to victory, including again in the playoffs against FC Cincinnati and New York City FC.
Maxime Crépeau had a tremendous season for LAFC with a career-high 9 shutouts. His 1.09 GAA ranked second in the league, and his .67 save percentage ranked near the top as well. A former star with the Vancouver Whitecaps, Crépeau is a solid keeper but doesn’t have the acumen of Blake and questions will be asked of his big-game readiness.
LAFC Forwards vs Union Backs
The most interesting clashes will come from this area of the field. LAFC will run out an attacking trio led by Vela, Denis Bouanga, and Chicho Arango that are as good as any in the league, but the Union have proved they can shut down some of the league’s best as they’ve done in recent playoff games. The Union finished fifth in MLS in blocks, and LAFC finished first in key passes, so expect LAFC to get their chances, but the Union backs have been ruthless protecting the box and getting in front of shots. Arango vs Glesnes/Elliott will feature a battle of MVP candidate vs Defensive POY(s?). Arango had 16 goals and 5 assists and has an incredible knack for penetrating center backs and creating chances around the goal.
Vela vs Wagner could be the most anticipated matchup of the game. Vela’s offensive skillset is world-class, but Wagner can be a shutdown back against top opposing forwards and will be salivating at the opportunity to shine on this stage. Wagner’s 15 assists were the most of any defender in MLS, and he got forward in the previous game against LAFC, providing the assist on Gazdag’s opener.
Bouanga vs Mbaizo may cause the biggest concern for Union fans. Bouanga, LA’s newest DP who arrived in August from St. Ètienne, scored twice against the LA Galaxy and has the second-best xG/90 in MLS (.51). Mbaizo’s strength is going forward and will play a vital role in the Union’s attack down the right flank, but LAFC will likely try to exploit his side on the counter.
Union Forwards vs LAFC Backs
This may be the best matchup for the Union. LAFC ranks 24th in MLS in blocks but also ranks first in fewest shots against (121). The Union rank first in assists (72) and shooting percentage (40.2). So one of the keys for the Union will be cracking the LAFC backline because if they can, there could be a clear path to Crépeau.
Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre vs Giorgio Chiellini and Jesus Murillo will be a tense battle. Chiellini, the veteran defender, came off at halftime in the Western Conference Final but is expected to play, but with Eddie Segura likely ruled out, Sebastien Ibeagha could be pressed into action. With Carranza’s pressure and Uhre’s speed threatening behind, the Union could create favorable counters against the slower LAFC center backs.
The question will be how much Ryan Hollingshead and Diego Palacios will be forced to stay and protect their center backs on the counter or if they’ll be able to get further up the field and control the midfield. If the Union outside backs can get forward, the LA outside backs will have their hands full.
The Union are among the top three teams in pressures and rank first in interceptions. The Union also finished second in tackles with the second-most tackles in the middle-third. LAFC finished sixth in tackles, second in tackles in the attacking third, and fourteenth in interceptions. The midfield will be a pressing battle, with both teams trying to assert their style, but individually the chess match will be how those styles play out in contrast with one another.
Daniel Gazdag vs Ilie Sanchez should be a crapshoot. Ilie and Kelyn Acosta play more like possession midfielders in a tight three-man midfield. Acosta is more defensive minded, while Ilie will be spreading the ball. They are good at moving the ball and want to attack, so the question will be how much Gazdag can get free, which could be often. Gazdag’s put up some big performances this season when given open space, and he did score one goal and set up the second in the draw in May.
Jose Cifuentes had a breakout season with 7 goals and 7 assists. He’s been as good as any LAFC player this season and will likely head to Qatar with Ecuador this World Cup. Leon Flach has been just as good at what he does as well, grinding roads and making it difficult for teams to play. This will be another battle under the microscope as two young stars with contrasting styles clash.
Since LAFC doesn’t play a true number 10, José Martinez will be left to chase the game, which could be both good and bad. He’ll likely help Flach in containing Cifuentes or could pick up a forward when they drop into the midfield for possession. Either way, his role won’t be as defined this game, so he has to be assertive and protect the Union center backs, keeping that tight midfield diamond shape. If he’s scattered and loses his structure, it could open up more channels for Arango and company to find their wheelhouse.
Jack McGlynn will be on Acosta’s side, which is somewhat of a stalemate since both players tend to play box-to-box. Acosta’s aggressiveness and experience against McGlynn could prove the difference, but with Gazdag roaming and Mbaizo coming up the wing, McGlynn should have some freedom to create, which means service on a platter for the Union forwards.
LAFC scored an impressive 19-pass team goal against LA Galaxy that many will point to as an example of their attacking brilliance. But there’s a big difference. The Union press ranks near the top of the league all over the field, and in the Eastern Conference Final, they opted for a rarely used high press, which forced a number of early turnovers and attacking creations throughout the game. We may not see a high press like that against LAFC, but the Union will not be sitting back on the road the way they’ve done this season during several mid-week games where they looked average. The press will be on, and there’s no way LAFC will have the ball as comfortably as they did against Austin.
Cory Burke and Kwadwo Opoku will inject energy into this game at some point. Burke has been excellent off the bench as of late, scoring the sealer in the 3-1 win in the Eastern Conference Final. Opoku has been just as effective, scoring in the Western Conference Final and setting up Bouanga’s second against the Galaxy. Who we see next will depend on the game and if it needs extra time. LAFC could bring in Cristian Tello of Latif Blessing and the Union could add Paxten Aaronson or Quinn Sullivan, but both will likely stick with their XI as long as possible.
LAFC enjoyed the early game Sunday while the Union kicked off at 8:26 p.m. EDT, meaning the celebrations carried well into the early morning hours. And while the celebrations were well deserved and a meaningful team bonding experience, we can’t measure the effects of what a Tuesday travel day, six-hour flight, and three-hour time difference will have on the squad until we see it. It certainly can’t help. Throw in an insane road environment, where the Union have been 7-5-5 on the season, and a week of disrupted routines and added media events on top of the anxiety of playing on the big stage for the first time. In all seriousness, the changes are enough to affect anyone, including professionals. Curtin and his staff will have a difficult task finding balance in the 48-72 hours leading up to the game, a new experience for mostly everyone inside the locker room.
Prediction: There’s a lot to unpack here. The Union need to score first, take the crowd out of the game as early as possible, and let their press/counter game go from there. They get it done and put their faith in Andre Blake