Kickoff - 11.27.23
What you need to know

Houston, LAFC advance to Western Conference Final

Houston Dynamo FC opened Sunday night’s Western Conference Semifinals with a 1-0 win over Sporting KC. LAFC followed it up with a 1-0 of their own in Seattle. LAFC will host Houston on Dec. 2 at 9:30 pm ET. Take a look at the full Conference Final schedule here.

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Two 1-0 wins saw LAFC and Houston Dynamo FC advance to the Western Conference Final. Let’s talk it out.

F. Escobar (39')

What happened?: Franco Escobar headed home a first-half corner, and that’s all Houston needed to hold off Sporting KC – well, that and a favorable handball call that came close to flipping the entire game on its head. After looking at the camera angle from behind the goal, it seems clear a Daniel Salloi shot hit Houston’s Erik Sviatchenko in the arm and prevented a goal. Whether that deserved a penalty for SKC and a red card for Sviatchenko is down to your interpretation of the rule. As far as that goes, I tend to agree on some level with Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen.

“I'm not really sure what a handball is anymore,” Olsen said post-match.

From my view though, I would have given it. That being said, SKC still had 50-plus minutes at that point to get back in the game and never really looked like doing it. The Dynamo controlled the match, limited SKC’s vaunted attack to 0.9 xG worth of chances and got the job done. They were the better team on the night.

So, did we learn anything?: Me, an idiot, suggested yesterday morning the Dynamo could potentially have issues against SKC without a clear match-winner in their XI. Me, an idiot, forgot that the Dynamo have one of the league’s ultimate match-winners in big games. Me, an idiot, who watched this particular player win MLS Cup a few years ago with my own eyes, forgot about PLAYOFF. FREAKING. FRANCO.

Franco Escobar did what Franco Escobar does and scored a massive goal for Houston off a first-half corner. He made the difference for the Dynamo and added to a growing list of timely goals. Escobar has scored five times across 8,560 minutes in MLS regular season games. He’s scored four times in 1,070 minutes in the playoffs. He developed a rep for this in Atlanta when he won a title in 2018, then won a title with LAFC last season just by being there, and now has Houston on track to potentially add his third title with his third different MLS team. There’s your dang match-winner.

Anyway, Houston put together an excellent performance here. They were already at the point where everything from here out is a cherry on top of an outstanding season that already includes a trophy, but they haven’t slowed down. There’s a joy and freedom to how they progress the ball, and it allowed them to create chances for the majority of the night while limiting SKC’s opportunities to do the same. They out-possessed one of the league’s most possession-based teams 64% to 36%.

That explains a bit why Sporting KC never seemed to find a rhythm in this one. What felt stranger, though, is they never seemed to find a ton of urgency either. Just a kind of odd performance all around from them that likely came in part due to missing starting fullback Logan Ndebe. But only in part. They just weren’t as sharp as we’ve come to expect the (formerly) hottest team in the West to be.

The good news is they should be set to put together a more complete season in 2024. They won’t have to become the hottest team in the West just to squeak into the playoffs. At least in theory. They have a few moves to make, but they’re in a decent place.

D. Bouanga (30')

What happened?: Dénis Bouanga, man. And Maxime Crépeau. Bouanga broke in behind Seattle’s defense in the first half and curled one into the net at full sprint. Crépeau stood on his head the entire game. LAFC killed off the second half slowly and painfully. And that was that. LAFC executed exactly how they drew it up, and they’re back in the Western Conference Final for the second-straight year.

So, did we learn anything?: Bouanga's 37th goal of the season will deservedly get headlines, but make sure you’re paying respect to Crépeau too. He faced 2.4 post-shot xG in this one and kept a clean sheet. That essentially means an average 'keeper on an average night would have faced the same shots on target and given up at least two goals.

I’ve been hesitant to list Crépeau as a strength for LAFC simply because we haven’t had a big enough sample size since his return from destroying his leg in last year’s MLS Cup. You never know what players will be like after a major injury. After last night, I’m more than ready to consider him a game-changing presence again. Put him and Bouanga out on the field and you have a chance to steal a game against just about anyone.

Frankly, that’s exactly what LAFC did here. Seattle were better for the large majority of the game. They (and the game state) limited LAFC to 0.4 xG worth of chances. The Sounders didn’t choke, the ball just didn’t go in. And LAFC’s experience led to a frustratingly professional performance.

Now, LAFC will host another Western Conference Final as the favorite to return to MLS Cup. It’s a matchup between a team being carried by the best scorer in the league and a team being carried by the power of the collective. It should be fascinating. Almost as fascinating as Seattle’s offseason. With Nico Lodeiro heading out and major changes on the way, we have no real idea what this team will look like next season. Are they going to be rebuilding or reloading? Whatever they do, it will be done with catching LAFC in mind. Right now, there’s a new standard in the West.

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Good luck out there. Come up big when it matters.