The countdown to MLS Cup presented by Audi continues.
Let's go in-depth on what awaits at Lower.com Field.
A - Aidan Morris
Morris became the youngest-ever MLS Cup starter (19 years and 27 days) when featuring in Columbus' MLS Cup 2020 triumph over Seattle. Now, the 22-year-old homegrown is among the league's top midfielders and a rising US international. Kids, they grow up fast.
B - (Dénis) Bouanga
Bouanga won the 2023 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi after tallying 20g/7a. Across all competitions this season, his 37 goals (all competitions) are one shy of the MLS calendar-year record Carlos Vela set in 2019. There's no better north-south player in the league, especially on the counterattack.
C - Cucho Hernández
Meet one of two Best XI presented by Audi forwards competing (the other is Bouanga). Cucho, a Colombian international, produced 27 goal contributions (16g/11a) in the regular season, which was tied for the third most in MLS. He has a playoff-leading 4g/2a as well.
D - Darlington Nagbe
Nagbe can win his fourth MLS Cup and become the 10th MLS great with four or more titles. The Crew's captain, who grew up in Ohio, previously lifted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy in 2015 (Portland), 2018 (Atlanta) and 2020 (Columbus).
E - Eastern Conference
Not a cop-out! Both finalists are No. 3 seeds, but Columbus picked up 57 points (16W-9L-9D) from arguably a tougher conference compared to LAFC's 52 points (14W-10L-10D). The Crew finished third in the Supporters' Shield table and the Black & Gold slotted eighth, sending MLS Cup to Ohio since where teams finished in the overall league table determines who hosts.
F - (Jon) Freemon
Freemon is the fourth official for Saturday's match, joining a crew that's led by center referee Armando Villarreal. Just like the players, this stage is a big honor for referees – rewarding their on-field work.
G - Giorgio Chiellini
Giorgio Chiellini's loving life. At 39 years old, we could be witnessing the final chapter of a legendary career for the Italian center back.
H - (Ryan) Hollingshead
I'll passionately defend this take: Hollingshead is one of the best-ever American players to never earn a USMNT cap.
The right back, acquired via a trade with FC Dallas before the 2022 season, has an astounding 15 goals in 84 games across all competitions for the club.
I - Ilie Sánchez
Ilie led LAFC with 2,607 minutes played and 1,391 passes completed during the 2023 campaign. He's their glue guy.
J - Julian Gressel
K - Kellyn Acosta
Acosta's role has shifted for LAFC this year, but the 2022 World Cup veteran is still a key part of their midfield balance alongside Ilie and Timothy Tillman. He's an unsung hero for the defending champs.
L - Lower.com Field
The site of Saturday's match opened in July 2021. Two and a half years later, this soccer cathedral gets to host MLS Cup. It's going to be electric.
M - MLS NEXT Pro
Columbus' run isn't just about star players. The club has gotten key contributions from MLS NEXT Pro alums after Columbus Crew 2 won the inaugural title in 2022. Starting goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, right wingback Mo Farsi, midfielder/defender Sean Zawadzki and striker Jacen Russell-Rowe are all examples of the expanded pro pathway.
N - Nordecke
An MLS Cup at your home stadium – it's what fans dream of when the season begins. That's come to life for the Nordecke, a supporters' group that proved vital in the Save The Crew movement and witnessed MLS Cup 2020 glory at Historic Crew Stadium (with a smaller, COVID-restricted crowd).
Soak it all in, Crew fans.
O - (Cristian) Olivera
Olivera joined in early August from LaLiga side Almería, arriving as LAFC's latest U22 Initiative signing. He's been part of Uruguay's World Cup qualifying squad under manager Marcelo Bielsa and has 2g/0a in 14 games (regular season and playoffs) for the club. Olivera's got some magic in his boots.
P - (Diego) Palacios
LAFC's left back was the provider of arguably the greatest goal in MLS Cup history. Plus, this gives us another chance to watch Palacios – who was part of Ecuador's 2022 World Cup team – provide a desperation-time, alley-oop cross to Gareth Bale:
Q - Qualify
If LAFC win on Saturday, they'll qualify directly for the Round of 16 in the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup (MLS Cup winner spot). After the club lost the 2020 (to Tigres) and 2023 (to León) finals to Liga MX teams in heartbreaking fashion, you can bet they want another bite at the apple. And there's the added incentive of the eventual 2024 CCC winner reaching the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup, which is hosted across the United States two summers from now.
Two quick notes:
- Columbus have already qualified for Round One in the 2024 CCC based on their regular-season performance.
- So if Columbus win, the New England Revolution get the league's final spot for next year's continental competition that begins in early February (!).
R - Repeat
LAFC can become the first repeat winner since the 2011-12 LA Galaxy. Who doesn't love a good El Tráfico tie-in?
S - Steve Cherundolo
With a victory, Cherundolo would become the second coach in MLS history to win consecutive championships during his first two seasons in charge, joining Bruce Arena (1996-97) in that esteemed category. Not too bad for the "Mayor of Hanover" and SoCal native.
T - The 3252
An away day awaits the 3252, LAFC's supporters' group collective that's turned BMO Stadium into one of the most fearsome venues in MLS. This postseason, they've already returned home happy after prior trips to Vancouver (Round One) and Seattle (Conference Semifinal). Can the Black & Gold ensure it's a three-for-three swing?
U - Underdog
Is there one? The betting odds market says Columbus are favored at home, but LAFC have posted three straight shutouts and have star power of their own. From our vantage point, this is basically a toss-up.
V - (Carlos) Vela
A goodbye? Nothing more than showing respect?
We'll let you decide. The fact is Carlos Vela is out of contract at season's end, and there's no guarantee their captain will return for 2024. A huge decision awaits the 34-year-old Mexican superstar and LAFC's front office around their landmark inaugural signing.
W - Wilfried Nancy
Nancy, who steered CF Montréal in 2022 before joining Columbus last December, leads MLS with 36 regular-season wins over the last years. His 122 points are tied with Philadelphia's Jim Curtin for most over that span. The Frenchman is a (wholly deserving) two-time Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year finalist.
X - xG
Columbus not only punched home a league-leading 67 goals in the regular season, but also generated a league-leading 59.26 expected goals (a measure of how likely chances are to be scored). LAFC weren't far behind, posting 54.4 xG and 54 goals scored. We've got two of the league's best attacks going head-to-head here.
Y - Yaw Yeboah
Yeboah doesn't get many headlines, but he's quietly an important piece for the hosts. The Ghana international will likely be Columbus' starting left wingback, stretching the field and chipping into the attack (3g/5a in 31 regular-season games).
Z - (Lucas) Zelarayán
"But he's not on the team anymore." And you, dear reader, are correct.
Zelarayán was transferred to Saudi Pro League side Al Fateh in late July, opening a DP spot that the Crew filled by acquiring Diego Rossi from Turkish side Fenerbahçe. But the club legend's a huge part of Columbus' 2023 narrative and his 17 goal contributions (10g/7a) were second-most on the team.
What we're getting at is when the club lost Zelarayán, it could have all come crashing down. Instead, they added Rossi and have found new solutions sans their star playmaker. He's watching closely from afar, too.