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LOS ANGELES, Dec 3, (AP): After the longest season in Major League Soccer history, Los Angeles FC still has one more week of work to do.
If the club completes its final assignment as well as it handled Saturday night, the reward will be historic.
Ryan Hollingshead scored late in the first half and defending champion LAFC advanced to its second straight MLS Cup Final with a 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo.
Houston’s Franco Escobar scored an own goal in the 80th minute to seal the Western Conference Final for LAFC, which will travel to Columbus next weekend to play for the title. The Crew beat FC Cincinnati 3-2 in a thriller.
LAFC, an expansion club in its sixth year of competition, has the chance to become MLS’ first back-to-back champions since the LA Galaxy (2011-12). LAFC never faded or wilted in its 52nd match of 2023 – an MLS record for games in a calendar year, thanks to the club’s competition in several non-league tournaments.
Maxime Crépeau made five saves in his third consecutive shutout for LAFC, which hasn’t allowed a goal since October. An offensive powerhouse since the club’s inception, LAFC is looking more like a dominant defensive team over the last several weeks.
Although Houston had more than 70% possession, the LAFC defense led by Giorgio Chiellini and Diego Palacios frustrated the Dynamo, whose nine-game winning streak ended just shy of the franchise’s first MLS Cup Final since 2012.
The Black and Gold have reached the brink of a second straight title despite their heavy workload and despite losing several key players from last season’s championship team, including high-scoring Chicho Arango and the retired Gareth Bale.
LAFC’s home finale felt momentous for reasons beyond the win.
Los Angeles crowd gave a standing ovation to Carlos Vela when he came off in the second half of what might be his final match at BMO Stadium. The club’s first player is out of contract this winter and isn’t sure whether he will return.
Houston hadn’t even trailed during its nine-match unbeaten streak since Sept. 23.
LAFC had a few nervy moments on defense in the second half, but kept the box clean in front of Crépeau, the Canadian goalkeeper who has made a strong late-season comeback after breaking his leg in last year’s MLS Cup Final and not returning until late July.
LAFC finally scored again when Bouanga put a ball through to Diego Palacios, whose centering pass was kicked into the net by a sliding Escobar.
Escobar, who played 19 games for LAFC last season, grabbed his head in his hands while his teammates attempted to boost his spirits after the crushing mistake.
Christian Ramírez scored in the 115th minute and the Columbus Crew rallied from two goals down to beat top-seeded FC Cincinnati 3-2.
Columbus (17-9-9), which has won two Cups in three previous trips to the final. It was the second-seeded Crew’s ninth conference final, second only to the 13 of the Los Angeles Galaxy. It was the first time in league history that in-state rivals played for a conference title.
Brandon Vazquez scored in the 14th minute with an assist from Aaron Boupendza to give Cincinnati (20-6-9) the lead. League MVP Luciano Acosta took a pass from Álvaro Barreal and scored in the third minute of stoppage time to give the Supporters’ Shield winners a 2-0 lead at halftime.
Cincinnati appeared to take a 3-0 lead in the 69th minute, but a hand-ball foul on Aaron Boupendza erased the goal. Six minutes later the Crew pulled within 2-1 on an own-goal by Cincinnati defender Alvas Powell.
Diego Rossi netted the equalizer for Columbus when he scored unassisted in the 86th minute. Rossi scored 10 minutes into the second half of two 15-minute OT periods. Cucho Hernández and Kevin Molino picked up assists on Ramírez’s winner.
Patrick Schulte finished with five saves for the Crew. Roman Celentano stopped five shots for Cincinnati.
Cincinnati played without Matt Miazga, who was voted the league’s top defender this season. Miazga began serving a three-match suspension handed out by the league on Wednesday and carrying over to the 2024 season. Miazga was suspended for misconduct after an 8-7 shootout win over the New York Red Bulls in a Nov. 4 playoff match.
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