After a grueling 34 game season and two rounds of playoff action, we are at the conference finals in the 2021 MLS season. The record-breaking New England Revolution are out, whilst the seventh-seed Real Salt Lake are continuing their fairytale journey to lifting the trophy. So, which teams remain in the race to win the MLS Cup?
Let’s start with the seventh-seed Salt Lake. With 95 minutes played on decision day in the Western Conference, the Claret and Cobalt looked to be finishing their season after 34 games. However, RSL has had an affinity for the dramatic in 2021. Damir Kreilach prodded home after 95 minutes to eliminate LA Galaxy from playoff contention and send Salt Lake to the postseason.
Due to being the seventh-seed, Freddy Juarez’s side drew an away playoff game against the second-seed Seattle Sounders. They managed to escape Lumen Field with a victory and only 37% possession – securing a 6-5 penalty shootout win.
Salt Lake was the only road team to win during the first round of playoff action.
The Red and Blue Army’s impressive road form continued in the second round of the playoffs. They visited Sporting Kansas City (the team they defeated on decision day) and relied on late drama to extend their playoff berth. After SKC’s talisman Johnny Russell opened the scoring from the penalty spot, Anderson Julio bagged the equalizer with just under twenty minutes to play. Step up Bobby Wood. The former Hamburg striker was substituted on and nicked the winner after 91 minutes.
Real Salt Lake now plays the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference final.
Portland took on Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs.
The away side would take the lead after Franco Fragapane finished impressively past Steve Clarke after ten minutes. But the Timbers would dominate the remainder of the game. Central defender Larrys Mabiala equalized before half-time, whilst a Sebastian Blanco brace confirmed Giovanni Savarese’s side made it to the second round.
Despite not being as dramatic as Salt Lake, the Portland Timbers required a late winner to make the Western Conference final. They were matched with the Colorado Rapids. The Rapids may have gotten a first-round bye, but it would be the Timbers with the late burst to win the fixture. Centre-back turned goal scorer Larrys Mabiala would net his second of the playoffs in the 90th minute to send them through.
New York secured the fourth seed on decision day, and they played Atlanta in the first round. MLS golden boot winner Valentin Castellanos’ scoring streak didn’t stop in the postseason. The Argentine scored the game’s opener after 49 minutes and Alexander Callens finished the game four minutes later. Alan Franco was dismissed in the 93rd minute for Atlanta and City advanced.
After their home win, NYCFC drew the toughest tie of the playoffs, supporters shield winners the New England Revolution. They got off to a perfect start in New England, a goal after three minutes from Santiago Rodriguez. Yet, the Revolution's Polish forward Adam Buksa netted six minutes later to level.
In extra-time, Castellanos thought he’d won the game with an impressive header from close range. But he would be sent off just moments later for a second yellow card and allow the Revolution to level the game through Tajon Buchanan. Sean Johnson saved Adam Buksa’s penalty to send the New York side through.
The final playoff team is the Philadelphia Union. They played the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the playoffs and would advance via a 120th-minute winner from defender Jakob Glesnes. The Norwegian’s volley flew into the top corner in extra time to send the Union through.
After their incredible finish in the first round, the Union had to play to penalties in the second round. Nashville’s star midfielder Hany Mukhtar pegged the Union back early in the first half but an equalizer from Daniel Gazdag in stoppage time left the game at 1-1. The two sides couldn’t be separated in normal time, but four-straight misses from Nashville in additional time set up NYCFC vs Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference final.
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