What you need to know

Happy Conference Finals day

Today we find out who’s playing in MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9. FC Cincinnati host Columbus in the realest Hell Is Real ever. Kickoff is set for 6 pm. ET. Once that wraps, you have a moment to catch your breath before LAFC welcome Houston to BMO Stadium at 9:30 pm ET. Both matches are on MLS Season Pass.

Real Salt Lake promote Schmid to sporting director, begin search for new GM

Real Salt Lake have promoted Kurt Schmid to sporting director and interim chief soccer officer, among other front office and technical staff changes. Pablo Mastroeni will remain as the club's head coach, but first-team assistants Matt Taylor, Brett Jacobs and Nacho Hernandez have not been renewed for 2024. Additionally, Tony Beltran will remain as assistant general manager, with added responsibilities, while Elliot Fall will not continue as general manager, but does remain in discussions regarding his future with the club.

End-of-year roster moves announced

Minnesota United declined DP striker Ménder García’s contract option. Veteran center backs Bakaye Dibassy and Brent Kallman are also leaving the Loons after combining to play in 185 regular-season games.

The San Jose Earthquakes declined DP midfielder Jamiro Monteiro’s contract option. Jonathan Mensah is out of contract/eligible for free agency after arriving in a preseason trade with the Columbus Crew. And US international Matthew Hoppe’s time with the team has ended after his loan from Championship side Middlesbrough this summer.

Sporting KC have bid farewell to club legends Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza, both of whom had their contract option declined.

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Three Eastern Conference Final X-factors

Hell Is Real tonight. You’ve got a full-on “Yeah, but…” rivalry matchup here. When you win a game as big as this, it’s an argument-ender until something equally important happens. You can win the next 20 matchups between you and your rival, but if they win a “Yeah, but…” match like this, they can just say “Yeah, but the 2023 Eastern Conference Final” and nothing else will matter. It’s a big one. Here’s what might decide it.

  1. Missing pieces

We’ve been talking about it all week and it’s worth repeating. FC Cincinnati will be without MLS Defender of the Year Matt Miazga and will very likely be missing DP No. 6 Obinna Nwobodo for a decent portion of the game. Even if he’s able to start, it sounds like he won’t be 100%. FC Cincinnati will not only have to adjust defensively against the best attacking team in the league, but will have to find a way to stay cohesive enough in build-up to get the ball to their playmaker, Lucho Acosta. Matt Doyle explained it better than I can in his Conference Finals mailbag:

I think we already saw some of that from Cincy in the scrappy 1-0 win over the Union. The Garys were defensively organized (no shock there), but struggled to move the ball to good spots in rhythm. Partially that’s just what it means to play against Philly – they make your life hell. But partially, that’s what it means to go out there without a handful of your best players. The ball moves a little bit slower and windows close a little bit more quickly.

And so Lucho Acosta was kind of anonymous. He still managed to play a significant role in the game’s only goal (it was his quick free kick that started the sequence), but he otherwise was not able to put much of an imprint on the game.

  1. Nagbe and Morris pulling the strings

If Nwobodo can’t go today, the Crew seem to have a distinct advantage in central midfield. Even with Nwobodo, I’d give the edge to Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris. With both teams setting up in formations that essentially mirror each other (basically 3-4-1-2 vs. 3-4-2-1), there likely won’t be many opportunities to create numbers advantages. To some extent, that means the ability of your personnel to execute and affect the game matters more than tactics. Having two players like Nagbe and Morris impacting multiple phases of play in a way Cincy’s midfield might not be able to seems like a really big deal.

  1. TQL Stadium

You might have picked up on it, but I’m a bit worried about the absences for Cincy. If you forced me to make a pick in what’s essentially a toss-up game, I’d lean towards the Crew. It’s not just about the personnel, it’s about the connective tissue that comes from consistency and allows teams to peak at the right time. The Crew are trending towards that. Cincy feel like they’re having to build the plane while flying it.

That being said, the Garys have more than enough to win this game. And, most importantly, they’re at home. Considering the stakes and the Ohio of it all, we might see an all-time crowd at TQL Stadium tonight. Just a madhouse from start to finish. That kind of influence on the players might be enough to level the playing field or even tilt it in Cincy’s favor.

Three Western Conference Final X-factors

Despite LAFC already playing in two trophy matches this year, Houston are the only Western Conference team with silverware this season. Will that still be true after tonight?

  1. Griffin Dorsey

Godspeed to Houston right back Griffin Dorsey. It will be interesting to see how much he’s allowed to get forward and attempt to influence the attack when Dénis Bouanga is sitting there patiently waiting for an opportunity to exploit space. Even if he’s got his feet set firmly wherever Houston’s defensive line is set, he’ll have his hands full slowing down one of the best players in MLS history. That’s frightening for Houston for the obvious reasons, but also because that’s one less player joining an attack that needs numbers to make up for a lack of one-on-one chance creators. Dorsey, with help from Artur and Erik Sviatchenko on the right side, will need to be at his best today.

  1. Where is Houston giving the ball away?

Your best chance at limiting Bouanga is limiting transition moments where LAFC have equal or better numbers. It seems inevitable they’ll find a few opportunities with numbers and space in their favor, but Houston can keep those to a minimum if they’re able to avoid turnovers in critical areas of the field. If they're giving the ball away in build-up they’re going to be in trouble. If they’re giving the ball away in the final third…well, they still might be in a bit of trouble, but at least they should have numbers behind the ball that could potentially slow down LAFC as they break the other way. Yeah, yeah, I know “Don’t kick the ball to the other team” isn’t groundbreaking advice, but that doesn’t make it any less important tonight.

  1. A different approach for the Dynamo?

There’s a chance here Houston and Ben Olsen approach a road game against LAFC a little differently. If you’re trying to limit defensive transition moments, sitting a little deeper and conceding possession is a way to do it. It would be a change of pace if they opt for a low block. So much so that it seems doubtful they do it. But there’s a chance it happens and potentially flusters LAFC in attack. The big question then is if Houston would still be able to find chances in going forward. Then again, that’s a big question anyway. Maybe opting for extra defensive solidity is the best move?

Other things

CF Montréal sign forward Ibrahim to contract extension: CF Montréal have signed forward Sunusi Ibrahim to a contract extension through the 2026 MLS season with an option for 2027. The U22 Initiative signing from Keffi, Nigeria tallied 3g/3a in 25 MLS appearances (11 starts) this season while adding 3g/1a in Canadian Championship play.

Minnesota United FC sign defender Taylor to new contract: Minnesota United FC have signed defender DJ Taylor to a new contract through the 2025 MLS season with an option for 2026. Taylor joined MNUFC in 2021 after spending four seasons with USL Championship side North Carolina FC. The 26-year-old defender saw limited action during his first season, but broke out in 2022, making 26 game appearances, (23 starts) and providing three assists as a right full back.

Philadelphia Union sign midfielder Bueno to new contract: The Philadelphia Union have signed midfielder Jesús Bueno to a new contract through the 2026 MLS season with an option for 2027. The 24-year-old Venezuelan international made a career-high 24 appearances – 10 of them starts, also a personal best – this season as the Union reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

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Good luck out there. Look your best for the big ones.