On Saturday, the 2023 Major League Soccer season comes to an end with the MLS Cup Final between the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles FC taking place at Lower.com Field in Ohio.
Courtesy of their superior finish in the MLS regular-season standings, Columbus Crew will host the final, with defending champions Los Angeles FC their opponents.
The Crew dug deep to beat state rivals FC Cincinnati 3-2 in last Saturday's Eastern Conference final, while LAFC made their experience count in a 2-0 win over Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference final.
It has the potential to be a blockbuster of an MLS Cup clash, with both teams having lifted the trophy in recent seasons and here is a look at how the game could unfold in Ohio.
|Columbus Crew v Los Angeles FC
|Lower.com Field, Columbus, Ohio
|4 PM ET, Saturday, December 9
|How to watch
|Columbus Crew +120 ML, Los Angeles FC +220 ML
Columbus Crew won the MLS Cup as recently as 2020, but a lot has changed for the Ohio-based club since then.
The last year alone has been a tumultuous one, with the club snapping up head coach Wilfried Nancy from Montreal last December and selling star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan during the summer.
But they were smart in the transfer market, signing former LAFC star Diego Rossi from Fenerbahce, Christian Ramirez from Aberdeen and experienced MLS midfielder Julian Gressel from Vancouver Whitecaps.
Nancy got his players to gel, but it is not only the results which have been impressive this season.
Crew finished third in the Eastern Conference with 57 points - 12 fewer than table-toppers Cincinnati - but they played arguably the most enterprising football in the division.
In 34 regular-season matches, they plundered 67 goals - the most in the entirety of MLS - and they averaged 181.4 touches in the final third per match - more than any other team in either division.
In Atlanta, Orlando and Cincinnati, they took down three talented outfits in the playoffs and it is no surprise to see them rated at +120 to win the match, especially as they can look forward to having home advantage.
The Crew may be the more exciting to watch, but LAFC has talent and they competed in an MLS Cup Final just over 12 months ago.
Last year's final went down to the wire as the Californians won their first MLS Cup on penalties against Philadelphia Union after a thrilling 3-3 draw.
They too have undergone something of a makeover since that triumph, having seen Sebastien Ibeagha, Latif Blessing and Gareth Bale all depart.
But they also drafted in players who immediately slotted into the first team, from Croatian forward Stipe Biuk to veteran defenders Aaron Long who pairs with Italy legend Giorgio Chiellini.
The continuity of Steve Cherundolo in the dugout has certainly helped too and their game management has been impressive throughout the playoffs.
As will also likely be the case against the Crew, LAFC had to play without the ball against Houston Dynamo last time out, seeing just 29 percent possession.
But they were ruthless in both boxes, prevailing thanks to Ryan Hollingshead's first-half strike and an 80th-minute own goal from Franco Escobar.
The Crew are in good shape, but do not write off LAFC at +220.
Those trying to pinpoint a potential matchwinner in the MLS Cup Final should look no further than the two star players - Denis Bouanga and Juan 'Cucho' Hernandez.
With 20 goals in 31 appearances, LAFC winger Bouanga won the MLS Golden Boot during the regular season, while Hernandez is the top scorer in the playoffs with four goals and two assists.
With Zelarayan departing in the summer, Columbus needed someone to fill the attacking void if they were to go deep in the playoffs and former Watford man Hernandez has done exactly that.
Bouanga, meanwhile, never seems far away from a moment of magic, having producing a snapshot of individual brilliance to help his side to the 1-0 win over Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals.
It could well be the case that this MLS Cup Final boils down to which talisman has the better game on Saturday and it would be a bold move to bet against either of them.
Hernandez is +120 to score at any time, while Bouanga is the next-shortest in that market at +160.