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Columbus Crew set to play for MLS Cup on Saturday

Columbus Crew forward Cucho Hernández (9) celebrates after a goal.
Carolyn Kaster
/
AP
Columbus Crew forward Cucho Hernández (9) celebrates after teammate Christian Ramirez (17) scored during an MLS Eastern Conference final soccer match against FC Cincinnati, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. Columbus won 3-2 in overtime.

The Columbus Crew is headed to the MLS Cup final, three years after winning it all in 2020. The Crew will host Los Angeles FC at Lower.com Field and play the championship game on Saturday.

Los Angeles FC comes into a match-up with the Columbus Crew after putting together three straight shutout wins.

The Crew are 14-1-4 at home. Cucho Hernandez paces the highest-scoring squad in MLS play with 20 goals. The Crew have a league-leading 67 goals.

LAFC is 6-6-7 in road games. LAFC is fifth in the Western Conference allowing just 39 goals.

The matchup Saturday is the first meeting this season between the two teams.

Hernandez has 20 goals and nine assists for the Crew. Diego Rossi has three goals and four assists over the last 10 games.

Denis Bouanga has scored 24 goals with seven assists for LAFC. Ryan Hollingshead has three goals over the last 10 games.

The Columbus Dispatch sports columnist Michael Arace spoke to WOSU's Matthew Rand about the Crew's road to the final.

Transcript:

Matthew Rand: So obviously, this is a huge achievement for the Crew. What can you tell us about this team? What's so special about them and how did they get here?

Michael Arace: Well, that's a big answer. I think you have to start with the general manager, Tim Bezbatchenko, smelling an opening in Montreal. (He) went out and got exactly the coach he wanted and he paid for him.

Wilfried Nancy, who comes in and completely changes the tenor and culture of the whole operation. He does it with his style and his system, which is a very progressive, forward footed, attacking style of soccer. Beautiful to watch.

And he also does it with his incredible touch with people, his wonderful coaching staff. And yes, I'm biased here. I just been around it and I'm so impressed with it and the way that he can coach, teach and reach players on a very basic human level.

So, you know, once they got the system rolling and then retooled during the August transfer window, it's kind of been a progressively better and better team.

It's gone in baby steps since the start of the season started to pick up pace at mid-season when they added Diego Rossi as a designated player for one of their forwards and Julian Gressel, who's a star in this league and some other pieces, like center backs Rudy Camacho and Yevhen Cheberko.

And at this point, they're almost a fully realized team under Wilfried's system and his eye and his vision. And I say almost, because I just wonder what next year will look like.

Matthew Rand: Oh, we'll get to that. And I want to ask to, of course, playing the final game on Saturday. But first, the Crew had to get through in-state rival FC Cincinnati in a first-ever post-season "Hell Is Real" match. There's always tons of hype whenever these two teams get together. Right. But this was on another level.

Michael Arace: Right. It's a tremendous rivalry in its own right. It has been since, you know, Cincinnati as a minor league team, beat the Crew in a U.S. Open Cup game. That's how it started. I mean, that was the first game of the rivalry.

But when you think about it Matt, they're in the same conference, the Eastern Conference, so they'll never meet and in the MLS Cup final, the ultimate game for them would be in the playoffs as an MLS Eastern Conference final, which is what this was in Cincinnati.

It was, a zoo and a pretty impressive comeback for the Crew in that game. It was one of the more unique atmospheres I've been in in my 40 years as a sportswriter. And it was just terrific all-around theater.

Matthew Rand: Looking ahead to Saturday, what are you going to be watching for? And, you know, kind of the keys of the match. What do you expect?

Michael Arace: Well, you know, it's the old line in boxing is that styles make matchups. You know, styles make great fights. And this is one of those cases here. You got a couple of heavyweights that play completely differently.

There's Nancy's team with his I call it brave ball. He loves possession. He wants the ball. If he doesn't have it, he wants it back. He wants it back as soon as possible. And he requires his players to have the ball under their feet, under tremendous pressure. He wants them to draw defenders to them so that to unbalance, the defense is in front of their goal.

LAFC, the defending MLS Cup champions. This is a formidable, formidable team, obviously with probably the best player that's forward in the league in Denis Bouanga. They don't care if they don't have the ball. If you make a mistake, they jump on it and they have the talent to counter you to death.

Matthew Rand: Feel comfortable making any predictions about Saturday's outcome?

Michael Arace: You know, I don't, to tell you the truth. I like the Crew going into Cincinnati, believe it or not. I just had a good feeling about them. This is a completely different stage with a completely different opponent. This is a battle-tested championship team they're facing.

I said it for weeks and weeks now the Crew can beat anyone anywhere when they're out of their game. We'll see what happens with the weather and everything else. I'm sorry if I'm picking somebody, it'll be in the paper and not on NPR. With all due respect.

End of transcript.

The Crew take on LAFC and then the MLS Cup at 4:10 p.m. Saturday at Lower.com Field.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.