MLS Cup

Columbus Crew vs. LAFC: What will decide MLS Cup 2023?

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In my long history of watching and writing about this league, I can not remember a more distinct contrast in styles than what we’re all about to see from this 28th MLS Cup, set to take place Saturday afternoon at Lower.com Field in Columbus (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).

In one corner you have the defending champs, who have evolved over the past two years from a methodical possession team into an almost pure transition side, one that plays a ruthlessly direct brand of soccer based upon their ability to generate turnovers any and everywhere across the front three and deeper in midfield. The Black & Gold play soccer like they’re one pass away because they are always, in fact, just one pass away – that’s the luxury you have when your best player is also the most lethal counterattacking threat in league history.

In the other corner are the hosts, who are not just more committed to using the ball more than any team that’s made it to MLS Cup in any of the previous 27 editions, but are committed to using it in a different way. What I mean by that is other teams have used possession to dictate the pace and tempo of the game (Real Salt Lake when they made it in 2009 and '13), and other teams used possession to get their attackers lined up in specific, high-leverage spots (Toronto FC in 2016, '17 and '19 all come to mind).

But every completed pass by the Crew is an excuse to take another risk with the positioning of not just their attackers, but their deep-lying midfielders and even their defenders. They pass to possess and possess to flood numbers into the attacking third, and all year long that flood has resulted in a deluge of goals.

The beautiful thing is I don’t think either coach – Columbus' Wilfried Nancy and LAFC's Steve Cherundolo – will change their underlying philosophy at all. Belief in what they do is what got both sides here (that and some apex talent, obviously), and there’s no reason to think doing something else at this stage is going to provide them a better chance of claiming the Cup.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how this is going to play out:

What Columbus will do

There is a danger of thinking Columbus and Houston – who LAFC just dispatched in the Western Conference Final with what I would consider relative ease – pose the same exact challenge because they are both heavy possession sides (Houston had over 70% possession in the loss).

While they both want the ball, there are two big differences between the teams:

  1. Attacking talent. Columbus are just leaps and bounds better than the Dynamo (and Seattle, for that matter).
  2. Directness. Columbus play beautiful soccer, but it’s not the small-touch tiki-taka of Dynaball.

People often struggle with the idea of possession teams being direct, but that’s what the Crew actually are. They take just 27.2% of their total touches in their own defensive third, which is third-to-last in the league. Meanwhile, they take 29% of their touches in the attacking third, which is second-most.

The reason for this is because of the principle that underlies everything Nancy is building: He wants his players to be brave on the ball to the point of inviting pressure. And wherever, whenever that pressure happens, he wants his players to have the confidence to play directly through the first line of it – either with third-line passes to feet in pockets of space, or just by beating the opponents off the dribble*. And then once those opponents are behind the play, Columbus move the ball quickly into attack and keep them behind the play.

(*) Columbus lead the league in 1v1s by a mile, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform.

So that low percentage of touches in the defensive third is not actually a mark of impatience or an overreliance on long balls. Rather, it’s a mark of how infrequently teams have decided it’s a good idea to press the Crew. Stretch yourself out over 100 yards trying to chase the ball and Columbus will go right through you and cut you up.

Maybe “direct” isn’t the right word, but if a better one exists in the English language I’m not sure of it. Regardless, “It’s better to attack vs. 10 than vs. 11” is Nancy’s north star, and given that his side led the league in goals in the regular season, and are now leading the league in goals in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, it seems like a pretty good one to follow. Even when opponents have dropped their line of confrontation into the goalkeeper’s lap (it happened often during the regular season, and in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in Orlando), Columbus have still found a way to be patient on the ball, draw opponents out, create a numerical advantage, then go directly at it.

That is not all they are, however:

Just as the Crew aren’t what we think of as a traditional “direct” team, they’re also not really what we think of as a traditional high-pressing team. But they were ninth in the league in possessions that started in their own attacking third during the regular season, and eighth in passes allowed per defensive action (a rough measure of how high and hard a team presses).

That clip above shows how they’ve weaponized their re-press in the playoffs. Any team that’s less than 100% attentive playing out of the back is just asking to concede a backbreaker.

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There are two obvious questions here:

  1. Mo Farsi or Julian Gressel at right wingback
  2. Does Christian Ramírez start as a true No. 9?

I think there’s a strong case for Gressel, who’s one of the best chance creators in the league and would force LAFC’s left back Diego Palacios to come out wider, or for LAFC’s left winger Dénis Bouanga to drop deeper. But I suspect Nancy’s going to stick with the same group that’s got him here.

That front three is this team’s strong point, with Cucho Hernández being arguably the playoff MVP thus far. His ability to shape-shift on the fly between the wing, the half-spaces and the box as a true No. 9… there’s no similar player in the league. You need three different game plans for one guy.

Also note two of the Crew’s three starting center backs (Steven Moreira on the right and Malte Amundsen on the left) are converted fullbacks, and bring with them a fullback’s typical attacking instincts and confidence on the ball.

The trade-off is neither are great defensively in the air, especially on restarts.

What LAFC will do

While Nancy has ratcheted up the risk/reward ratio in ways that would send other coaches to the loony bin from the stress of the whole thing, Cherundolo has gone in the other direction. LAFC are built on:

  1. Set pieces. They have scored on five of them so far in these playoffs, and are always dangerous.
  2. Quick transitions. We saw it on the game’s only goal in Seattle.
  3. Limiting exposure.

LAFC can still play through the middle – they’ve got a ton of talent out there, veterans who are not just comfortable on the ball, but who are often game-breakers with it – but it feels like the past two years have been an exercise in whittling away at the things that typically lose teams games. Nancy is the ultimate dogmatic aesthete; Cherundolo, with his ruthless pragmatism, is his perfect foil.

The Black & Gold were third in the league in PPDA this past year and were first in possessions won in the attacking third. Largely because of that, they were first in goals generated off of the high press and second in the league in box touches per game (behind Columbus). They were third in through-balls (Columbus were second), second in 1v1s (Columbus were first) and third in total expected goals (Columbus were first).

If there’s one thing that really separates these two teams in the final third, it’s this: LAFC love to go at it alone. Columbus ranked 15th in the league in unassisted shots; LAFC ranked fourth. While I kind of waffled about hanging the “direct” tag on Columbus, I have no hesitation with that label for LAFC.

Get ball.

See space.

Go.

LAFC have had down around 30% of the ball in the past two games. They are entirely happy to play entire months on the break like this, and why not? Getting Bouanga into these spots means they win.

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I don’t think there are any real questions here. Carlos Vela will drop in as a false 9 and sometimes will swap roles with Bouanga on the fly. Look for right winger Cristian Olivera to have freedom on his side as well.

Note how the Crew like to attack up their right side, while LAFC love to go up their left through Palacios. The Ecuadorian World Cup vet will need to have a good game.

X-factor No. 1: Restarts

I already said it above: LAFC are probably the best attacking team in the league on set pieces – right back Ryan Hollingshead’s got three goals already in these playoffs, all via restarts – while the Crew aren’t great defensively. In addition to the aerial struggles of Amundsen and Moreira, young goalkeeper Patrick Schulte isn’t great at commanding his box in the air.

My colleague Andrew Wiebe suggested on Extratime on Wednesday maybe Sean Zawadzki could get the nod at CB instead, but I doubt that.

X-factor No. 2: LAFC’s line of confrontation

I thought it was a hell of a call from Cherundolo to step his team’s line waaaay up field from the whistle vs. Houston:

Almost paid immediate dividends.

The thing is, though, this is what Columbus live for. LAFC are the defending champs and aren’t going to be at all intimidated by playing on the road in this one. But risk mitigation has been Cherundolo’s thing, and I suspect that will continue to be the case.

X-factor No. 3: Game-changers off the bench

In theory, LAFC have a lot of those. But in practice, guys like Mario González, Stipe Biuk, Mateusz Bogusz and Filip Krastev haven’t added much.

Ramírez and Gressel, on the other hand, have been match-winners. Same with Kevin Molino, whose pinpoint cross led to the clincher in Cincinnati.

The Verdict

Home-field advantage in MLS Cups has been SUBSTANTIAL – you have to go all the way back to 2015 Portland to find the last time the visitors straight up won outright (Seattle in 2016 and NYCFC in 2021 walked away with their trophies after winning PK shootouts).

Of course, that one came in Columbus, didn’t it? And as much as I love everything about how the Crew are playing the game these days, Bouanga has shown all year long he only needs a half-chance to win a game.

The Crew, even at their very best, give up chances. It’s just baked into how they approach the game.

Make it two straight for LAFC.