With a pair of intense matchups set to take place tomorrow, we preview everything you need to know about the MLS Conference Finals.
We’re finally in the last stretch of the MLS season. After a long, drawn out playoffs that’s already been over a month in the making, the Conference Finals are upon us, and we’re two weeks away from another offseason.
We open things with an intense rivalry match in the Eastern Conference. In what is sure to be the highest stakes Hell is Real Derby yet, FC Cincinnati will play host to the Columbus Crew. Despite Cincinnati entering the playoffs as favorites at +225 odds according to Bovada sportsbook, compared to the Crew’s +650 odds, this matchup between Ohio foes is anyone’s game.
Out West things won’t slow down, as defending MLS Cup champ LAFC will host the reigning U.S. Open Cup winner Houston Dynamo.
We’ll see a pair of raucous stadiums which is sure to incite chaos on the pitch, so let’s break down what to expect from each matchup.
Hell is Real
Perhaps the more “prestigious” of the two Conference Final matchups, we are getting an absolute doozy of a showdown between FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew. First off, it’s always fireworks between these two no matter when or where they square off, and the added stakes of the playoffs is sure to make things extra spicy. Second, these teams are good. Like, really good.
Cincinnati has by far been the best team in the league all season, and ran away with the Supporters’ Shield title, earning 69 points throughout the year. Just two years ago, they had 20 points and sat in the MLS basement. It’s an incredible turnaround and a testament to the fantastic job manager Pat Noonan has done since taking over at the helm.
The club’s dominant 2023 performance has a lot to do with league MVP Luciano Acosta’s involvement in just about every aspect of the game. The 5-foot-3 midfielder finished in the top four in goals (17, second only to golden boot winner Denis Bouanga) and assists (14), and even when he isn’t setting up goals or scoring them, his impact for Cincinnati has been remarkable.
Cincy also boasted MLS defender of the year Matt Miazga, who this season proved that one’s likability has nothing to do with their performance on the pitch. However, Miazga is done for the 2023 season as he’s serving a three-match suspension for entering an area “reserved for match referees” during Cincinnati’s November 4 matchup against the New York Red Bulls.
Miazga’s absence might be greatly felt, because Columbus has had the most productive offense in MLS, scoring a league-high 67 goals in the regular season. Led by Colombian forward Cucho, Columbus will throw everything it has against Cincinnati’s Miazga-less back line.
Columbus will also perhaps have a chip on its shoulder as it’s the only team remaining that isn’t sitting on a recent piece of silverware. They’ve also largely dominated this rivalry, winning six of the 13 total matches while Cincinnati has won just three. However, the two split the regular season meetings this year, and Columbus has yet to beat Cincy at TQL Stadium.
The Hell is Real derby doesn’t just have the best rivalry name in MLS, it certainly has a claim to be the best one in the league, up there with Timbers–Sounders and LAFC–LA Galaxy. We’re going to see an electric match and we can expect plenty of goals come Saturday, and despite having the home crowd behind them, Miazga’s absence might prove too large to overcome for Cincinnati.
Our prediction: Columbus Crew 3, FC Cincinnati 2
LAFC vs. Houston
Saturday’s nightcap has MLS After Dark chaos written all over it. The defending champions against a resurgent squad with one trophy already in its pocket this year: you’re gonna want to watch this.
When it comes to the playoffs in any sport for that matter, it’s not the best team you should be afraid of, it’s the hottest team. The Houston Dynamo are extremely scary in that sense. Much has already been said about the club’s 25-point improvement from last season, and the Dynamo have played extremely well down the stretch. Since winning the U.S. Open Cup over Inter Miami on September 27, the club has lost just once — in penalties to Real Salt Lake in the first leg of the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
A gutty penalty victory in the second leg followed by an intense 1-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City has the Dynamo feeling like the team of destiny, and with Mexican icon Hector Herrera leading the way, they very well could be.
However, they’ll have to go through reigning MLS Cup winners LAFC, who conversely stumbled throughout much of the back end of the MLS regular season, particularly after losing the CONCACAF Champions League final to Leon in June.
LAFC had a shot at six trophies in 2023 — Champions League, Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and the MLS Cup — and the club made it a point that it was vying for all six (even though it sent out its second team in the U.S. Open Cup to save its starters for the CCL). Having struck out on the first five, the Black and Gold would hate to go 0 for six and have another elusive trophy slip out of their hands.
Like with Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium, you can bet that BMO Stadium is going to be rocking Saturday night, and with the supporters behind them and the playoff experience from last year — not to mention a white-hot Bouanga — LAFC will have a lot going for them. Steve Cherundolo has yet to lose a playoff game as an MLS manager, and don’t expect that streak to end this weekend. While Houston is indeed scary, it’s going to take a little more to keep Giorgio Chiellini up at night.
Our prediction: LAFC 2, Houston Dynamo 1