LAFC entered Saturday’s MLS Cup final 90 minutes from history.
It finished the game looking ahead to next year.
With a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back titles in 11 years, the reigning MLS champions were undone by a four-minute span late in the first half when goals from Cucho Hernández and Yaw Yeboah gave the Columbus Crew a comfortable lead they would not relinquish en route to a 2-1 win.
LAFC got late life when Denis Bouanga banged into the rebound of his own shot in the 74th minute, a goal set up by a Columbus mistake deep in the Crew end. After a turnover, Jesús Murillo took possession of the ball and fed Bouanga in the center of the box, only for Columbus keeper Patrick Schulte to make a brilliant save on a right-footed shot. However, the rebound bounced straight to Bouanga who had an easy left-footed finish for the goal.
That gave Bouanga a piece of personal history, matching teammate Carlos Vela’s MLS single-season record with 38 goals in all competition. But it proved to be the only history LAFC would make on a night it would hand the MLS Cup trophy to the Crew after losing for the first time in eight postseason matches dating to 2020.
LAFC had a shot at six trophies this season, when it played an MLS-record 53 times; it finished the year empty-handed.
The match kicked off in front of a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 under gray skies that gave way to brief but heavy rains that started between the two Columbus goals. With more than 1,700 vocal LAFC supporters filling the upper deck behind the north goal, the game started in a riot of sound as well.
The Crew, the league’s highest-scoring team with 67 goals during the regular season, embraced the raucous atmosphere, playing on the front foot from the start. But it wasn’t rewarded until the 33rd minute when Hernández put the Crew in front on a penalty kick. Referee Armando Villarreal awarded the penalty without consulting a replay after Diego Rossi got a boot on Yeboah’s long cross from the left wing and lifted it into the air, where it struck LAFC defender Diego Palacios in the shoulder and caromed off his bicep.
Hernández then calmly slotted a right-footed shot past LAFC keeper Maxime Crepeau into the lower left corner of the goal. It was the first goal given up by Crepeau in 353 playoff minutes, but it wouldn’t be the last. Four minutes later, Yeboah got behind the LAFC defense and ran onto a Malte Amundsen through ball before beating Crepeau again with a left-footed shot at close range.
LAFC, meanwhile, managed just one weak shot on goal in the opening half. Aside from Bouanga’s goal, things didn’t get much better in the second half, with LAFC forcing Schulte into just two saves.
The match might prove to be the last for several of LAFC’s key contributors. Vela, the captain and the last player remaining from the inaugural roster in 2018, saw his contract expire at the final whistle as did Crepeau, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and defenders Palacios and Giorgio Chiellini.
Crepeau and Palacios probably will require substantial raises to return.
Saturday’s title was the third for the Crew, one of the 10 original MLS teams. But it also marked something of a renaissance for a team that had won only 10 games last year and was playing in the postseason for only the second time since 2018.
And the championship was well-earned. After losing two of its first four games under second-year coach Wilfried Nancy, Columbus caught fire, losing just three of its final 19 regular-season games and closing the regular season with a six-game unbeaten streak that left it third in the Eastern Conference standings, its best finish in eight years.
It then knocked off Atlanta, Orlando, Cincinnati and LAFC in the playoffs, the middle two wins coming in extra time and the final two coming against the last two Supporters’ Shield winners.