CCL win and major upsets: The 5 most important games MLS teams played in 2022

Quick Hits
  • With only a month left in the 2022 MLS regular season, we’re looking back on five of the most important games that MLS teams have played this season
  • From the Concacaf Champions League Final to some wild regular season matches, there have been a number of memorable games
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It’s after Labor Day, which means all the kids are back in school telling their friends on the playground about how crazy this MLS season has been. So when they see Johnny and Carlos at the monkey bars, what games from the past year are they going to talk about? Don’t worry, I have you covered with some iron-clad MLS street cred. 

Looking back at the year so far, I picked out five of the most important games involving MLS teams in 2022.

There is some recency bias here because of how much parity there’s been this year. With most teams having only a few games left, there are only two teams, LAFC and the Philadelphia Union, that have clinched playoff spots. In addition, there aren’t any clubs that are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. We’ve only begun to see the ripples of clarity.

Now, with that out of the way, on to the games!

Seattle Sounders vs. Pumas UNAM

Date: May 4, 2022

Result: 3-0 (5-2 on aggregate)  

Oh come on, you already know we’re starting with the Champions League.

With all of the improvements that MLS has made on the field in recent years, Liga MX’s dominance in the Concacaf Champions League has been a sore spot for MLS partisans. How could MLS possibly become one of the best leagues in the world when it wasn’t even the most popular soccer league in the United States? Beating a Liga MX team in the CCL final would be a useful step towards reversing that narrative.

This year, the American hope for a CCL title was pinned on the Seattle Sounders. Seattle reached the final after a wildly entertaining victory over NYCFC, back when we all thought the matchup pitted the best two teams in MLS against each other. How naive we were.

Historically, Liga MX teams routinely outclassed their MLS counterparts. But Seattle was fortunate enough to play Pumas, who had just finished the 2022 Liga MX Clausura in 11th place, in the final. 

After a 2-2 tie during the first leg in Mexico City, Seattle needed a win at home to secure the title. The game didn’t start well for the Sounders with both left back Nouhou Tolo and defensive midfielder Joao Paulo needing early injury substitutions. But Seattle clawed their way to a 3-0 victory, courtesy of two goals from Raul Ruidiaz and one from Jordan Morris.

The Sounders certainly deserve credit for this historic feat, but winning CCL isn’t the only reason why this game is on the list: Seattle have experienced some major on-field problems this year, partially stemming from their CCL run. They’ve dealt with injuries, poor early season results, and more. Sitting in ninth place in the West, their playoff appearance streak might be snapped this year.

Seattle are the first MLS team to achieve CCL glory, but they’ve continued the long tradition of the league’s CCL participants being cursed during the regular season.

Philadelphia Union vs. NYCFC

Date: June 26, 2022

Result: 2-1, Philadelphia

The New York City FC/Philadelphia Union rivalry has quietly become one of the most heated in recent MLS history. Both teams perennially hover near the top of the Eastern Conference and play with aggressive, antithetical styles, which adds fuel to the fire.

The 2022 season started off with NYCFC as one of the favorites to lift MLS Cup for the second-straight season. The Pigeons also had visions of a serious CCL run after convincing Taty Castellanos to put off a transfer until the summer. The Union, on the other hand, rocketed near the top of the early season Eastern Conference table without the early season burden of the CCL.

Eager to make up for their loss in the Eastern Conference final in 2021, the Union beat the CCL-focused New York City 2-0 in early March. However, the June 26 return match in Chester was even more intense. With first place in the East up for grabs, question marks surrounded NYCFC with manager Ronny Deila leaving during the international break for Standard Liege in Belgium.

The Union struck first with Alejandro Bedoya flaring out wide to hit a great grounded cross to Mikael Uhre, who beat his man to the near-post. As NYCFC attempted to battle back, the game went completely off the rails. Tempers flared when Philadelphia Union trainer Paul Rushing was shown a red card in the 79th minute after shoving New York City’s Nicolas Acevedo. 

10 minutes after the dust-up, NYCFC drew a handball PK in the box, which Taty Castellanos buried past Andre Blake.

After Taty’s equalizer, momentum swung towards Philadelphia with the Union pushing for the go-ahead goal. In dramatic fashion, a long-range Jose Martinez shot deflected past Sean Johnson in the last minute of injury time to give the Union a 2-1 victory and sole possession of the Eastern Conference’s top spot.

Since their meeting back in June, these two teams have gone in completely different directions. Philadelphia have become indisputable members of the league’s elite and are within striking distance of the Supporters’ Shield. NYCFC, for their part, have spiraled into a desperate place. They’ve lost six of their last eight games, dealt with injuries, and lost Castellanos to Europe. 

The lesson? Make sure your trainer gets into an altercation on the field.

Austin FC vs. LAFC

Date: August 27, 2022

Result: 4-1, Austin 

LAFC have been the best team in MLS all season. Even before the summer transfer window, they had it all:

  • Talented attackers with Carlos Vela, Cristian Arango, Brian Rodriguez, and Kwadwo Opoku
  • The best midfield in MLS with Jose Cifuentes, Illie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta, and Latif Blessing
  • Incredible defensive depth with Ryan Hollingshead, talented youngsters like Diego Palacios and Mamadou Fall, and four starting calibur center backs.

And that was before LAFC added European legends Gareth Bale and Georgio Chiellini, shuffled their squad, moved a few of the above players, and signed two more attackers in Cristian Tello and Denis Bouanga. Coming into this game against Austin FC, many wondered if anyone in MLS could stop them from steamrolling the rest of their opponents this year.

But games aren’t played on paper…and if any team breathes the “games aren’t played on paper” mantra, it is Austin. Last week, I wrote about how Austin are breaking expected goals models. They’ve beaten LAFC twice this year, once in May and then again in late August with a 4-1 demolition of their Western Conference rivals. 

According to FiveThirtyEight, LAFC are still the favorites to win the Supporters’ Shield. But with Austin breathing down their necks in the West, the road to MLS Cup won’t be easy.

Nashville SC vs. Austin FC

Date: September 3, 2022

Result: 3-0, Nashville 

At the start of the season, I thought Nashville’s move from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference would help their trophy chances. With LAFC and Seattle as the only real contenders out West, it looked like Nashville would improve in 2022.  

But for large parts of this year, they weren’t all that impressive. That is, outside of having the best player in MLS in Hany Mukhtar. 

No player has been more important to their team than Muhktar this year. Without him, Nashville’s offense would hardly exist: the German attacker has 21 of Nashville’s 48 goals and is downright nasty on the break. After recording his second hat trick against Colorado on August 31, the Mukhtar for MVP talk started to heat up. Mukhtar was leading the league in combined goals and assists and was only behind Austin FC’s Sebastian Driussi in the Golden Boot race.

Fast forwarding to early September, we had a made-for-TV matchup last week between Mukhtar’s Nashville and Driussi’s Austin. Mukhtar grabbed the spotlight in the second half of his team’s 3-0 win, scoring two goals to take the Golden Boot lead and secure 3 points for Nashville.

When we look back on 2022, this game will be remembered as the crescendo that won Mukhtar this year’s MLS Most Valuable Player award. More importantly for Nashville, the win pushed them into fourth place in the Western Conference. As NYCFC showed last year in the East, getting hot before the playoffs can lead to a trophy.

Toronto FC vs. CF Montreal

Date: September 4, 2022

Result: 4-3, Montreal  

For better or worse, Toronto FC is the Canadian team that’s dominated the headlines this season. At the start of the year, it was because of how bad they were. Then, the headlines changed to talk about how they splashed the cash to sign superstars Federico Bernardeschi from Juventus and Lorenzo Insigne from Napoli. Now, the headlines are about whether TFC can still push themselves above the playoff line in the East.

CF Montreal might not be as flashy as their Canadian rivals, but they have been consistently among the best in the Eastern Conference in 2022. Toronto FC have big names, but Montreal’s Djordje Miihailovic (one of the league’s most dangerous players off the ball) and Romell Quioto (who leads Montreal with a career-high 15 goals) are the players who deserve consideration for this year’s Best XI.

The push and pull between these two teams set the stage for an excellent 401 Derby at the start of September. 

This game had an absolutely bonkers first half. First, Toronto went up early due to a clinical penalty from Federico Bernardeschi and a world-class volley from Lorenzo Insigne. But Montreal didn’t back down. They responded with three unanswered goals from Kamal Miller, Miihailovic, and the ageless Kei Kamara. Both sides added goals in the second half, but by then the statement had already been made by Montreal, who earned a 4-3 win.

With a full offseason to retool, Toronto may be among the best in the Eastern Conference next season. Montreal, however, are true contenders this season.