Ahead of Saturday’s Western Conference Final (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), let’s look in-depth at five players primed to have an outsized impact.
It’s simplistic to boil an entire game down to individual matchups or even individual players – that’s not the intent here. Rather, it’s to zero in on key players who represent strengths (and potential weaknesses) before this weekend’s single-elimination match at BMO Stadium.
With elite dribbling ability, Bouanga is a threat to glide past any defender in MLS. Per FBref, he finished the regular season in the 95th percentile for successful take-ons per 90 minutes among his positional peers. When he arrives in the box, Bouanga has a skillful right foot (and a decent left foot, too) to create his own shot. Toss in clever off-ball movement when play is on the opposite wing and you have a left winger who is nearly impossible to shut down.
There’s another piece in Bouanga’s favor: Houston use the exact same rotation when they move from defense to attack as the Sounders. Ben Olsen’s team shifts right back Griffin Dorsey up to the right wing and pushes center back Erik Sviatchenko outside to become the right-sided center back in a three-man backline. LAFC will have more of the ball and fewer chances in transition than they did against Seattle, but the same gap Bouanga exploited at Lumen Field will be there at home.
Watch out, Houston. The best goalscorer in MLS is coming your way.
Speaking of Dorsey, Saturday’s matchup in Los Angeles will be the biggest game of the right back’s career.
During a breakout year in Houston, he’s locked down Olsen’s fluid right-sided role and compiled his best-ever creative season based on FBref’s expected assisted goals metric. But now he comes up against Bouanga.
I expect the Dynamo to use their entire defensive structure to game plan against the Gabon international and his attacking teammates. Houston defend much more regularly on the road than they do at home, holding 49.4% possession vs. 55.2% possession at Shell Energy Stadium this year. That means we’ll see more of the Dynamo’s 4-4-2 mid-block than we did this past weekend against against Sporting Kansas City. Theoretically, Dorsey won’t be matched up against Bouanga without help from a midfielder or a center back with any regularity.
But the threat will still be there.
A strong defensive showing from Dorsey, with a twist of his service from the right wing when the Dynamo venture forward, could give the visitors an edge.
It’s straight out of a storybook for Crépeau, isn’t it?
After breaking his leg in MLS Cup 2022 when LAFC beat the Philadelphia Union, Crépeau rehabbed, regained his starting job, and then put on a show last weekend at Seattle. Crepeau saved 2.3 goals more than expected in their Western Conference Semifinal, according to FBref, and pulled out a massive save on an early Jordan Morris breakaway to keep the game level.
Crepeau is in sizzling form, to the point where he’s not likely to repeat his showing against the Sounders anytime soon. That said, he saved 1.5 goals more than expected in LAFC’s second Round One match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. So what do I know?
When Crepeau is sharp, the defending champs are nearly impossible to beat.
Like Bouanga for LAFC, highlighting Herrera is a no-brainer when you’re talking about anything even remotely related to the Dynamo.
The Mexican international just earned a Best XI presented by Continental Tire spot, running the show for Houston's attack from his flexible central midfield role. Per American Soccer Analysis, he finished fifth among all MLS players this year in goals added, a metric that measures the value of a player’s on-ball contributions. If it wasn’t already clear, Houston wouldn’t be in their first Western Conference Final since 2017 without consistently strong performances from Herrera.
To carry that theme forward, Houston won’t make MLS Cup 2023 without Herrera's best on Saturday.
With the Dynamo expected to be on the back foot for large chunks at LAFC, pressure will be on Herrera to cover ground. Herrera will have help from Artur and the rest of Houston’s defensive structure, but he'll be tasked with moving and defending. Then it's about winning the ball and picking out a pass to any of his teammates sprinting downfield. He’ll still get to play quarterback some, which poses serious danger for LAFC.
In basically any phase of this Conference Final, Herrera’s involvement and performance level will indicate if Houston advance.
I’ve referenced it a few times, but to be explicit: I expect LAFC to have more of the ball against Houston, at least while the scoreline is even. We know the Dynamo defend more often on the road and we know LAFC are still one of the league’s more active possession teams, despite their desire to play in transition as often as possible under Steve Cherundolo.
With the ball likely sitting at LAFC’s feet, Ilie enters the fray.
First, Ilie will be primarily responsible for maintaining a quick tempo and switching the point of attack in possession. Ilie is LAFC’s pivot player – in the regular season, he touched the ball more than any of his non-defensive teammates on a per-90-minute basis, according to FBref. LAFC don’t have a ton of pre-planned patterns when they’re on the ball, which makes speed of play even more essential as they try to break down an opposing block. In many ways, that starts with Ilie.
Second, the Spanish-American veteran has a big role in LAFC’s counter-pressing. To keep the Dynamo pinned in and to avoid the damage that Dorsey and Nelson Quiñónes can inflict on the break, LAFC will fight to win the ball back as soon as they lose it. Ilie’s ability to protect his center backs with clever positioning and well-timed interventions will be hugely important.
If Ilie does his job well, LAFC’s attackers will get extra touches – and when that happens, goals tend to follow.