The MLS Cup playoffs field has been reduced from 18 to eight with Eastern and Western conference semifinals set for this weekend.
Unlike the first round, which was best-of-three, the conference semifinals are single elimination games, with home-field advantage looming large.
We’ll break down the four games — the Eastern Conference doubleheader on Saturday and the two Western Conference showdowns on Sunday.
Saturday, Nov. 25, 5:30 pm
Exploria Stadium | Orlando, Florida
The party gets started between two legit MLS Cup contenders who have been vastly different this postseason.
Third-seeded Columbus have played champagne football, a free-flowing attacking style that is highly entertaining. They scored eight goals over the course of a three-game series win over Atlanta United, half of which came in a 4-2 clinching home win.
However, they conceded six goals in those three games and that’s the Achilles heel with their attacking style.
Orlando have been more pragmatic, sweeping Nashville SC with a pair of 1-0 victories. In the second match, on the road, Orlando got an early away goal and put in a professional performance, stifling Nashville’s desperate attempts to equalize.
The second-seeded Lions, who finished second behind FC Cincinnati in the Supporters’ Shield race with a club-record 63 points during the regular season, lost just three games since early May. A win sends them to their first-ever conference final.
The teams met twice during the regular season, with Duncan McGuire scoring the equalizer in second-half stoppage time for the Lions in a 2-2 draw May 13 at Lower.com Field.
But Ercan Kara pulled the visitors back a goal four minutes into the second half before McGuire’s dramatic late leveling goal.
At Exploria Stadium four months later, it was a second-half goal explosion with the teams scoring a combined four goals in the final 22 minutes of the match in Orlando’s wild 4-3 victory.
Goals by Diego Rossi and Hernandez 12 minutes apart gave the Crew a 3-1 lead in the second half, but Orlando roared back with Facundo Torres pulling the hosts back a goal in the 73rd minute before Ramiro Enrique tied the game in the 86th minute and won it dramatically in the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time.
Saturday, Nov. 25, 8 pm ET
TQL Stadium | Cincinnati, Ohio
What a fun matchup this is! It’s Jim Curtin against his former assistant coach Pat Noonan, it’s the Supporters’ Shield winners in FC Cincinnati against a Philadelphia Union side that finished second in the Shield race a year ago and reached the MLS Cup final.
Fourth-seeded Philadelphia knocked off the New England Revolution in two games in Round One, winning 3-1 at home and 1-0 at Gillette Stadium.
Cincinnati, the top seed, also swept their opening-round opponent, eliminating the New York Red Bulls on penalty kicks following a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes. That came after a comfortable 3-0 home victory in Game 1.
A year ago, the Union beat Cincinnati, 1-0, on the same road courtesy of a Leon Flech goal in the 59th minute.
It was Cincinnati’s first appearance in the MLS Cup playoffs after three consecutive last-place finishes. Now they’re the favorite to win MLS Cup. Two more wins and FC Cincinnati will host the MLS Cup final on Dec. 9, but they’ll have to navigate this semifinal without Matt Miazga, the MLS Defender of the Year, who is serving a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation.
FC Cincinnati beat Philadelphia, 1-0, at TQL Stadium on April 8 with Luciano Acosta, the favorite to win the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award, scoring the lone goal from the penalty spot in the 69th minute.
The scene shifted to Subaru Park in Chester on September 16 where Jose Martinez and Daniel Gazdag gave the Union a 2-0 halftime lead, but Aaron Boupendza and Brandon Vazquez struck for Cincinnati in the second half to secure a 2-2 draw in a match that saw both teams finish with 10 men.
Sunday, Nov. 26, 7 pm ET
Shell Energy Stadium | Houston, Texas
Not sure many had this matchup as a possibility, with Sporting Kansas City needing to get hot late in the season for their uphill climb into the MLS Cup playoffs, while Houston Dynamo FC’s turnaround under first-year coach Ben Olsen is perhaps a bit ahead of schedule.
Eighth-seeded Sporting KC pulled off the only upset of the first round, sweeping new rival St. Louis CITY SC, knocking off the top seed in the Western Conference.
They’ve been the hottest team in the West since May, and they’ve had to be after opening the season on a 10-match winless streak as they were hit with an early injury bug. Alan Pulido has been a big part of the resurgence with the Mexican striker scoring 14 goals en route to winning MLS Comeback Player of the Year.
But they’ll have to not only play this one on the road, but they’ll be without left-back Logan Ndenbe, who suffered a knee injury in the opening round.
Houston had to go the distance — and then some — to beat Real Salt Lake in the first round, advancing on PKs after the sides played to a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes.
It was the second match decided by penalties after RSL staved off elimination in Match 2.
The Dynamo, led by Mexican international Hector Herrera, will be buoyed by hosting this match — they were 11-2-4 at Shell Energy Stadium during the regular season.
In the first of two regular-season meetings, the teams played to a 2-2 draw on July 8 in Houston with Pulido striking for a brace for the visitors and Ivan Franco leveling for the Dynamo in the eighth minute of second-half stoppage time.
At Children's Mercy Park on September 23, SKC prevailed 2-1 despite playing with 10 men for the final 51 minutes after Johnny Russell, who opened the scoring, was sent off in the 39th minute.
Sunday, Nov. 26, 9:30 pm ET
Lumen Field | Seattle Washington
This is the marquee matchup of the conference semifinals, pitting a pair of perennial powerhouses against each other in a winner-take-all 90-minute slugfest.
It was a bit more difficult for the second-seeded Sounders, who beat FC Dallas in three matches, winning the decisive third match 1-0 as Albert Rusnak scored in the first half and Stefan Frei picked up his second shutout of the first round.
LAFC, the defending MLS Cup champions, played the Sounders, who won MLS Cup in 2016 and 2019, to a cagey goalless draw at Lumen Field on March 18 and then won, 1-0, at BMO Stadium, with Mateusz Bogusz scoring the lone goal inside the first minute.
The winner of this match will be considered the favorite when hosting the Western Conference final.