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What you need to know

MLS Cup is set

Eastern Conference champions Columbus Crew (No. 3) will host Western Conference champions LAFC (No. 3) at Lower.com Field on Dec. 9 for MLS Cup presented by Audi. Kickoff is set for 4 pm ET. You can watch for free on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV or on FOX and FOX Deportes.

Howard elected to National Soccer Hall of Fame Class of 2024

Tim Howard has been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024. Howard, in his first year of eligibility, was elected via the Player Ballot and appeared on 46 of 48 ballots (95.8%) as a near-unanimous selection.

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THE RECAP

An all-timer and an efficient suffocation. Let’s talk it out.

FC CINCINNATI - 2 | COLUMBUS CREW - 3
B. Vazquez (14'), L. Acosta (45+3') | A. Powell (75' OG), D. Rossi (86'), C. Ramírez (115')

What happened?: For a moment, it looked like FC Cincinnati were on their way to hosting MLS Cup. And then for another moment. And then another. And it looked that way until deep into the game when the Crew made two match-changing and season-defining substitutions. At the 65-minute mark, Julian Gressel and Christian Ramirez entered the game. 10 minutes later, Gressel delivered a wicked cross from the right that dipped past Roman Celentano and off Alvas Powell to bring the Crew within one. Eleven minutes after that, Diego Rossi found the ball in the Cincy box after some outstanding interplay and equalized in the bottom right-hand corner. And then, deep into extra time, Ramirez got on the end of an outstanding cushioned header from Cucho Hernandez to give the Crew a win they’ll talk about in Ohio for decades.

So, did we learn anything?: This Crew team is relentless. But you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Cincinnati had Matt Miazga on the field with a fully healthy Obinna Nwobodo. It seems like all the worries about Cincy’s missing pieces came to fruition at the worst possible time and Columbus remarkably took full advantage. That’s just what they do. They pile on chance after chance until you can’t bear the weight anymore.

Now, I won’t applaud the subs as some kind of genius tactical move. I’m on record (I think, I do a lot of these) as believing it’s totally wild to not start Gressel in these kinds of games and Ramirez is an obvious choice after an excellent season. But I will applaud the Crew for putting together a roster with the kind of depth that can turn a massive game like this one on its head at a moment’s notice. They aren’t the highest-spending team in the league, but Tim Bezbatchenko and company have done an outstanding job putting this roster in a place to succeed despite a lot of turnover this season.

It’s a roster that should be favored heading into MLS Cup. They have the firepower to compete with LAFC, they’ll have a home crowd behind them and they’ve put together the kind of performances worthy of an MLS Cup-winning side against a stacked conference. They have talent everywhere and they execute Wilfried Nancy’s aesthetically pleasing game model at a high level game after game. They have everything they need to get this done.

But most importantly, they have a way to dunk on FC Cincinnati for something like the next 30 years. You won’t see a Hell Is Real go by without a flashback to the Crew’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down in a Conference Final. It was the absolute worst-case scenario for Cincy in a lot of ways. They lost and they found a way to give their fans a whole lot of hope before they did it. They’ll likely be back and dangerous again next season. But I imagine the Miazga suspension will be a regret for a long time to come.

LAFC - 2 | HOUSTON DYNAMO FC - 0
R. Hollingshead (44'), F. Escobar (80' OG)

What happened?: Ryan Hollingshead won the race to a rebound off a corner kick and Franco Escobar’s last-ditch effort to defend a cross ended up in the back of his own net. That was that. Despite 70% possession on the night, Houston created just 0.4 xG worth of chances.

So, did we learn anything?: Houston had no way to break down LAFC and LAFC had plenty of ways to attack in transition and on set-pieces. The formula isn’t complicated for the Black and Gold at this point. Once the game state shifted in LAFC’s favor it never felt like Houston had the weapons to get back in the game.

So, once again, LAFC will represent the West in MLS Cup. It’s a testament to how much talent this group has that what’s objectively been a down year has suddenly turned into a chance for back-to-back titles. It hasn’t been beautiful by any means, but it has been efficient. They’ve kept three straight clean sheets and thrived on Hollingshead finishing off set pieces and Dénis Bouanga being Dénis Bouanga in attack. It’s been more than enough to make it through the diluted West.

The Crew will be the best team LAFC have faced this postseason by a substantial margin. It’s going to be a little bit more difficult to keep Columbus off the board for 90 minutes. But this LAFC group is nothing if not experienced when it comes to playing in trophy games over the last year. MLS Cup will be their fourth in the last 13 months. Things aren’t what they were for this team in 2022, but that won’t make a second-straight title any less sweet.

Meanwhile, Houston’s outstanding season has come to an end. They were way ahead of schedule this year and will enter 2024 with expectations as high as they’ve been in a long time. They should have a couple of DP spots to work with this offseason too. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the Dynamo.

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Good luck out there. Have an eventful week.