The MLS Cup playoffs delivered more drama and excitement in the conference finals as Columbus Crew stunned FC Cincinnati in a thrilling 3-2 comeback win and defending champions LAFC cruised against Houston Dynamo in a 2-0 victory.
Now, the the stage is set for the MLS Cup final between Columbus and LAFC on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET. ESPN's Cesar Hernandez and Megan Swanick recap the main takeaways after a fun weekend of MLS playoff action.
Crew 3-2 Cincinnati: Columbus deliver wild comeback under visionary coach
When all is said and done this year, Saturday's 3-2 comeback bout between Ohio rivals FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew may be remembered as the best match of the year. Certainly, it holds sway as the most riveting playoff joust of 2023.
On one side, Coach of the Year Pat Noonan's turnaround titans (ending their fifth season with the best record in Major League Soccer, after three wooden spoons graced their inaugural years) looked ready to take their Cinderella story straight through to the final. But Wilfried Nancy's adaptations, dominant play, and deep bench of talent had other plans.
Alongside the entrance of Christian Ramírez in the 65th minute -- taking impact substitution to legendary levels as he involved himself in all three response goals -- the MLS originals powered themselves to victory through the wit of a philosopher coach and a deep bench of talent.
A GOAL FOR COLUMBUUUUUUS pic.twitter.com/KzS7hLc03B— The Crew (@ColumbusCrew) December 3, 2023
Early in the season, the newly appointed French manager of Ohio's veteran club sat down with The Athletic to describe his vision.
Nancy said "For me, whether you make the playoffs or not is a consequence of what you do on the pitch. For me, the fact that my staff and I are clear about what we want to do, I put the outcome on the side. The outcome is a consequence of what we do on the pitch. And the first thing to do on the pitch is to propose (a philosophy.) Offensively, to propose something, and defensively to propose something."
Holding fast to the belief that results are downwind from performance, style, and vision, Nancy oversaw a team that held more possession than any other team in Major League Soccer this year. (They also scored the most goals: 67). Against Cincinnati, it was the same. FCC chased and countered. The Crew made comfortable use of the ball.
Cincinnati were clinical with their chances, and led 2-0 at the half. But Columbus were the better team. Eventually, Nancy's focus on how they played proved wise. The Crew's style held fast as time wore on and Cincinnati wore down. As depth arrived, so too did the win.
Player performances were commendable across the lines for Columbus Crew. Darlington Nagbe will deservedly go down as among the best MLS players to grace North America's soccer fields. In tears at the final whistle, Nagbe's midfield production last Saturday would shock the mind if we weren't so accustomed to his dynamism. Cucho Hernández stayed off the scoresheet but was among the best players on the pitch, unselfishly assisting the game-winning goal.
After losing a star talent in Lucas Zelarayán to the Saudi League this summer, the Crew already showed their agility and depth in the evolution of their starting line-up. Diego Rossi made his mark on the latter half of the Crew's season, and had the game-tying goal Saturday night.
But the headline impact came from the bench. Once again, Ramirez subbed into the match to power his team to victory with the decisive goal in extra time. He was joined by Julian Gressel, who subbed in by his side in the 65th minute and helped coordinate the comeback.
The pair were both involved in the first response goal: an own goal from Alvas Powell in the 75th minute. Then, 11 minutes later, they were involved in the lead up to Rossi's equalizer. And with just minutes to spare before penalties, Ramirez found a ball in from Hernandez at the back post, heading home the winner in the 115th minute of extra time.
With the win, the Crew head home to Columbus where they'll greet LAFC for the MLS Cup Final. -- Megan Swanick
LAFC 2-0 Houston: Hollingshead heating up for Western Conference champs
When thinking of the glitz and glamor of LAFC's star-studded cast, it's easy to overlook the diligent supporting actors that can get lost in the shadows of marquee names like Carlos Vela, Dénis Bouanga or Giorgio Chiellini. Often working tirelessly behind the scenes for the current title-holders, the club's non-million-dollar earners don't tend to be the big story or headline after high-profile matches.
But in the 2023 MLS Cup playoffs, that hasn't been the case for fullback Ryan Hollingshead.
After collecting a brace during a Round 1 matchup against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the 32-year-old defender stepped up again through LAFC's first goal in Saturday's 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo, which clinched the Western Conference championship for the Southern California side.
In a night where key attacking figures such as Vela and Bouanga struggled with entering the scoresheet, Hollingshead pounced on a rebound off a 44th minute corner that provided LAFC with a 1-0 lead.
"I've been in the league for a long time, I know a lot of these guys and kind of what they do and what they don't do. [Houston's] Steve Clark is a phenomenal goalie, he's been in this league for a really long time, but he doesn't like coming out on set pieces," said Hollingshead post-game.
"He likes to stay on his line, so I know with our ability on set pieces that if we can get something on target it's going to be hard for him to hold it, there's going to be a bobble, so I'm just taking my chances that something is going to pop out and that's exactly what happened."
With a lead in hand, the defender also made a valuable impact in the backline through a handful of important interventions. Despite Houston maintaining a wealth of possession during the playoff game, LAFC held their opponents to a scoreless 90 minutes.
"We knew that's [possession] what they wanted. They wanted the ball, they like to play this little tiki-taka in the middle of the field, these little movements, little one-twos...but they're going nowhere. So we just said do whatever -- have the ball as long as you want," stated Hollingshead.
"They created zero dangerous chances, they had a half chance in the first half on a cross to Baird, but that was it. A lot of these teams it's like, yeah they've got possession and they're maybe moving the ball, but if they're not creating dangerous chances, who cares."
Technically speaking, Houston did score on Saturday, but in the wrong net. Following a play in which Hollingshead was involved in the build-up, LAFC winger Diego Palacios launched a low cross that was then deflected into Houston's net in the 80th minute by Dynamo defender Franco Escobar.
By the final whistle, and with Hollingshead as their unexpected leading man, LAFC then booked their place into the MLS Cup final. -- Cesar Hernandez