After 520 matches across the regular season and playoffs, we’ve reached the climax of the 2023 MLS season. We look ahead to Saturday’s MLS Cup with our Columbus Crew vs LAFC prediction and preview.
Not since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 and 2012 has a team captured back-to-back MLS Cup titles, but neighbor Los Angeles FC has the chance to do so on Saturday, when visiting Lower.com Field to face the Columbus Crew in the showpiece game of the 2023 Major League Soccer campaign.
LAFC captured the MLS Cup for the first time last year, with former Tottenham and Real Madrid star Gareth Bale scoring a dramatic equalizer deep into stoppage time to force a penalty shootout in a thrilling 3-3 final draw with the Philadelphia Union. Steve Cherundolo’s men won that shootout 3-0 to back up their Supporters’ Shield triumph earlier in 2022, and Bale was able to call time on his career in January having lifted a trophy in his final club game.
Bale may be gone this year, but stars including Carlos Vela, Giorgio Chiellini and Dénis Bouanga have helped LAFC to a second successive showpiece game, with the Houston Dynamo beaten 2-0 in last week’s Western Conference final.
That triumph made Cherundolo just the third manager to lead his team to the MLS Cup Final in each of his first two seasons in the league, joining Bruce Arena (1996-97) and Brian Schmetzer (2016-17). Cherundolo has an impeccable postseason record since arriving in Los Angeles, advancing through his first six playoff ties – only Arena has enjoyed a longer such run at the start of his MLS career, succeeding in his first eight playoff matches.
Cherundolo’s team has been built on a solid defensive record, with only four teams (Nashville SC, Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas and Houston) conceding fewer than LAFC’s 39 goals in 34 regular-season games in 2023. Former Juventus and Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini could have a key role to play in Saturday’s final, and he has enjoyed the battle that has brought them this far.
“We are so happy because last year was a different journey,” Chiellini told Opta Analyst. “We were top of the league all season, had the playoffs for just three games before the World Cup. That was easier.
“This year we pushed harder until June because of the CONCACAF Champions League where we lost the final. We spent a lot of energy on that. Now to lift the cup, we have to win in Columbus, and we know how hard it will be, but we are very happy to be here.”
In attack, LAFC will rely on Golden Boot winner Bouanga, who led the league with 20 regular-season goals this year. He has also scored in both of LAFC’s road playoff games, netting the lone goal in wins over the Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle. The only player in MLS history to score in three consecutive road playoff matches is Ignacio Piatti, who did so for CF Montreal back in 2016.
Looking to stop LAFC from clinching successive titles are the Columbus Crew, who fought back from 2-0 down for a stunning 3-2 extra-time victory against Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference final last week.
Having bettered LAFC’s regular-season record, the Crew will have home advantage for Saturday’s showpiece game, and they have only lost one of their last 29 home matches in all competitions in a run dating back to early August 2022 (20 wins, eight draws).
They have also won five of their six previous one-legged home playoff games, though their lone defeat in such games did come in the 2015 MLS Cup Final against the Portland Timbers.
Boss Wilfried Nancy believes playing at Lower.com Field could be decisive, saying in his pregame press conference: “We will have our fans behind us and there is something different about that – something you cannot explain, but something you feel.
“Knowing that we were able to have a good game away [against Cincinnati], hopefully it’s going to be good at home. We are really happy to be back.”
Their hopes will be carried by former Watford forward Cucho Hernández, who scored 16 regular-season goals and assisted Christian Ramirez’s extra-time winner against Cincinnati last time out.
The Colombian striker has now contributed to a goal in each of his first five MLS Cup Playoff matches (four goals, two assists in total), with only Carlos Ruiz (first eight in 2002 and 2003) and Raúl Ruidíaz (first seven between 2018 and 2020) ever starting their postseason careers with longer such runs.
The Crew have lost all three of their previous games against LAFC by a combined scoreline of 7-0. There has, however, been three instances of a team earning their first-ever win over an opponent in an MLS Cup Final – the Chicago Fire against D.C. United in 1998, Houston versus the New England Revolution in 2007 and Atlanta United against Portland in 2018.
Columbus Crew vs LAFC Opta Player Ratings
Before kickoff in this match, here are the top five performing players from both teams in the 2023 MLS campaign according to the Opta Player Ratings:
Darlington Nagbe: 84.5 (out of 100)
Aidan Morris: 82.6
Lucas Zelarayán: 78.5
Cucho Hernández: 69.3
Alexandru Matan: 67.6
Diego Palacios: 74.6 (out of 100)
Dénis Bouanga: 73.7
Ryan Hollingshead: 72.6
Timothy Tillman: 70.2
Jesús Murillo: 68.4
Opta Power Rankings
The Opta Power Rankings are a global team ranking system that assigns an ability score to over 13,000 domestic football teams on a scale between zero and 100, where zero is the worst-ranked team in the world and 100 is the best team in the world.
Ahead of kick-off this weekend, here’s the Opta Power Ranking for both sides.
Columbus Crew vs LAFC Prediction
LAFC had to endure spot-kicks to win the MLS Cup last year, and if the Opta supercomputer’s predictions are to be believed, a shootout could be required again on Saturday.
The supercomputer simply cannot separate these two teams, with both triumphing in 34.6% of our 10,000 match simulations conducted ahead of kickoff and the remaining 30.8% finishing level and going to extra time and potentially a penalty shootout.