Philadelphia Union advances to the MLS Cup and the playoffs finally deliver a perfect score


Cory Burke celebrates his crucial goal for the Union. (Photo: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports)

The fascinating thing about playoffs, no matter the level or sport, is that the best teams don’t always win. This is the unpredictability of complex games played by fallible beings. And unpredictability sells. It’s the source of the drama. Because of this, Major League Soccer chose to differentiate itself from foreign leagues and use a single-elimination tournament to determine their champion.

For a decade, however, it became a problem for MLS as well.

The tournament welcomed half the league and featured top seeds almost without exception. Only one even reached the MLS Cup between 2012 and 2021. The two conference winners averaged just over one postseason game per year. The regular season felt increasingly irrelevant and the playoffs almost to unpredictable and random.

By 2022 LAFC and the Philadelphia Union were added.

They were the class of MLS all season. And on Sunday they booked a milestone in a must-see final. LAFC beat Austin. The Union stormed back after a goal and defeated New York City FC 3-1. They meet in Los Angeles on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, Fox) in the rightful conclusion of a postseason that, for the first time in 19 years, will see the best of both worlds delivered worlds.

It delivered drama, as the MLS playoffs so often do. All six first-round games were decided by a goal in the second half. In the quarterfinals, LAFC defeated its crosstown rival, LA Galaxy, in one of the biggest games the league has ever seen. And in the semi-finals in Chester, Pennsylvania, just outside of what is now America’s sporting capital, Union put on the biggest night in their club’s history.

NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez had grounded a jumping Philly crowd in the 57th minute. He completed a beautiful back-to-front sequence with a precise finish. A few minutes later, MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake had to stand tall to save a second.

But Union responded unimpressed with the kind of quality MLS had trampled on for much of the season. Julián Carranza caught NYCFC taking a brief nap and leveled with a quick free-kick. Just two minutes later he set up Daniel Gazdag for the winner. Subaru Park exploded. There was tension in the cold October air.

Cory Burke sealed the deal with a relentless run through New York’s midfield and defence. Blake sprinted across the field to join the maddening celebrations.

The scenes were unlike anything a regular season can deliver, unless the stars align on the final day. They were a product of do-or-die scenarios that had ended in literal death in Philly for so long—but had finally breathed vibrant life. They’re why this league has, and maybe needs, playoffs.

The problem has long been that Saturday’s playoffs didn’t produce days like this one. The conference winners have not met in the MLS Cup since 2003, when eight of the league’s ten teams made the postseason. Chance had reigned, draining both the regular season and the final stages of the knockouts.

The Union has been an example of madness in recent years. A super team put together on a tight budget, they’ve finished in the top two in the Eastern Conference for the past three seasons. But they lost to a No. 8 in 2020. They lost most of their starting lineup to COVID ahead of last year’s conference finals, losing to No. 4, eventual champions NYCFC.

The MLS Cup finals in those years were exciting but not best-versus-best and therefore a little disappointing.

This one will be overwhelming. It will bring together the two teams that deserved to be here but had to fight like crazy to get here. It gets loud and tense and blinding. It was and will be everything MLS ever wanted.

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