Crépeau the key for LAFC vs. Columbus Crew at 2023 MLS Cup

Maxime Crépeau knew it was bad right away.

In extra time of MLS Cup a year ago, an errant back pass put Philadelphia's Cory Burke in one-on-one with Crépeau, leaving the LAFC goalkeeper no time to think. His reaction to leave the penalty area was the right one -- Burke likely scores easily had he not -- but his attempt to clear the ball was a split second too slow, and he took out Burke instead.

In almost the same motion as he rolled on the grass, Crépeau started waving to the LAFC bench. He didn't need to be a doctor to know his leg was broken.

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"I think it's the definition of putting your body on the line for your team and doing everything within your power to make sure your team has every chance that it has to win a game," LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said.

It's hard to envision a more difficult moment for a soccer player. There he was, on the league's biggest stage -- just weeks before he was set to leave for the World Cup with Canada -- and he left the field on a stretcher, withering in pain, after being red-carded with the score locked at 2-2. If not for the heroics of Gareth Bale and backup goalkeeper John McCarthy that delivered LAFC the win, Crépeau's ambulance ride and hospital stay would have been even worse.

With LAFC set to defend their crown Saturday at Columbus, it's been the play of Crépeau -- who returned in September after nearly a year of grueling rehab from the complicated injury -- that has made a repeat possible.

"It takes a lot of time and effort and expertise from all sides, whether it's rehab coaches, the doctors, physical therapists, and most importantly Max to mentally stay engaged the entire season to get ready to put yourself in a position where if you're called upon at the end of the season, you're ready to go," Cherundolo said.

When Crépeau returned in September, LAFC were in the midst of their most difficult stretch of the season. The Black and Gold had managed just four wins in their previous 15 games (with eight losses and three draws) in MLS play dating back to the start of June. In a demanding calendar year that also saw LAFC reach the final of the Concacaf Champions League on June 4 and included the inaugural Leagues Cup, the U.S. Open Cup and one-off Campeones Cup match against Tigres, it was as if the club was treading water.

Crépeau was a life raft. After surrendering 1.5 goals per match in that 15-match period, LAFC have allowed just 0.82 in the 11 matches since with 7 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss -- a 1-0 defeat to Real Salt Lake in which LAFC (1.17) had more than double RSL's xG (0.55). In the Western Conference semifinal against Seattle, Crépeau was the unquestioned man of the match with seven saves as LAFC bunkered to pick up a rare win in Seattle.

After the 2-0 win against Houston on Saturday, Crépeau has logged three straight clean sheets to propel a team more known for its dynamic attacking players.

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"Having him back there is huge. He's a vocal leader back there," LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. "His presence is definitely known, and we're happy to have him back at his best, especially at a crucial moment."

MLS Cup will be the biggest test yet. Columbus led the league with 67 goals during the regular season, led by an MVP-caliber season from Cucho Hernández, who was tied with LAFC's Dénis Bouanga for third in the league with 27 goal contributions. Columbus has also lost just once over its previous 11 games.

For the Crew to be in the position to host MLS Cup isn't something many might have thought possible back on July 31. That's the day the club officially transferred club legend Lucas Zelarayán to Saudi Arabia, freeing up a designated player slot with just two days left in the secondary transfer window. It was such a significant moment for the club that general manager Tim Bezbatchenko felt obligated to write a letter to Crew fans to justify the transfer.

"We are part of a global sport, and Lucas' talent was inevitably going to attract interest from clubs," he wrote. "We felt this was the right time to work with Lucas to make it happen."

Bezbatchenko went on to point out the club added Julian Gressel, Yevhen "Cheba" Cheberko and Rudy Camacho to the roster and, perhaps ominously, said "we still have a few days left in the window. There could be more to come." That's not something a general manager would have hinted at unless he was supremely confident there would, in fact, be more to come. Two days later, the club introduced it had signed Diego Rossi to a designated player deal, luring the 2020 MLS Golden Boot award winner with LAFC back to MLS.

Rossi is a beloved figure at LAFC, where he scored the club's first goal in 2018 and tallied 47 more -- playing on the left wing opposite Carlos Vela -- before leaving for Fenerbahçe during the 2021 season. The Uruguayan international has seven goal contributions in his past seven games as part of an attack that often features another former LAFC player off the bench, striker Christian Ramírez. Meanwhile, the sliding-doors moment of Rossi's departure ultimately led LAFC to Bouanga, who has become the team's most important player despite Vela's continued production (nine goals, 12 assists in the regular season) at 34 years old.

LAFC is looking to become the first club in the league to win back-to-back MLS Cups since 2011 and 2012, the final two years of the David Beckham era with the Galaxy when he teamed with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. The only other back-to-back winners were Houston (2006-07) and D.C. United, which won the first two MLS Cups in 1996 and 1997.

If LAFC can get there, it might have plenty to do with Crépeau between the posts.