The 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs are absolutely bonkers. This was the case in all four of the conference semifinal matches that saw two games end with stoppage-time winners, and two others ended in a penalty shootout madness. Here’s a look back at how the MLS conference finals were set, who are the final four teams left standing in 2021?
MLS Cup Playoffs conference semifinals
All eight teams left fought hard to get to the final four of the MLS conference finals. The road teams won three out of the four matches to get to the conference finals adding to the chaos that is the MLS Cup Playoffs. Here’s a look back at the matches, and who will be playing for the chance to go to MLS Cup in 2021!
Portland stun Colorado on Thanksgiving
On Thanksgiving day, Colorado opened their MLS Cup Playoffs with a home game against the Portland Timbers. The Rapids won the 1-seed in the western conference on MLS’ Decision Day, meaning they’d get a bye to the conference semifinals and have home-field advantage should they win in the playoffs. While Colorado had the “advantage” of more rest they met a Portland team that was flying high after beating Minnesota United in round one.
In this match, Colorado had the slight edge in possession, but they failed to do too much with it. The Rapids passed the ball around a lot, but they were lacking when it came to finishing off their passing sequences. Portland was okay to sit back a bit and defend first, then counter. Neither team looked like they were scoring in regulation, that is until Portland won a corner in the 90th minute.
Diego Chara tried to play a ball in the box, but it was deflected by Colorado. The ball bounced twice and was anyone for the taking. Portland centerback used his frame to box out Colorado defender Keegan Rosenberry; the Portland defender then stretched to hit the ball and it made its way into the net. It was a heartbreaking way for Colorado to lose, but credit to Portland for grinding for all 90 minutes to secure their spot in MLS’ final four!
RSL squeak by SKC
Sporting Kansas City had already ended one cinderella run in round one of the playoffs beating Vancouver. Now they looked to do the same thing to a Real Salt Lake side that is a hard team to beat. RSL beat SKC in Kansas City on decision day to make it into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Could they do the same thing in the playoffs?
To start the match, it was clear Sporting was going to dictate the tempo by any means possible. They were able to do this for the first 25 minutes and had a lead after that point. SKC captain Johnny Russell converted a penalty shot in the 24th minute to give the hosts the lead. While they had the advantage, RSL was never out of the match, and they made one important tweak that helped them squeak by SKC.
In the second half, Real Salt Lake brought on substitutes Anderson Julio and Justin Meram. They flipped the game on its head in the 57th minute, and RSL took control of the match. Julio scored the equalizing goal in the 72nd minute and it seemed like the game kept tipping RSL’s way. Meram went on a run in the 90th minute and put in a perfect cross to another attacking sub for Salt Lake, Bobby Wood, who was able to hit the ball first time to beat Tim Melia. RSL squeaked out of SKC with a win to keep their Cinderella run alive, while SKC lost it all in front of their home fans.
Philly stone Nashville in penalty kicks
In the eastern conference, the 2-seed Philadelphia Union and 3-seed Nashville SC met in a conference semifinal that was showcased the sides’ similarities. Both teams are defensive juggernauts and look to make smart attacking runs to create their offense. In this match, it was clear both teams were eyeing each other warily.
Nashville came out and was content to sit to allow Philly something they don’t like to have the majority of, possession. Philly dominated the early sequences of the match, but Nashville grew into it and eventually found the opening goal. MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar drifted away from his markers and headed home a perfect cross in the 38th minute to take the lead. It looked like the Union would go into halftime down a goal, but they never quit. DP attacking midfielder Daniel Gazdag finished off a strange bouncing ball on the last kick of the half to tie the game at one.
As the match went into the second half, Philly controlled the game but lacked the finishing touch. The game trickled past the 90-minute mark and this game would go to extra time. This was the same story for Philly who had clear chances but couldn’t win the game. The game would have to be decided in penalty kicks. In PK’s the Union’s goalkeeper Andre Blake stole the show as he stopped the first two Nashville shooters, then the last two shooters for the visitors missed. Philly converted two of their three penalties and was through to their first-ever conference final! It’s a hard way to lose for Nashville but they will continue to grow in MLS in their third season next year.
NYCFC outlast New England in PKs
New England secured the most points in an MLS season ever winning 73 points. They won the Supporters Shield, and their reward was to wait three full weeks to play their first playoff match. They got to skip round one and go right to the conference semifinals, where they knew if they could win in front of their home crowd that they’d host every game of the 2021 playoffs. They came into the match and faced a hot NYCFC that wouldn’t make anything easy for the Revs.
NYCFC had the advantage of playing a playoff match the week before. New England was evidently rusty as they allowed New York to control the opening minutes. NYCFC wasted no time as they scored a goal to take the lead in the 3rd minute. The early goal helped New England wake up a bit as they came back and scored the equalizer just six minutes later. The match was 1-1 before 10 minutes had been played, this one got real chippy really quickly after that.
This match was defined by open attacking play but both teams would stop the other by fouling them in their build-up. Eventually, the match went to extra time. The first 15 minutes looked like the whole game, but the second 15 minute period was bonkers. MLS’ golden boot winner, Taty Castellanos, scored in the 109th minute for NYCFC. It looks like he sealed his team’s fate to make their first-ever conference finals, that is until he picked up a second yellow card, therefore a red, four minutes later. New England had seven minutes to play up a man to tie the game. They did just that through soon to be transferred player Tajon Buchanan. He scored with two minutes left and this match went to penalties.
In a penalty shootout, the mentality is always to have confidence in your shooters, and hope your goalkeeper can make one play to make the difference. In this best of five, NYCFC made five perfect penalties. New England made four of their five, with their DP striker Adam Buksa not hitting his well enough to beat NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson. NYCFC beat the best regular-season team in MLS history to make their first-ever conference finals. New England now joins the majority of teams out of the playoffs, but they should come back in 2022 raring to show that they are still one of the best in MLS.
MLS’ final four are set
MLS’ final four is set! The conference finals take place this weekend and feature four teams that weren’t thought of as true contenders when the playoffs started. The Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake are the two teams left out west; the Philadelphia Union and NYCFC are both on to their first eastern conference final. Here’s when the games will be played.
- Portland vs Salt Lake – Saturday, December 4 @ 6:30 pm EST
- Philadelphia vs NYCFC – Sunday, December 5 @ 3 pm EST
Philly is the highest remaining seed in the playoffs as the east’s 2-seed, but they know they could be going on the road to MLS Cup if Portland wins thanks to the overall standings tiebreaker. NYCFC was in the jumble that was the eastern conference this season, now they are a win away from playing for the Cup. RSL is the cinderella story of MLS this year. The 7-seed has beaten Seattle and SKC already and now hope to take it to Portland to play on the road for a fourth game in MLS Cup.
What will happen? We’ll have to wait to find out, but it seems as if the chaos will just keep rolling in the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union via Twitter