It’s hard to imagine a more compelling MLS Cup matchup than what we’re getting Saturday afternoon at Lower.com Field (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).
In one corner, we have Eastern Conference champions Columbus Crew – players of the most aesthetically pleasing soccer in the league with some of the best midfield and attacking talent in the league. In the other corner, we have LAFC – winners of last year’s MLS Cup who have one of the best goal-scorers on this side of the Atlantic in Dénis Bouanga.
Yep, that looks good. I’ll have two scoops of it, please.
To help get you ready for Saturday’s final, we’ve identified 10 key statistics that will tell the story of (and maybe even decide) MLS Cup 2023 presented by Audi.
Let’s get rolling with a look at the general shape of this weekend’s game, shall we?
If we know one thing about the Crew, it’s that they’re committed to keeping the ball. It doesn’t matter if they’re home or away; they want the ball and push into the attacking third, then keep the ball in that part of the field as often as possible.
Per FBref, Columbus averaged 181.4 touches in the final third per 90 minutes in the regular season. That’s 15 touches more per 90 minutes than the next closest team in Sporting Kansas City. With possession numbers like that, it’s no wonder Wilfried Nancy’s team has put up the most non-penalty xG (52.2) in MLS this year.
While the Crew focus on controlling the ball, playing through the lines and creating chances in the final third, LAFC will be busy playing against the ball. Under head coach Steve Cherundolo, LAFC have transformed into a transition-heavy team, to the point where they let the Houston Dynamo have 70.4% possession in the Western Conference Final.
LAFC will give up the ball, but they’re not lazy. In fact, they might just be the most effective pressing and transition team in the entire league. Per Opta, the Black & Gold have generated 63 shots from high turnovers this season, which is more than every team in MLS outside of the New York Red Bulls (68).
Make a mistake in the buildup (or even in your possession higher up the field), and Bouanga & Co. will have the ball down your throat in no time.
Speaking of Bouanga…
With impressive speed and elite dribbling ability, the Golden Boot presented by Audi winner is a menace with the ball at his feet. According to FBref, Bouanga is in the 98th percentile among attacking midfielders and wingers in MLS for non-penalty xG+xA per 90 minutes (0.72).
He’s constantly creating danger and causing problems for opposing defenses, especially in transition. Playing for the fifth-most direct team in MLS, per Opta, Bouanga is the very sharp tip of a very dangerous spear.
The Crew’s Colombian star has been incredible this year. His underlying numbers pop out even more than the Gabon international (though some of that surely boils down to the fact Hernández gets a few extra touches and Columbus hold onto the ball more, meaning he’s usually in the thick of the action).
With the ability to create chances for himself and for others in every phase of the game, Cucho is the player to watch in the Crew’s attack.
It’s not just Cucho that makes Columbus’ attack tick, though.
The Crew’s dedication to counter-pressing after they lose the ball is right up there with the best in the league. When you add legitimate defensive commitment from the attacking stars to Aidan Morris’ range and savvy positioning from Nancy’s deeper players, you get a team that’s really, really hard to play through.
According to Opta, only two teams have forced more high turnovers than the Crew this year (334). LAFC’s passing in their own third will have to be sharp to break past Columbus.
LAFC’s decision to sign Spanish striker Mario González over the summer seemed like a smart one. After scoring double-digit goals in Portugal and Belgium, the 27-year-old would slot right into the middle of Cherundolo’s front three.
As it turns out, González has played just over 500 minutes (all competitions) since signing in July. Instead, LAFC have continued to opt for a fluid front three with Carlos Vela spending most of his time in the middle while Bouanga and Cristian Olivera patrol the wings. LAFC’s last two games – both elimination matches – have featured that front three from the opening whistle.
With Vela likely to start up front on Saturday, can he help LAFC escape Columbus’ pressure? Can he hold onto the ball long enough to bring others into the game? Time will tell.
To state the obvious, raw passing competition numbers mean almost nothing on their own. I could stand two feet away from a teammate and pass the ball back and forth, then end a match with a 100% passing completion rate. So, a high passing completion rate does not a good soccer player make.
If you’ve watched Darlington Nagbe, whose legendary ex-teammate Diego Valeri called “the quiet little man” over the weekend, you know that the three-time MLS Cup champion is a lot more than his passing completion rate. He drives the ball forward into the heart of the opposing defensive shape. He makes smart reads in the counter press. He sets up his teammates for better passing angles.
Maybe most important in this game, though, will be Nagbe’s ability to string passes together even when under pressure. LAFC will try to force Nagbe off the ball to disturb the Crew’s rhythm in possession, but that’s no easy feat.
Nancy’s decision to bench right wingback Julian Gressel has raised a few eyebrows. Having traded for Gressel from the Vancouver Whitecaps in July, Nancy elevated Mo Farsi to the starting right wingback role over Gressel after the Crew’s second playoff game vs. Atlanta United.
Against FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Final, however, Gressel was excellent off the bench. He offered significantly more on the ball than Farsi, playing a game-high five key passes in just 55 minutes.
Farsi brings a lot to the table: he’s quicker and more energetic than Gressel. But can Columbus break through LAFC with one of their best playmakers (an elite crosser of the ball) starting on the bench? Or will the US international return to the XI?
Maxime Crépeau reclaimed his starting role in September after recovering from a broken leg he suffered in LAFC's MLS Cup 2022 win over the Philadelphia Union. And the Canadian international has been lights-out down the stretch.
According to FBref, Crépeau has saved 4.4 goals more than expected in the playoffs while keeping clean sheets in each of LAFC’s last three games. Based on pure shot-stopping form, Crépeau has the edge on Crew youngster Patrick Schulte in this game.
You don’t have to rewind very far to find LAFC’s latest exploit on a set piece: right back Ryan Hollingshead opened the scoring against Houston this way on Saturday in the Western Conference Final. Hollingshead and LAFC are elite on set pieces – their 14 goals from dead balls are fourth-most in the league this year.
With reliable service and a set of big-bodied defenders, it’s difficult to keep LAFC from generating some sort of chance in those moments. If Columbus are slack while defending crosses in their box, LAFC are prepared to capitalize.