Major League Soccer is in a hurry to crown its champion this season, with its final set for Nov. 5 — just over two weeks before the World Cup opens in Qatar. The final sprint, which begins with four quarterfinals this week, includes some marquee matches that will offer some players a final opportunity (or two or three) to impress national team coaches before the final rosters for the World Cup are due in mid-November.
This year’s playoffs feature two previous M.L.S. Cup champions (the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York City F.C.) and two teams (Austin F.C. and F.C. Cincinnati) that are making their first appearance in the postseason. But the postseason also has tracked closely with regular-season results: The top four teams in the Western Conference are still alive, as are four of the top five from the East.
Philadelphia and Los Angeles F.C., which earned first-round byes by finishing first in their conferences, entered the postseason at last on Thursday. Philadelphia beat fifth-seeded F.C. Cincinnati, 1-0, on Leon Flach’s first goal of the year, and L.A.F.C. hosts its crosstown rival, the Los Angeles Galaxy.
On Sunday, New York City F.C., the league’s defending champion, will play C.F. Montreal, and F.C. Dallas will meet Austin F.C. in an all-Texas affair.
The conference semifinals, which are single-game elimination matches, start on Thursday and will wrap up on Sunday. The conference finals are scheduled for Oct. 30, and the M.L.S. Cup final is set for Nov. 5 — the earliest date for the game in league history. The final will be played at the home of the finalist with the best regular-season record.
Here’s a quick catch-up of where things stand.
The Battle of Los Angeles
L.A.F.C., which won the Supporters’ Shield for posting the league’s best regular-season, will begin what it hopes is a home-field run to the M.L.S. Cup on Thursday night, when it hosts the crosstown Los Angeles Galaxy at Banc of California Stadium. The venue has been a formidable challenge for visitors: L.A.F.C. went 13-2-2 there this season.
L.A.F.C.’s first playoff test, though, like all games in the teams’ nascent rivalry, brings the potential for fireworks. The last time the two Los Angeles teams played each other in a playoff game was in 2019, when L.A.F.C. won, 5-3, in one of the highest-scoring playoff games in M.L.S. history.
Road Team F.C.
New York City F.C. is trying to become the first team to win consecutive M.L.S. Cups since the Galaxy did it in 2011 and 2012. But unlike L.A.F.C., its path to the final — for now — looks to be a road trip.
As long as the Yankees remain alive in Major League Baseball’s playoffs, N.Y.C.F.C. will be unable to play on its regular home field at Yankee Stadium. That proved to be little trouble in the first round, when the team beat Inter Miami, 3-0, at Citi Field in Queens. On Sunday, New York City F.C. will head to Montreal for a conference semifinal. The winner will play top-seeded Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the quest for another title, N.Y.C.F.C. will count on a pair of Brazilians, Gabriel Pereira and Héber, who each scored eight goals in the regular season, and the potential of a return from injury of Talles Magno. Those three, and midfielder Santiago Rodríguez, have helped fill the offensive hole left by the midseason departure of last season’s leading scorer, the Argentine striker Valentín Castellanos, who joined the Spanish side Girona F.C. on a loan in July.
N.Y.C.F.C. has been led since June by an interim coach, Nick Cushing, who took over after Ronny Deila left to join Standard Liège in Belgium. The team wobbled badly after the change, losing seven of nine games in August and September, but it closed the season with three straight wins.
Montreal, meanwhile, might be the hottest team in the league: It has lost only once since July.
Final World Cup Auditions
For some players, the playoffs offer more than just a shot at the M.L.S. Cup title. A number of players also are playing knowing that national team coaches will be watching.
One player looking to lock down his spot — and some playing time — ahead of the World Cup is the 21-year-old forward Jesus Ferreira of F.C. Dallas. Ferreira, who was just named this season’s M.L.S. young player of the year, led Dallas with 18 goals in 33 games. He is in contention for a striker role for the United States, but a poor showing in a friendly against Japan in September didn’t help his case. A good run of playoff form, however, might help restore his confidence, and his place in U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter’s plans.
Another American hopeful is N.Y.C.F.C.’s goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who posted 14 shutouts during the regular season and started every game for New York. Johnson has an outside shot at making the roster and going to Qatar, even if he is not likely to be a starter.
Ismaël Koné, a 20-year-old midfielder for Montreal, is looking to earn a spot on Canada’s national team, which will be returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Koné scored two goals and had five assists for Montreal during the regular season, and he scored a key goal in Montreal’s 2-0 victory over Orlando City in the first round of the playoffs.