Only four teams are left in contention for the MLS Cup this season. The Conference finals will determine not only the best teams of the East and West but also which teams will play in the MLS Cup final. Will FC Cincinnati make history? Can LAFC retain it, or will one of the others lift the trophy?
Ohio Derby: FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew
The Eastern Conference title is another chance for MLS fans to witness the ‘Hell is Real’ derby between FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew. When the teams met in the regular season this year, Cincinnati won 3-2 at their home, TQL Stadium, before the Crew won 3-0 at Lower.com Field. Will the venue of TQL Stadium play to Cincinnati’s advantage? Ecuadorian defender Gustavo Vallecilla will be at the heart of this match, having played for Cincinnati before transferring to Columbus ahead of the 2023 campaign, which at the time made the latest soccer headlines in America.
Supporters Shield: Cincinnati Look For More
Is it any wonder that FC Cincinnati is here at this stage? They were statistically the best team in Major League Soccer after the 34-game regular season. Pat Noonan managed his team to 20 wins and 69 points, which was enough to win the Supporter’s Shield, the traditional accolade given to the leading franchise in the overall table. Roman Celentano, the uncapped American keeper, made major contributions in this rise, having kept 12 clean sheets in the season. He was also nominated by the league with the ‘Save of the Season’ award for his last-minute save against…the Columbus Crew in the May 20 game. Could he pull out another top-drawer save in the conference semi-final?
Cucho Hernandez’s Wrecking Crew
If one man has defined MLS Cup playoff success, it’s Cucho Hernández, who’s been making waves in current soccer news. The Colombian forward had already scored 16 goals in the regular season but has truly come alive with another four important goals in the postseason. He’s already scored twice before in the Hell is Real derby, but a winner here cements his legacy in Columbus Crew folklore.
Proud States: California against Texas
Two of the most outwardly facing civic pride states are California and Texas. Citizens of such would prefer to be Californian or Texan rather than American. The Lone Star state has long jostled with the idea of independence from the central government, while the California Republic was a real sovereign country for about three weeks. Either way, pride is on the line as LAFC hosts Houston Dynamo at BMO Stadium. While LAFC finished one point and a singular place above Houston in the Western Conference table, it was the Texas franchise that won both regular season fixtures.
One man caught in the middle of this enormous conference final is the Houston Dynamo right-back Franco Escobar. The Argentine transferred from Los Angeles FC to Houston Dynamo at the start of 2023, having not got the desired game time at BMO Stadium. Having already proved them wrong, he will be eager to put them to the sword by tasting victory against them again. In addition to him, Corey Baird made the same move, albeit two years prior.
Herrera Honours Houston
At the age of 33 and off the back of a lackluster spell with Atletico Madrid, few would have expected Héctor Herrera to have such an impact this season. The Mexican midfielder would set up 17 goals for his teammates, often combining with Corey Baird and Amine Bassi to ensure balls bustled in the back of the net. They’ve also tried to breed the new blood up front by playing with 22-year-old Icelandic striker Thorleifur Úlfarsson, who has also been making contributions to the team.
As the club captain, Herrera has also had to organize the backline behind him. It’s been a collective effort to galvanize the defenders like Daniel Steres and Franco Escobar among others, who’ve made up one of the best defensive units in Major League Soccer this year.
The Mexican leader will be hoping to take the Houston Dynamo back to the big time. The Shell Energy Stadium faithful were accustomed to happier days, having won successive MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007 while making the final in later years, 2011 and 2012. Yet a barren 10-year exile has weighed heavily on the club. They are just one win away from taking to this biggest stage in American soccer. Can Herrera inspire this team to do it?
24 Goals and Counting: Bouanga
Denis Bouanga might have been out the door at BMO Field in early 2023. The Gabonese international hardly featured in the 2022 season when LAFC romped to MLS Cup glory. Steve Cherundolo opted for Kwadwo Opuku and Cristian Arango over Bouanga during that season, yet with both of them leaving in 2023, a spot opened up for Denis. Not wanting to waste his opportunity, he terrorized MLS defenses with 20 goals in the regular season, and he was awarded the Golden Boot as the top goal scorer. Maybe now Lionel Messi is here in MLS, he will contend with Bouanga next year!
Bouanga hasn’t stopped there, however, as he’s scored another four in the postseason playoff to help LAFC to this juncture. This included three goals in the franchise’s two-to-nothing series win against the Vancouver Whitecaps and the winning goal in the conference semifinals at Lumen Field against the Seattle Sounders in a result that shocked recent sports updates.
He’s being backed up by a former Golden Boot and MLS MVP winner, Carlos Vela, who at the age of 34, is taking a much more creative approach to his game, allowing Bouanga to score the goals. At the other end of the pitch, he’s got the prolific Giorgio Chiellini with him, a man who wants to claim his 11th major league title, having already won nine with Juventus and last year’s MLS Cup with LAFC.
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