Defending champion LAFC defeats Houston to return to the MLS Cup final

The longest season in MLS history will continue one more week for LAFC.

With Saturday’s 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Western Conference final, LAFC earned a spot in next weekend’s Cup final with the Columbus Crew, adding a 53rd match to what has already been the league’s most exhausting schedule ever. But that’s not the only history the defending league champions hope to make in Ohio. With one more victory LAFC will become just the fourth team to win consecutive titles and the first to do so since the Galaxy in 2012.

Surviving that arduous schedule has not just made LAFC tired, it made the team better, midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. That’s a big reason why the team will again be playing for a title on Dec. 9.

“It was definitely difficult because this is a season where we as players, a lot of us haven’t experienced this,” Acosta said. “There was a stretch where we were playing every three days. With travel and all the tournaments and emotional roller coaster, not only just physically, it just allowed us to just grow as a team, and face all this adversity head on and face it together.

“Having that willingness, that togetherness has brought us to this point, and having that strong bond pushes us on and to MLS Cup.”

Ryan Hollingshead gave LAFC the only goal it needed in the 44th minute, pouncing on the rebound of Giorgio Chiellini header and drilling it over Houston keeper Steve Clark. Houston defender Franco Escobar, who played for LAFC last season, accounted for the second goal in the 80th minute, sliding in front of a low Diego Palacios’ cross in the six-yard box and deflecting it behind Clark and into the open net.

For Hollingshead, the goal was his third of the playoffs and the 32nd of his MLS career, tying him with Graham Zusi for the most goals by an MLS defender over the last 13 years. And LAFC never looked back after that.

“There’s two ways to do it, right?” he said. “You can be as fast and technically sound, take guys on one-on-one and attack. Or you just show up in the right place at the right time.”

Hollingshead chose the latter, with his knowledge of Clark and his teammates playing a decisive factor in the goal.

“Steve Clark’s a phenomenal goalie. But he doesn’t like coming out on set pieces. He likes to stay on his line,” Hollingshead said. “And I know with our ability on set pieces, that if we can get something on target, it’s going to be hard for him to hold it; there’s going to be a bobble. So I’m just taking my chances that something’s going to pop out and that’s exactly what happened.”

Playing in front of a sellout crowd at BMO Stadium, both teams spent much of the first half in the Houston end, but LAFC was unable to take advantage with captain Carlos Vela, who played for 77 minutes in what likely was his final home game at BMO, unable to captialize on two good scoring chances in the first four minutes. On the first, Vela’s left-footed shot from the center of the box beat Clark before thudding off the crossbar. And on the second, his try was stopped by Clark before the ball trickled over the goal line. But Vela was offside on the play, negating the goal.

In the 12th minute, a leaping Clark stopped Vela again, getting a hand on a shot from a tough angle and lifting it over the bar.

But Vela, who was active and dangerous all night, was finally rewarded just before the intermission when he set up the game’s first goal with a curling corner kick to the top of the six-yard box. Chiellini got his head on it, one-bouncing a header that Clark stopped with a magnificent save. However, the keeper pushed the rebound right at Hollingshead, who put his right-footed shot into the roof of the net.

The goal was the first Clark has allowed against LAFC in 262 minutes, dating to last season, while the deficit was the first Houston has faced since a Sept. 23 loss to Sporting Kansas City. For LAFC, the goal marked the 19th time it has scored first in an MLS game. With Saturday’s win, it is unbeaten in those 19 games.

Houston won its first two meetings with LAFC this year, posting shutouts in both games; the Dynamo would go on to lose just four of 16 regular-season matches after that to secure their first playoff berth since 2017. But they faced a different LAFC team Saturday.

“The losses give you lessons,” LAFC forward Cristian Olivera said in Spanish. “You also learn when you win.”

As in last weekend’s win in Seattle, LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo was content to cede possession, though LAFC made good use of the time it did have with the ball, outshooting Houston 18-10. As a result, LAFC keeper Maxime Crepeau needed just five saves to record his third consecutive playoff shutout, running his shutout streak to 320 minutes this postseason.

But it was really LAFC’s defense, from the hard-working Vela up front to the back line, that kept Houston at bay.

“The whole saying is defense wins championships, right?” Acosta said. “In the last [three] games we kept the zero and that’s huge. We’ve got to give a lot of credit to our defense. We do a lot of the work so hopefully Max doesn’t see a lot of shots. It’s been huge collective effort.”

Clark, who hadn’t allowed multiple goals in eight games, was even better, making six saves. But he got no help from his offense.

LAFC has a short window to acknowledge its second straight conference championship before preparing for its second consecutive MLS Cup final.

For Cherundolo, the win left him unbeaten in seven MLS playoff games. He is also just the third head coach in MLS history to take a team to the MLS Cup final in his first two seasons, after D.C. United’s Bruce Arena, who did it in the league’s first two campaigns. Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer also accomplished the feat in 2016-17.

Cherundolo and LAFC have a chance to add to that history next Saturday in Columbus.

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