After an absurd two-week break between rounds of the MLS Cup Playoffs, the madness kicks off again this coming weekend. All four Conference Semifinals will be played on Saturday and Sunday respectively. In the Eastern Conference, there’s a rematch from last season; the Philadelphia Union will take on FC Cincinnati.
Last season the two met on the banks of the Delaware River. The Union were the top seed in the east and they got the job done thanks to a fluky, yet beautiful, Leon Flach goal. The match was high intensity from the opening whistle, but the quality was lacking a bit. Philly moved on but fell short of achieving their goal of winning MLS Cup.
This time around, Cincinnati is the top seed. They won the Supporters’ Shield, have the coach of the year, defender of the year, and likely the MVP. Their core was built from the Philadelphia Union, their GM, Chris Albright came from Philly, and their head coach, Pat Noonan, was Jim Curtin’s assistant. The familiarity and approach to the game have them in a passion to possibly overtake Philly as the top team in the Eastern Conference.
To do so they will need to win this Conference Semifinal. Here are five things to watch for as these two Eastern Conference heavyweights square off for the chance to make next weekend’s Conference Finals.
1. Who’ll be playing?
Speaking of how FC Cincinnati and Philadelphia Unio are similar, they are both going through some similar woes with their personnel. Both teams have players injured, coming off of injury, and suspended for this win-or-go-home match. Here’s a look at the players that are confirmed to miss, or who could miss this pivotal match.
- Jakob Glesnes: Questionable – Sports Hernia
- Leon Flach: Out – Sports Hernia
- Kai Wagner: Out – Suspension
- Nick Hagglund: Out – Hamstring
- Obinna Nwobodo: Questionable – Undisclosed Injury
- Santiago Arias: Questionable – Leg
- Matt Miazga: Out – Suspension
Philadelphia and Cincinnati have key players missing from their squads for this Conference Semifinal. For Philly, this makes their backline a bit shakey with the absence of last year’s defender of the year Jakob Glesnes being sidelined with a nagging injury, and Kai Wagner serving his suspension for using a racial slur.
Cincinnati is without major defenders as well with Hagglund done for the year, and Miazga losing his mind and getting three yellow cards in two games in the first round against his former club New York Red Bulls.
These absences could hurt both sides, but will also be an opportunity for other players to step up in a huge moment for their clubs. Look for the lineups to come out Saturday evening to see who is in, who is out, and who will need to step up.
2. Can the Union shut down the probable MVP?
Speaking of stepping up, the Union will need to do just that in the middle of the pitch if they want to shut down the eventual league MVP, Luciano Acosta. Acosta has 17 goals and 14 assists this season. As he goes, so too does FCC. Acosta loves to sit in the midfield and create quick attacks either for himself or his two strikers in front of him. The Union will be tasked with stopping him from doing so in a win-or-go-home match.
To do so it will take the efforts of midfielder Jose “El Brujo” Martinez, with the help of Alejandro Bedoya. These two will need to limit the amount of times he’s allowed to charge the defense. If they can disrupt his runs with and without the ball. Cincinnati will struggle to create the type of chances that they have lived off of this year.
So what happens if Acosta gets past these midfielders? Well, then it will be the task of either centerback stepping, and the other covering. Jack Elliot and Damion Lowe will need to make the right choice to stop the likely MVP. If they get those choices right, Philly could just pull off an upset. If not, Acosta could be leading his team to the Conference Final with a goal, assist, or both.
3. Will Cincinnati change formation?
Cincinnati’s attack is lethal and elite; however, their defense is currently in shambles due to the personnel they have available to them. With Hagglund out due to injury, and Miazga out thanks to his suspension, FC Cincinnati don’t have three active center backs on their roster. FCC loves to play a 3-4-1-2 formation, which requires three center backs to be on the field.
Cincy only has center backs Ian Murphy and Yerson Mosquera available for this crucial match. Will they stay with those two, and then bring in either Ray Gaddis or Alvas Powell to keep their three-back set? Or could they shift away from the formation they have played all season long?
Either way, this could provide the Union a big advantage if they can create quick attacks to keep this depleted backline off guard. This will be another huge factor to look for when lineups come out and as this game gets going!
4. Two teams willing to muck things up to win and advance.
Last season these two teams played one of the most entertaining playoff matches, but it wasn’t the most beautiful game. The intensity was high from the first whistle and was more attuned to two cars speeding directly at each other for 90 minutes than it was an actual game of soccer.
The possession was just about even (with Philly wanting less of the ball,) shots and shots on tagert were in favor of Philly 16-15 and 6-5 respectively. It took a jumbled-up chance in the box that Leon Flach smashed home for Philly to advance.
This time around, the play on the field could look very similar. Both teams look to create quick attacks to get their front three’s good chances to score. Whether that be going through a talented number 10, or creating overloads and crosses from wide positions. This game will be on the edge of a knife for its entirety and could be determined by taking advantage of a mistake.
5. The coaching battle will determine who wins and who goes home.
The familiarity between these two teams is well documented. Executives, coaches, and players from successful Philadephia teams went on to Cincinnati and have created a contender from the ashes of the worst team in MLS history. One of those people is the 2023 Coach of the Year, Pat Noonan. Noonan has done an absolutely fantastic job in Cincinnati to create this year’s Supporters’ Shield-winning team. His team is the MLS Cup favorite, but the apprentice will need to best the master if he wants to keep that run alive.
2022 Coach of the Year, Jim Curtin has a difficult task in front of him; beat his protege who knows him in and out in a win-or-go-home match. This is a daunting task when you look at Curtin’s record against Noonan. This will be the sixth time these two have now squared off. Curtin has won just one matchup against Noonan; last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinal match. Noonan has Curtin’s number in the regular season winning twice and drawing twice. Will Curtin win another playoff match against his past assistant, or will Noonan get a third win over his previous team?
This game will come down to the coaches, their tactics, and their choices on how to impact the game in the late stages. Both of these managers are stoic on the sidelines, and sometimes stubborn when it comes to their gameplan. However, if the opportunity comes for them to impact the game with a change in tactic or personnel, it could be the difference between playing for a chance to make MLS Cup, and getting knocked out.
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