COLUMBUS, Ohio – The stage is both familiar and new.
For the fourth time in league history, MLS Cup presented by Audi has descended on Columbus, Ohio’s capital city that’s provided the backdrop to some of the league’s most memorable nights.
Three prior finals – the 2001, 2015 and 2020 title-deciders – were played at what’s now called Historic Crew Stadium, the country’s first soccer-specific stadium. But the scene for 2023 has shifted roughly five miles southwest to Lower.com Field, the state-of-the-art venue on the banks of the Scioto River that opened just two and a half years ago.
From that brief trip down memory lane, the scene for Saturday afternoon emerges (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free): Eastern Conference champions Columbus host Western Conference champions LAFC in pursuit of the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, the league’s ultimate prize. During a campaign that began Feb. 25, all that’s left is raising silverware.
“We're past now the point of no return,” said Crew defender Malte Amundsen. “So now we've just got to make the beautiful ending to the story.”
“What we did during the season – all the trophies that we tried to win – in the end, I think that it is still a fantastic season that we played,” said LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini. “We’re just missing the last step.”
Columbus, fresh off a dramatic Eastern Conference Final victory over Hell is Real rival FC Cincinnati, can raise their third-ever MLS Cup. The club previously won in 2008 and 2020, the latter match played before just 1,500 fans due to crowd restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, this season’s story could conclude with euphoria for a fanbase that inspired the Save The Crew movement, saving the team from relocation in the late 2010s as new owners took over. There’s a special bond between the club and their supporters, something first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy has quickly gathered.
“This city, the fans, the organization and the players deserve this,” Nancy said.
Nancy’s possession-focused, brave style gives the foundation for Columbus' return to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, taking over last December after the club compensated CF Montréal to extract his services.
So does star forward Cucho Hernández, a Best XI presented by Continental Tire honoree who’s risen to star status in Columbus. The club-record signing projects as a chief protagonist amid what could be a stormy, rain-filled match.
“Personally, it’s been one of the best years for me and one of the things that we've been working on is that I wanted to go back to the national team,” said the Colombian No. 9. “But first, I always was taking the club into consideration. I wake up for the club, I do my things for the club, and then for the national team.”
Another star is undoubtedly LAFC’s Dénis Bouanga, a Best XI honoree who won this year's Golden Boot presented by Audi. He’s the defending champs’ star attraction, bringing a unique blend of pace and power that’s fueled 37 goals across all competition this year – one shy of the MLS record teammates Carlos Vela set during his MVP-winning 2019 season.
Bouanga, in short, is the lightning rod driving LAFC’s counter-attacking style.
“Especially playing against a team like Columbus, if we need to attack more, we can transition more,” Bouanga said. “We have players who are very, very quick and fast. It's something that we can do, whether we have to counterattack and transition or the other way.”
The Vela tie-in thrusts another key storyline into the spotlight, in that it might be his (and Chiellini’s) final game of a storied chapter. Both legends are out of contract at season’s end and decisions await on their futures, potentially going out as repeat MLS Cup winners (something not achieved since the 2011-12 LA Galaxy).
For now, all that’s on Vela’s mind is building off last year’s MLS Cup triumph at BMO Stadium – when LAFC beat Philadelphia Union on penalty kicks to cap a 3-3 thriller, highlighted by Gareth Bale’s iconic header.
“That is one of the successes of this club and this team because we are not happy winning one championship. We want to win more. We are here again. We are in a really good spot,” said Vela, fresh off a Western Conference Final win over Houston Dynamo FC.
“Of course, we know we are playing away. We are playing against a really good team. It will be tough, tougher than the last year and last year was difficult to imagine. We think it will be, but in the end, it is the last game of the season."
Along the way, pivotal moments have influenced each clubs’ chase for league glory. For Nancy, the Crew’s inflection point is two-fold: a late-July Leagues Cup win over Liga MX’s Club América that included a pre-game farewell to club legend Lucas Zelarayán, as well as a mid-September defeat at Orlando City SC.
“The game against Club América, I saw something,” Nancy said. “As you know, Club América is really good and we knew that everybody was waiting for this game, my players and the way we wanted to do it. This game could have been a trigger to move forward and it's going to be telling.
“ … Also the 4-3 loss against Orlando because we know that Orlando is a good team. Before the last 10 minutes we had a good game, but the way we conceded the goals was another learning [moment] because we made mistakes during the game, during the play. It was more about a moment of sadness. And because of that, I use this game to try to communicate to my players that we are on the right path if we are able to address this kind of situation.”
For Black & Gold head coach Steve Cherundolo, the moment also involves Leagues Cup. Saturday will be Game No. 53 for LAFC this year and they’ve fallen in two previous finals, losing in Concacaf Champions League to Liga MX’s Club León and Campeones Cup to Liga MX’s Tigres UANL. They’ve come out stronger from this grueling, taxing journey on the other side.
“Having a break leading into Leagues Cup, that's I think where we learned this lesson that what we're doing is right and how we want to play with this group is also correct,” Cherundolo said. “All this group needs is a little freshness and rest. Coming out of that break and going into that first Leagues Cup match, we saw that.
“That gave us confirmation that we were on the right path and we don't need to change anything. We are doubling down and we just have to make sure we manage the load of players as well as possible through the congested schedule. None of the performances or losses that we had in those poor moments were because of tactics, because of what we're trying to do was wrong. It was more a physical issue if anything.”
Peeling back each layer, the anticipation emerges. All that’s left is show time, to make the heroic play.
“I just want the game to be here already,” said Crew wingback Julian Gressel.
"We have to bring all we have Saturday," Vela said. "We have to find a way to win. It doesn't matter how. What’s most important is the job gets done."