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MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Finals review: Crew, LAFC advance

After nearly eight months of regular-season soccer and a pulsating round of playoffs, the 2023 Major League Soccer season draws to its conclusion this Saturday with the MLS Cup.

Two gripping MLS Conference Finals saw Columbus Crew progress from the Eastern Conference and they will meet LAFC, who came out on top in the Western Conference final.

Here is a look at how the two MLS Conference Finals played out at the weekend.

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Crew turn 'Hell is Real' derby on its head

As if a place in the MLS Cup final was not enough, there was even more riding on Cincinnati's clash with Columbus Crew on Saturday than the average MLS Conference Final.

Not only were the winners guaranteed to host the MLS Cup final, but this was also a match between two local rivals, whose meeting has become known as the 'Hell is Real' derby.

And for fans of FC Cincinnati, they were certainly plunged into a world of anguish on Saturday as they saw their side relinquish a two-goal lead and miss out on a spot in the MLS Cup final.

Goals from Brandon Vazquez and Luciano Acosta had put Cincy 2-0 up at the interval at the TQL Stadium and it looked as though they would be flying through.

Columbus relied on its experience and showed terrific game management to score in the 75th and 86th minutes to make it 2-2.

They took the game into extra-time and it was Christian Ramirez - goalscorer in the Conference Semi-Final with Orlando - who struck the decisive goal and sent the Crew through to their first MLS Cup final since they lifted the trophy in 2020.

The Crew finished 12 points behind Ohio-based rivals Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference standings, but they played some of the most attractive football in the entirety of MLS last term, racking up the most regular-season goals (67) and often dominating possession.

LAFC still have chance to defend MLS Cup crown

Awaiting Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup final are Los Angeles FC.

LAFC also know what it takes to win an MLS Cup, having claimed their maiden title at the Banc of California Stadium last November.

After a thrilling 3-3 draw with Philadelphia Union, they won 3-0 on penalties and they are now bidding to become the first team since LA Galaxy in 2012 to win back-to-back titles.

They were also not a standout team during the regular season, although they were closer to the Western Conference summit than Columbus were to finishing top in the Eastern Conference.

But in the playoffs, they have put their experience to good use to get the job done in narrow wins over Vancouver, Seattle and, on Sunday, Houston Dynamo.

Steve Cherundolo's men knew they would not see much of the ball against possession-heavy Dynamo but they did not seem to mind.

Despite having the ball just 29 percent of the time, they eased to a 2-0 win thanks to Ryan Hollingshead's first-half strike and an own goal from Franco Escobar.

They were ruthless with their chances and in MLS Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga, they have a player who could steal the show in the MLS Cup final.

Another to keep an eye on ahead of Saturday's showdown is goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau who has risen to the occasion multiple for LAFC during the playoffs after suffering a broken leg in last year's final.

Back to drawing board for Dynamo and Cincy

Dynamo will be disappointed not to have capitalised on their control of the game, but making the MLS Conference Finals represents a serious improvement on last season, when they finished 13th in the Western Conference standings.

There are obvious strengths in the midfield with Hector Herrera and Artur having run the show for parts of the game against LAFC.

But improving in both boxes will be key if the Texas club are to be in this position again next season.

The encounter between Cincinnati and Columbus was the first time in league history that in-state rivals competed for a conference title and Cincy will be bitterly disappointed to have finished second best after a terrific regular season.

One moment that fans may reflect on is when Cincy appeared to make it 3-0 in the 69th-minute, only for a handball from Aaron Boupendza to result in the goal being disallowed.

Only six minutes later, Columbus responded by making it 2-1, so it could have been a very different story. Cincy will spend the offseason thinking about how to improve at the margins so things go their way next time around.

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