It’s that time of year again. After months of hard work, only two teams are left standing, which means it is the 2023 MLS Cup Final. This all-important fixture will be contested between Columbus Crew and last year’s winners LAFC. Thanks to their superior regular-season efforts, the Crew have the advantage of being on home soil (4pm ET; 9pm GMT Saturday).
How did they get to MLS Cup Final 2023?
As many would have expected back at the start of the campaign, both teams qualified for the postseason in relatively straightforward fashion. Columbus Crew finished third in the Eastern Conference, while Los Angeles FC finished third in the Western Conference. For the Crew, it wasn’t exactly plain sailing in the playoffs, though. They needed the third game in their series against Atlanta United, while they needed extra-time against both Orlando and Cincinnati to make it this far. They battled hard and got the job done eventually, earning themselves the right to fight for the title that they won in 2022.
After a few near misses, LAFC clinched their first MLS Cup success a year ago. Right from the word go this time around, Steve Cherundolo’s men looked likely to lay down a serious title defence, which they duly have by making it this far. Thanks to well-managed postseason wins against the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo, the holders are now just one win away from retaining their crown.
Hosts Columbus Crew chirpy at home
Columbus Crew will be absolutely delighted that they’ve got the luxury of fighting for MLS cup glory on home soil. The Crew clinched the title in their own backyard back in 2020, while they have been at their best at home for some time now. Wilfried Nancy’s men were in thunderous offensive form when beating Atlanta United in their last home game, scoring four goals. They have won three home games on the spin, losing none of their last seven, six of which they have won. If this MLS Cup Final preview looks only at their Major League Soccer games at home, then the Crew are unbeaten in 14, only three of which they have failed to win.
What’s really impressive is the fact that they’ve scored two or more goals in 12 of those 14 home games. During the regular season, only Atlanta United scored more Eastern Conference home goals than the Columbus Crew, who scored 41 in 17 games, notching an average of 2.41. The question is, can they defend well enough on the biggest stage?
Visitors LAFC tough on their travels
The problem for the hosts may be that they are up against an LAFC team that has developed a habit of keeping things nice and tight, even away from home. Cherundolo’s men come into this game off the back of a treble of clean sheets, while they have also shut their opponents out in each of their last two on the road, keeping a clean sheet in four of their last six away games.
If this preview looks back to the regular season, we can see LAFC had one of the best away defensive records in not just the Western Conference but across all of Major League Soccer. Only two teams in each conference conceded less goals. In the Western Conference, only two teams conceded fewer expected goals, which is also worth noting. The fact that the Los Angeles team surrendered an average of just 1.11 xG demonstrates that they didn’t make a habit of allowing teams to create chances. What’s more, no team in either of the Major League Soccer conferences ended the regular campaign with a better xG difference, which is a very telling stat.
As they operate in separate conferences, the pair don’t meet often. They did not face each other during the regular season in 2023, which means that they have not met on the field since May 2022. On that occasion, LAFC won by two goals to nil in Columbus, extending their perfect record against the Crew. In total, since 2018, the teams have played against each other three times, with LAFC securing victory on each occasion. Interestingly, Saturday’s visitors have never conceded a goal against the Crew. Can they keep that up in such a high-pressure fixture?
Visitors can retain their crown
This absolutely is a tough test for both teams, but the current MLS Cup holders may just be better equipped to deal with that. They really have looked solid in all areas, while they have shown lots of defensive quality in recent weeks, which could be the difference. After all, the hosts, as good as they have been, have been relatively easy to get at.
Moreover, the biggest games call for the most experience, and with several of the team that fought hard to secure the title a year ago still in the side, LAFC certainly have an edge in that respect. In Giorgio Chiellini at the back, they have one of the most experienced leaders in world football. Again, that could make all the difference in a game of this nature. The Italian’s presence at the heart of the LAFC backline has made life tough for opposing attacks in the playoffs.
If this game becomes and end-to-end clash, one that lacks discipline, then the Crew have the personnel to thrive. The visitors may just be too wily to allow that, and if they can continue to keep things tight and rely on their super experienced captain Carlos Vela to pull the strings in offense, as he has done for so long now in MLS, then they can get the job done and retain their title.
To be honest, when we factor everything in, betting on Saturday’s visitors, LAFC, to win MLS Cup (ie: lift the trophy) with the best USA bookies, which you can do by selecting ‘Los Angeles FC to Qualify,’ is hard to resist at what surely goes down as a slightly generous price. So for the MLS Cup Final 2023 betting picks and predictions, this preview suggests the one wager: