Philadelphia Union advance to MLS Cup, and the playoffs finally deliver a perfect outcome

Oct 30, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA;  Philadelphia Union forward Cory Burke (19) reacts after scoring a goal against the New York City in the second half for the conference finals for the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. Mandatory Credit: Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
Cory Burke celebrates his clinching goal for the Union. (Photo: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports)

The captivating thing about playoffs, regardless of level or sport, is that the best teams do not always win. Such is the unpredictability of complex games played by fallible beings. And unpredictability sells. It's the source of drama. It's why Major League Soccer has chosen to differ from foreign leagues and use a single-elimination tournament to determine its champion.

For a decade, though, it also became MLS' problem.

The tournament welcomed half the league, and almost invariably disposed of top seeds. Only one even reached MLS Cup between 2012 and 2021. The two conference winners, on average, won just over one postseason game per year. The regular season felt increasingly irrelevant, and the playoffs almost too unpredictable and random.

Until, that is, LAFC and the Philadelphia Union came along in 2022.

They were the class of MLS all season. And on Sunday, they booked a landmark date in a must-see final. LAFC trounced Austin. The Union stormed back from a goal down to oust New York City FC, 3-1. They'll meet on Saturday in Los Angeles (4 p.m. ET, Fox) at the rightful conclusion of a postseason that, for the first time in 19 years, delivered the best of both worlds.

It delivered drama, as the MLS playoffs so often do. All six first-round matches were decided by a second-half goal. In the quarters, LAFC beat their crosstown rivals, the LA Galaxy, in one of the greatest games the league has ever seen. And in the semis, in Chester, Pennsylvania, just outside the current sports capital of America, the Union produced the greatest night in their club's history.

NYCFC's Maxi Moralez had grounded a jumping Philly crowd in the 57th minute. He polished off a lovely back-to-front sequence with a precise finish. A few minutes later, MLS goalkeeper of the year Andre Blake had to stand tall to keep out a second.

But the Union, unfazed, responded with the type of quality that had run roughshod over MLS for much of the season. Julián Carranza caught NYCFC napping, ever so momentarily, and latched onto a quick free kick to equalize. Just two minutes later, he set up Daniel Gazdag for the winner. Subaru Park exploded. Tension flew into the frigid October air.

Cory Burke sealed the deal with a relentless run through the New York midfield and defense. Blake sprinted the length of the field to join the maniacal celebrations.

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

The problem, for so long, was that the playoffs hadn't produced days like this coming Saturday. The conference winners haven't met in MLS Cup since 2003, when eight of the league's 10 teams made the postseason. Randomness had reigned and deflated both the regular season and the latter stages of the knockouts.

The Union, in recent years, exemplified the madness. A superteam crafted on a shoestring budget, they've finished among the top two in the Eastern Conference each of the past three seasons. But they lost to a No. 8 seed in 2020. They lost most of their starting lineup to COVID ahead of last year's conference final, and succumbed to the No. 4 seed, the eventual champions, NYCFC.

The MLS Cup finals those years were exciting, but not best-against-best, and therefore somewhat underwhelming.

This one will be overwhelming. It will bring together the two teams who deserved to be here, but who had to fight like mad to get here. It will be loud, and tense, and dazzling. It has been, and will be, everything MLS has ever desired.