LAFC Host Austin FC in Western Conference Final

This Sunday, October 30, 2022, Los Angeles FC host Austin FC in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Final at Banc of California Stadium at 12:00 p.m. PT as the top two seeds in the west battle for a coveted spot in the MLS Cup Final. It is LAFC’s second conference final and Austin’s first.

This is just the fourth time in 20 years that both No. 1 teams in the league (Philadelphia Union to the East and LAFC to the West) have reached their conference finals. If LAFC or Philadelphia win on Sunday, it will be the first time in 10 years that a No. 1 team reaches the MLS Cup Final. LAFC’s magical 2019 run ended with a 3-1 loss to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, Seattle Sounders, who then went on to win the Cup.

The journey for LAFC this year has been straightforward and foreseen. They tied their own record set in 2019 (their second year in MLS) for the fewest games played prior to clinching a playoff position, qualified for the playoffs by August 20th, then coasted for the majority of the remaining regular season, winning just two of eight matches before hosting LA Galaxy in the Semifinal (as they did in 2019) and defeating them (as they did in 2019). But throughout the season, LAFC dropped below number 1 a few times, and guess what team displaced them each time? Their next opponent, No. 2 seeded Austin FC.

Austin FC’s journey this year has been less predictable. In just their second year, they have taken the western conference by surprise, from finishing in 12 place (24th in the league) in 2021, to a jump by Week 20 to be consistently the No. 2 seed. As a matter of fact, #KeepDoubtingUs, one of their calling cards, is a bitter nod to a chip on their shoulder towards MLS pundits who predicted a 2022 season performance similar to their inaugural year’s 12th place finish.

Unlike life, the path taken doesn’t matter when it comes to the most playoffs. So, even though LAFC rarely diverted from their destination, by the end of the regular season LAFC and Austin FC both ranked second in the league for number of regular season goals scored (just below league leader Philadelphia Union), LAFC had 9 clean sheets while Austin had 8, LAFC’s average attendance ranked 9th in the league and Austin’s ranked 10th. Both teams also defeated their road rivals at home to reach this conference final and, both stadiums erupted with the sound of elated fans as the final whistle blew.

The regular season goals from both LAFC and Austin FC were centered around a few key players. LAFC has relied on the prowess and determination of Cristián “Chicho” Arango, who scored the team high (16), as well as their steadfast captain, Carlos Vela (12), who also led in assists (11). Whereas El Tree’s star forward Sebastián Driussi has led his team with a stunning 22 goals. At a 26% conversion rate, he poses the greatest threat to LAFC. Driussi was also pivotal in Austin’s win against FC Dallas in the conference semifinal.  Maximiliano Urruti registered nine goals, including two from when the Verde hosted LAFC in Texas. But to rest on the laurels and talents of individual players won’t win a championship. They’re too easy to mark or shut down. Case in point was how the sure-footed Diego “Chiqui” Palacios was tamed by Austin on August 26th. Normally, on average, Palacios, the left-back who will likely play for Ecuador in the upcoming World Cup, completes above 85% of his passes and wins most of his duels. Yet, his rate plummeted to 74% (his second lowest of the season) on August 26th. On that fated match day, Austin handed LAFC their largest margin of loss of all season, a clinical 4-1 route. Only Chicho was able to gather up the energy to net the sole goal of the night for the Black and Gold. While disconcerting, one important note here is that this particular match played was during an unusually busy month of 8 games for LAFC.

LAFC could have been contented by the view from the top of the table this summer, but instead they undertook acquiring some of the most aggressive summer transfers of the league. As a result, when Chicho inevitably forces all focus and eyes on him on the pitch, it allows for newcomers Gareth Bale, Cristian Tello and Dénis Bounga to evade distracted defenders.

Bale hasn’t yet seen much time on the pitch, after being touted as the signing sensation of the summer. He debuted in Nashville in an 18-minute stint, where he played a back-heeled pass that wowed supporters. Then he competed for 25-minutes against Sporting Kansas City and notched his first MLS goal. Things were really looking up with his fourth appearance when he helped LAFC to a 4-1 win as a 25-minute substitution. But, in the remaining eight games of the season, of which he only started in two, he didn’t make much difference to their attack. Unfortunately, one of those two matches was the one against Austin FC in August. Then, out due to injury, Bale didn’t even factor in the win against the Galaxy last week. Since arriving, he’s been rumored to be carefully monitoring his fitness and maintaining an injury-free body (he’s injury-prone) so he can represent Wales in Qatar next month. But, this match against Austin would be the perfect venue for redemption, to showcase his dominant physicality and to prove he is truly deserving of that World Cup roster spot.

Meanwhile, Buonga has already proven himself to be an understated signing, overshadowed by his teammates Giorgio Chiellini and Bale. But, unlike them, LAFC’s newest Designated Player has found a sweet spot as a forward alongside Arango and Vela. He not only scored the goal at Portland that guaranteed their 2022 Supporters’ Shield, he then got a brace and set up Chicho’s winning goal in the 93rd minute of the Conference Semifinal against the Galaxy last Thursday.

Adding Kwadwo Opoku and José Cifuentes to the mix, LAFC has a plethora of options in their attack which is notably one of MLS’ best. According to American Soccer Analysis, they’ve stood above the rest of the league, including Philadelphia, for expected goal differential per game. FiveThirtyEight’s updated predictions model puts LAFC at a 49% chance of winning the MLS Cup, whereas Austin FC is at 8%. This doesn’t mean Austin can’t win or won’t upset LAFC as they have already twice this year. It would be quite poetic if Austin, which played and lost their very first MLS match at the Banc of California Stadium, bested their hosts a third time in 2022 and went on to finish as the least likely winners of the MLS Cup of all the current teams remaining in the playoffs. After all, Atlanta United FC did it in their second year too.

As for LAFC, winning the Western Conference would mean everything for a season that would translate into nothing without it. Repeating the fate of 2019 would spell a far deeper disaster for them than it would for Austin to lose this Sunday. Whereas a win, and the rights to host the MLS Cup Final on Saturday, November 5, would solidify LAFC’s stature as a dominant team in Los Angeles. They would finally join the ranks of LA Galaxy and the rest of the (men’s) professional sports teams here as Conference Champions.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x