Analysis: Thoughts on conference final as Columbus & LAFC prevail
December 04, 2023
THE MLS CUP CONFERENCE Finals took place over the weekend with the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles FC advancing to the league’s title game. Both of the winners were clearly deserved and, in the end, it went on to show that expensive attacking designated players are what usually prevails in the end. The regular season is about depth, and the playoffs are about spending money on scoring goals.
Of course, that’s not the only factor at play. There are plenty of teams that spend money on attacking players who didn’t even make this stage – like Atlanta United, Real Salt Lake, Portland – just to name a few. There is a huge need for a supporting cast and great coaching. But the big takeaway is that what wins in the regular season and what wins in the playoffs are two different approaches. Winning and coaching when there is no tomorrow with a loss requires bolder decision making from coaches, and more intensity from players.
Here are my thoughts on both games.
Crew win thriller over Cincinnati
This game was very hyped all last week and it lived up to it. It wasn’t exactly last year’s MLS Cup, but it was a good game. By now, everyone knows what happened. Cincinnati took a 2-0 lead just before halftime with both goals scored by the team’s best offensive players, Brandon Vazquez and then Luchiano Acosta.
It’s 2-0 at HT but for the last 30 minutes, it really seemed like Columbus was much more likely to equalize than Cincinnati was to get a 2nd. But Acosta struck on a ball that seemed as if Schulte could have saved it. Looking good for #AllForCincy pic.twitter.com/16r3mwX9zm— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) December 3, 2023
But then Columbus rallied and bringing in Christian Ramirez in the 65th minute was a huge move. The center forward forced an own goal from Alvas Powell in the 75th minute. Diego Rossi equalized in the 86th minute and then Ramirez found a winner in the 115th minute as he was set up by Cucho Hernandez.
LATE. GREAT. DIEGO MAGIC ???? pic.twitter.com/M6qjxbtKzz— The Crew (@ColumbusCrew) December 3, 2023
But here are some thoughts on it all.
Nancy won the coaching battle
One key point to make is that while Cincinnati built up a 2-0 lead in the first half, it was the Crew which was carrying the run of play. Cincinnati’s goals (at least the second goal) were against the run of play.
But Wilfried Nancy was brilliant in his coaching on three fronts. First, he kept his team calm at halftime despite surrendering a second goal just before the whistle. Second, he identified where the team needed to make changes to get goals and turn positive play into production. Finally, he was willing to make bold changes to make this happen. It required taking off Aidan Morris, who was playing well, to change the formation while also bringing in Ramierz to play with Hernandez and Rossi. That proved to be too much for Cincinnati to handle.
What a Crew ???? pic.twitter.com/8glVxTYDdz— The Crew (@ColumbusCrew) December 3, 2023
“A difficult one to be honest with you because Aidan was playing a good game,” Nancy said of the change. “Tactically, I needed to change something. I needed to have more players between the lines. That's why I decided to put Christian and Julian [Gressel] in also to give us something different. It was a difficult call, but I'm here also for that. It worked. Sometimes, it doesn't work. This time it worked so I'm happy.”
Meanwhile, Cincinnati and Pat Noonan had no response to Columbus growing into the game. At one point, it seemed as if the appropriate decision for Noonan to make would have been to substitute out Luchiano Acosta, the MLS MVP. But he did not make that decision and it hurt the team.
Coaching is about finding solutions, keeping players on the same page, and making tough decisions. Columbus did that, Cincinnati did not.
Miazga was missed
There was a lot of talk about Matt Miazga’s suspension leading up to this game for entering the referee room after the game in New Jersey following the first round. Cincinnati fans were hopeful that their depth would carry them through as it did against Philadelphia. But in the end, when the games become more intense and the attacking talent is just better, losing the Defender of Year becomes even more critical. Cincinnati had no shot defending Cucho, Ramierz, and Rossi.
You could see that on the final goal. It was a defensive breakdown that Miazga would have helped to avoid.
It was a tough lesson for Cincinnati (and for St. Louis earlier in the playoffs) about regular season vs. playoffs. The individual awards (MVP, defender of the year, coach of the year) are nice but the requirements of the playoffs are different. For Miazga, it’s just about being able to show up.
Columbus favored in MLS Cup
Regardless of who won the West, Columbus would be the favorite in MLS Cup. Defeating Atlanta, then Orlando on the road, and finally Cincinnati on the road is just a telling sign of a team that is firing on all cylinders. Now they will return home and have the benefit of their supporters.
ONE MORE. Our work week starts now ???? pic.twitter.com/8HMgo94suJ— The Crew (@ColumbusCrew) December 4, 2023
LAFC has experience and can also win on the road, but it’s very difficult to repeat and Columbus seems like the team to beat and a team that was built for this moment.
LAFC downs Houston
The Western Conference final played out mostly as expected without much drama. Houston controlled possession, as was expected with their terrific midfield, but it was LAFC that had almost all of the dangerous chances. Houston’s best chance came from Corey Baird whose shot was saved nicely by Maxime Crepeau in the sixth minute.
But all of the good chances were from LAFC. Timothy Tillman hit the crossbar in the opening minutes. Carlos Vela had a goal called back for offside. Denis Bouanga forced a great save from Steve Clark.
It always seemed as if LAFC was going to wear them down, and that is what happened. Just before halftime, Giorgio Chiellini’s header off a corner forced a save from Clark, and it was Ryan Hollingshead who put in the rebound.
Then in the 80th minute, a Diego Palacios cross resulted in an own goal from Franco Escobar, the hero in the last round against Sporting KC.
Here are some thoughts.
Crepeau and Chiellini
With all the attention on LAFC’s attacking talent, this game would have been far different if not for Crepeau and Chiellini. Crepeau still had to make five saves in this game, but it was that first save off Baird which turned out to have made a big difference. That was a tough save and if it went in, it would have changed the approach of Houston after going up a goal on the road.
At this point, what else can you say about Chiellini that hasn’t already been said? If the game is open, he has problems. But if LAFC can sit back and not play with a high-line, Chiellini can outthink just about anyone on the field.
Looking ahead to next week, it is going to be very interesting to see how Chiellini handles Rossi, Hernandez, and Ramirez. Those players will be more ruthless than anything they have faced so far in the playoffs, by far.
Houston’s impressive season
It was a great season for Houston, who made it further than anyone expected and exceeded all expectations under new manager Ben Olsen. But now comes the hard part. How much are they willing to spend for upgrades? Is Hector Herrera going to decline quickly as he gets older? His production was a massive part of what Houston wanted to do.
Olsen seemed to know what was needed as the gap between them and LAFC was noticeable.
2022: 13th in the West— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 28, 2023
2023: Western Conference Final@HoustonDynamo's turnaround year rolls on.
“When you play against the best you see it very clearly, some of your deficiencies,” Olsen stated. “You always want to add better players, more competition for spots, get bigger, faster, stronger, better."
They’re going to need central defenders, a striker, and midfield depth to take the load off Herrera. But the culture of the team is strong and they didn’t just win, they were one of the most fun teams to watch in the league in 2023.