The 2023 MLS Cup final is set. Los Angeles FC beat the Houston Dynamo, 2-0, Saturday in the Western Conference final, and the Columbus Crew came back to defeat archrival and Supporters Shield winners FC Cincinnati in a 3-2 thriller back East.
As the highest remaining playoff seed based on its regular season record, Columbus will host the defending champions in the league’s 28th title match on Dec. 9 (4 p.m. ET on FOX and FOX Deportes, plus the FOX Sports app).
Here are three quick takeaways from Saturday’s action-packed semifinals.
LAFC’s playoff chops on full display as champs stave off Dynamo
The Dynamo was fully expected to control the bulk of possession during Saturday’s nightcap in Los Angeles, with the hosts content to try to score on counterattacks. But few could have predicted just how dominant the visitors would be with the ball — which they had an astounding 70-plus percent of the match.
Having the ball and making good use of it are different things, though. And on that front, it’s hard to ignore LAFC’s efficiency. Truth be told, Carlos Vela and his team should’ve probably beaten Houston by an even bigger margin after firing 18 shots toward Steve Clark’s goal.
Vela skied a golden early chance and was robbed by the Dynamo keeper on another soon after. But LAFC found the breakthrough before halftime when Clark spilled Giorgio Chiellini’s header and Ryan Hollingshead poked it in from the doorstep.
The home side never looked fazed despite its slim lead, and despite its own backstop, Maxime Crepeau, being forced into a couple of key stops of his own in the second half. When the Dynamo’s Franco Escobar accidentally deflected the ball into his own net with just 10 minutes of regular time left, the outcome was effectively decided.
LAFC didn’t have the greatest regular season. Steve Cherundolo’s side hasn’t even been all that good in its last two playoff games, but still managed to win both. Now they’re back in the final for the second straight season. A year on from hoisting the trophy, LAFC has proved that it knows exactly what it takes to succeed in the playoffs even when not at its best. That’s the mark of a champion — one that won’t give up its crown easily next weekend.
No quit in Columbus as Crew comes back to stun FC Cincinnati
At halftime of Saturday’s instant classic in Cincinnati, the hosts already had one foot in the final. Brandon Vázquez had given FCC an early 1-0 lead before newly crowned MLS MVP Luciano Acosta doubled the advantage with a seeing-eye free kick just before halftime.
FCC was on its way. But young goalkeeper Patrick Schulte kept the Crew in the game with a couple of all-world saves in the second half, and once the visitors pulled one back through an Alvas Powell own goal with 15 minutes to go, the momentum swung almost entirely toward Columbus.
It didn’t help that Cincinnati lost its legs long before that. A cramping Acosta could barely move even before Diego Rossi sent the match to extra time with an 85th-minute strike. But Acosta stayed on the field for the additional half-hour anyway, and with the specter of a penalty kick tiebreaker looming, it was the diminutive Argentinean playmaker’s unforced turnover that started the sequence that led to Christian Ramirez’s game-winner for the Crew:
FCC was the league’s top team all season, but Columbus was flat-out better over 120 minutes on Saturday. Now the club will host MLS’s marquee match for the third time since 2015 with a chance to claim a second MLS Cup in four years. Meantime, Hell is Real for Cincinnati, which joins the long list of regular-season champs to fall short come playoff time. Coach Pat Noonan and his players now have a long winter to wonder how things went so terribly wrong in front of their own fans on Saturday following a near-perfect start.
An MLS Cup that celebrates both history and progress
Given its rich history — Columbus is one of MLS’s original markets and was also the longtime host of the U.S. men’s national team’s quadrennial home World Cup qualifier against Mexico — Ohio’s capital and the gorgeous new soccer stadium that opened there two years ago is a worthy site for the league’s most anticipated annual match.
As two of MLS’s best-run clubs, the Crew and LAFC are deserving finalists, too. The former is looking for its third title after winning it all in 2008 and 2020. The latter is hoping to become the first repeat MLS Cup champion since the Dynamo did it in the mid-aughts. But these two clubs represent more than excellence; the small-market Crew has the history, while big-spending LAFC — just five years removed from its expansion season — continues to set the standard among the league’s recent high-profile entrants.
Next Saturday’s matchup shows that both types of clubs can be successful in the modern era MLS, which is good news for a league that will welcome its 30th club in 2025.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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