MLS Cup is little more than a week away. Just four teams remain from the 29 who started the 2023 regular season with visions of lifting silverware way back in February.
The conference finals are here, with the Supporters' Shield-winning FC Cincinnati hosting a Hell Is Real matchup against the Columbus Crew in the East, while in the West, LAFC welcome the Houston Dynamo to Hollywood.
Will it be the Ohio capital, or the state's Queen City, that plays host to Major League Soccer's showpiece event? And will it be the U.S.'s second- or fourth-largest city that travels north for a shot at MLS Cup?
1. FC Cincinnati vs. 3. Columbus Crew (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET)
The East all comes down to Ohio. The midwestern state gets the eyes of the nation on it during presidential elections and, occasionally, big-time college football showdowns. But with two gleaming new stadiums, wise front offices and savvy coaching hires, The Buckeye State not only will host Saturday's Eastern Conference final clash, but also will be home to the MLS Cup final next week.
The presence of one Argentine and the absence of another increases the intrigue of the highest-stakes Hell Is Real matchup in the rivalry's young history.
FC Cincinnati depends on Luciano Acosta, recently named MVP for his contributions to the teams' Supporters' Shield run. While Acosta showed at D.C. United and Atlas that he was a cut above, few expected him to put together a 17-goal, 14-assist season years later -- and to do it in Cincinnati of all places.
It's clear the Boca Juniors academy graduate feels at home at TQL Stadium, so much so that he signed a contract extension through at least 2026 that could see him retire at the club. Acosta said during his MVP presentation that he's building out a museum of sorts in his house with the shirts he's traded for during his career, and he now has a team award in the Supporters' Shield and an individual award in the MVP trophy. He's eager to add another piece of hardware.
"For me, it's a motivation to get to a final with this club against an opponent from the other part of our state," he said. "We're mentally very prepared and motivated and are going for bigger things. This is an individual award, but it's about a team sacrifice and is for the whole city, for the club that has done great things.
"I'm going to let Columbus's players know that the MVP is here," he concluded.
That Columbus team came into the season still enjoying the contributions of Córdoba native Lucas Zelarayán, who helped send off the team's old stadium with an MLS Cup final victory in 2020. During the Leagues Cup this summer, however, Columbus made the calculus it could do it without Zelarayán and transferred the playmaker to Al Fateh in the Saudi Pro League.
The Crew subsequently signed Diego Rossi, but it's been forward Cucho Hernández who has shouldered the burden, scoring seven goals in the club's past six matches, including one each in the Round 1 series against Atlanta United and in the Eastern Conference semifinal win against Orlando City SC.
Without the No. 10 behind him, Hernández also has been instrumental in creating more goals, dropping deeper to help connect and create scoring chances, although his 20-goal haul between regular season and playoffs is a good indication that his primary contribution is still finding the back of the net.
"I took responsibility after we didn't have Lucas," Hernández said last month. "Diego came and contributed a lot, too. Lucas's departure meant a lot of players took a step forward."
The step forward was so large that it feels like the team hasn't even missed Zelarayán, the 2020 MLS Cup MVP. Was he surplus? Maybe he was for this team, with manager Wilfried Nancy working around Zelarayán's departure and engineering a way to get this team one step from MLS Cup.
Rather than counties reporting or conservative playcalling, discussions in Ohio next week will likely be focused on what a spectacular Argentine did on the field Saturday night or how a team moved on from their own leader and will play for a trophy anyway. -- Jon Arnold
Nancy's teams simply find a way to win, often doing things other teams haven't been able to do in the process. Hernández is on fire, the defense is stingy and while the emotions will be high for Acosta and Cincinnati, I'm sensing an upset that leaves a blemish on an otherwise-near-perfect campaign. -- Arnold
In This Hell Is Real matchup, Cincinnati's quality will win out. It showed in the previous round it can survive without the suspended Matt Miazga at center-back, and I expect Acosta will serve up a masterpiece to lead Cincy forward. -- Arch Bell
3. LAFC vs. 4. Houston Dynamo (Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET)
Ever since he landed in MLS in 2018, Carlos Vela has been one of the most important players in the league. The Mexican forward was a landmark signing at the time for new franchise LAFC and enjoyed a wave of early success, winning the MLS MVP award with a record-setting 2019 in which he scored 38 goals in all competitions, before leading LAFC to the final of the Concacaf Champions League in 2020.
Vela's arrival also ushered in a boom of Mexican stars to the league, with the likes of Alan Pulido and Javier Hernandez following in Vela's wake to Sporting Kansas City and the LA Galaxy, respectively. Vela was instrumental in LAFC's MLS Cup-winning campaign last season with 12 goals, although he did not find the scoresheet in the postseason and finished second on the team's scoring chart to Cristian Arango.
It has been a similar story in 2023. Nine goals and 12 assists are solid numbers, but fellow attacker Denis Bouanga has become the headliner and the main scoring threat.
However, it would be foolish to discount Vela the rest of the way. While true that he has not scored since an Aug. 23 match against the Colorado Rapids, the playmaking ability and tendency to draw fouls in the opponent's half is still intact. His movement in dragging away defenders to open up space for Bouanga & Co. is a major asset.
There were moments in the Western Conference semifinal against the Seattle Sounders in which Vela's intelligence stood out; whether it was playing a simple knockdown ball for Bouanga to latch onto, poking a ball away to lead to a João Paulo foul and yellow card in his own half, or even drawing attention with his run into the area on Bouanga's drive to goal. These are the things Vela does that can make a difference.
Denis Bouanga's 30th minute strike is the difference as LAFC beat Seattle Sounders 1-0 in the MLS Western Conference Playoffs.
No doubt that Dynamo boss Ben Olsen will have his defense keyed on keeping the clamps on Bouanga. Houston's defensive forces did an excellent job in containing Pulido in the previous round and leveraged their possession-based game to bottle up the rest of the Sporting KC attack.
With Héctor Herrera serving as midfield maestro and accompanied by Artur and Adalberto Carrasquilla, the Houston midfield matches up well against LAFC in the center of the park, making LAFC's chances in transition all the more important.
With much of the focus rightfully centered on Bouanga, this semifinal at home against Houston could be just the setting for Vela to shine perhaps one final time in front of the home fans. His future at LAFC is still uncertain with his contract set to expire after this season, and he himself has acknowledged that retirement looms.
It would be fitting full-circle moment if Vela's possible final home match at BMO Stadium sees him finding the back of the net and leading his side to victory. -- Bell
The Dynamo have the better midfield, but LAFC's ability to do damage in transition makes for an LAFC win. A possible final home match in Los Angeles for Vela will end with goal. -- Bell
It's back to the comforts of home for the defending champions after a tough away win. That's bad news for Houston, who found only three away victories during the regular season -- although one was at LAFC. With the 3252 supporting them, an in-form Maxime Crépeau in goal and the Bouanga-Vela connection up top, look for Los Angeles to reach another final. -- Arnold